Sonny Rollins makes a ‘statement of justice’ in his Civil Rights anthem ‘Freedom Suite’

Theodore Walter Rollins (later ‘Sonny’ Rollins) was born on 7 September, 1930, in Harlem, New York City. Growing up on Sugar Hill, Rollins became fascinated with music and jazz at an early age, and at merely seven or eight years old, he received his first alto-saxophone. In his early years, through his parents and older siblings, Rollins discovered the likes of performers such as Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. From there, his love of the saxophone was cemented. At the age of sixteen, Rollins traded his early fancy of the alto-sax to tenor saxophone in the hope of emulating his long-standing idol, Coleman Hawkins.  Hawkins captivated Rollins through his command of the new music genre, ‘bebop.’ Through performers such as Hawkins, young Rollins fell under the spell of the ‘bebop’ revolution.

In his early jazz career, Rollins was recognized and mentored by a number of influential artists, including Jackie McLean, Art Taylor and Kenny Drew. Before the age of 20, Rollins was working and recording with the likes of Babs Gonzales, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis.

In the early 50s, Rollins established a reputation amongst musicians and the general public as the “most brash and creative tenor on the scene.” By 1956, Sonny began recording a number of impactful recordings under his own name. Valse Hot was played in the new style of bop in 3/4 meter, and Way Out West (1957) was Rollins’ first album to incorporate a trio of saxophone, drums, and double bass.

 Freedom Suite

By 1958, Rollin’s recorded his unforgettable album The Freedom Suite, which was also the name of the most impactful political song on the record. Freedom Suite is an incredibly powerful and inspiring recording – it is a twenty-minute long jazz piece featuring Rollins on the tenor sax, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Max Roach.

Musicians and music historians contend that Freedom Suite foreshadowed the political stances taken by jazz musicians later in the 1960s, and during the Civil Rights Movement. Typically, when analyzing the lyrics of Freedom Suite, people tend to think that Rollins is referring to the ‘Little Rock Nine’ story, or the case of Brown versus the Board of Education. However, it is evident that Freedom Suite truly represents the change that would soon come, and the freedom that black Americans were battling for on a national scale.

Give me a freedom
Let we’re just free and break this walls!!
Freedom, just a freedom
Just a freedom, just a “free”

Freedom Suite is, in essence, the first instrumental extended protest piece. Many believe that the length of the piece is meant to represent the long-standing suffering of black people in the United States, and Freedom Suite ultimately presents the ideal ‘freedom’ that Rollins would like to live in. At the time, America wanted to “hear the black music, but not the black story.” Consequently, Rollins wanted to express this side to his audience to stand up against the oppressive nature of jazz music.

Freedom Suite seeks to portray not only musical freedom, but also the desire for the liberation of black people and of jazz music in a combined effort.

References:

"Sonny Rollins: Biography" 2019, https://sonnyrollins.com/biography/

Charles Waring. "I Was Always Trying to Get Better: Sonny Rollins On A Life In Jazz" udiscovermusic. 7 September, 2019. https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/sonny-rollins-jazz-saxophonist-interview/