This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Theodore Walter Rollins (later “Sonny” Rollins) was born on Sept. 7, 1930, in Harlem, N.Y. Growing up on Sugar Hill, Rollins became fascinated with music and jazz at an early age. 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 16, 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’s first album to incorporate a trio of saxophone, drums, and double bass.
Between 1959 and 1961, Rollins took a break from the performance scene. In his biography he recalls: “I was getting very famous at the time and I felt I needed to brush up on various aspects of my craft. I felt I was getting too much, too soon, so I said, wait a minute, I’m going to do it my way. I wasn’t going to let people push me out there, so I could fall down. I wanted to get myself together, on my own. I used to practice on the Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side at the time.”
Rollins returned to action for a four year period between 1962-1966 before taking another sabbatical. By the early 1970s, Rollins’s wife convinced him to get back into the music scene, and in 1972 he released Next Album. By the 1980s, Rollins had established a “lengthy association” with Milestone Records, producing two dozen albums in various settings. Since 2006, Rollins has been producing music under his own label, Doxy Records. He has won countless awards, and has been internationally recognized as an individual who has made “an outstanding contribution” to his field (namely, Rollins was recognized by Barack Obama in 2011).
Freedom Suite (1958)
By 1958, Rollins recorded his unforgettable album 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 — a 20-minute jazz piece featuring Rollins on the tenor sax along with 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 v. Board of Education. However, it is evident that Freedom Suite truly represents the change that would soon come, and the freedom for which black Americans were battling on a national level.
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 have his in own life. 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 in order 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/