Sonny Rollins has never shied away from using music to deliver a message. The legendary tenor saxophonist composed the jazz standard “Airegin” in the early ’50s as a call to black consciousness (it’s Nigeria spelled backwards). He recorded his landmark Riverside album Freedom Suite in 1957 when few jazz musicians risked damaging their careers by speaking out in support of the burgeoning civil rights movement. And long before Al Gore won an Oscar for his work on the cautionary documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the environmentally conscious saxophonist recorded Global Warming, his 1998 musical manifesto on Milestone.
“The shape of the environment has been a concern of mine for quite a long time,” says Rollins, 77, who plays Zellerbach Hall for Cal Performances on Thursday with a sextet featuring his longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw, trombonist Clifton Anderson, guitarist Bobby Broom, percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, and drummer Kobie Watkins. “I consider myself a citizen of the world. I’m not only a jazz musician, I’m also a human being and we’re fast approaching the point where some of these things we’re doing to the Earth will be irreversible. We’ve got to do everything we can to try to get people to be more conscious of what they do, where they live, what garbage they throw away, what they eat — everything. It’s a spiritual thing. But I’m optimistic. I’m a black American, I have to be optimistic or else I would have jumped off the Bay Bridge a long time ago.”
Simply calling Rollins the greatest living tenor saxophonist doesn’t quite do justice to his stature. Along with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and John Coltrane, Rollins defined the tenor as jazz’s iconic horn. Possessed of huge, gloriously swaggering sound, Rollins is a volcanic improviser capable of reeling off ten-minute solos that build thematically while generating extraordinary momentum. With his penchant for West Indian rhythms, his music exudes a buoyancy that makes it perfectly suited for reaching listeners’ hearts and minds.
“I’ve always had sort of a happy spirit, and I’m more of an up type of player than a down type of player,” Rollins says from his home in Germantown, New York, his oft-imitated froggy voice sounding amused. “So that’s going to come through. Even when speaking about a very dire subject, music shouldn’t be sad and disconsolate. It’s gotta be happy, it’s gotta have hope.”
Add to his political consciousness restless creativity and a passion for yoga and organic food, and it’s easy to see why Rollins is a perfect fit for Berkeley. Until several years ago, when Fantasy was bought out by Concord and relocated to Beverly Hills, the saxophonist was deeply tied to the East Bay through his relationship with Orrin Keepnews. They first met in 1956 when Keepnews produced the classic Thelonious Monk album Brilliant Corners (a CD recently reissued as part of Concord Records’ Keepnews Collection, a series of albums singled out as particular favorites by the El Cerrito-based studio maestro). Both men consider their relationship with Monk an essential source of enlightenment, and over the years they’ve bonded about the experience.
“We both find Monk a fascinating topic,” Keepnews says. “Sonny once said something that I like to steal, that he thought of Monk as his guru, not his teacher.”
Keepnews had Rollins under contract when he relocated to the Bay Area in the early 1970s as part of an agreement in which Fantasy used some of its Creedence Clearwater Revival cash to purchase Milestone, a label Keepnews had launched in 1967 and been forced to sell. Once Milestone joined the Fantasy fold, Rollins and his wife Lucille (who passed away in 2004) would regularly settle into the old Berkeley Marriott while he recorded in the Fantasy Studios at Tenth and Parker. He had a remarkable run with Keepnews and Milestone, releasing nearly two dozen albums over some three decades.
“I am really a very agreeable guy,” Rollins says. “My wife and I above all wanted our freedom to record what we wanted and when we wanted. My long relationship with Orrin had given me that. There was no pressure on me. There were a lot of things other situations offered more than Fantasy, in terms of publicity and monetary considerations, but we were comfortable.”
Born Walter Theodore Rollins, he was raised in Harlem in the 1930s, a time when the neighborhood brimmed with musical talent. You could fill a wing of the jazz hall of fame with his childhood friends, who included future luminaries such as alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, drummer Art Taylor, and pianist Kenny Drew. After starting piano lessons at age nine, Rollins moved to alto sax two years later, and quickly developed a reputation as the most formidable young musician on the scene. In his mid-teens, Rollins made the switch to the larger horn, inspired by Hawkins, the man who transformed the tenor into jazz’s signature instrument.
Over his six-decade recording career, Rollins has composed more than half a dozen jazz standards in addition to “Airegin,” such as “Oleo,” “Doxy,” “Sonnymoon for Two,” “Tenor Madness,” and the calypso anthem “St. Thomas.” But he also has a knack for turning the unlikeliest tunes into effective jazz vehicles. His first LP, 1955’s Worktime, kicks off with a harrowing version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and he cavorts through the Al Jolson showstopper “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” on his classic 1957 album The Sound of Sonny, another CD reissued with new liner notes as part of the Keepnews Collection. And while few Milestone sessions reached the rareified heights of his seminal 1950s recordings for Riverside and Contemporary, Rollins has maintained his place in the firmament as the most prodigious tenor saxophonist stalking stages around the world.
“One of my most successful performances was at the Berkeley Jazz Festival,” Rollins recalls. “I had begun to play solo saxophone in public, and Berkeley might have been one of my first high-profile solo saxophone gigs. It’s stream of consciousness playing, the way I’ve been playing all my life.”
While Rollins will be accompanied by his sextet at Zellerbach, it’s a safe bet that at some point during the evening his bandmates will lay out, and he’ll once again stand alone in the spotlight, spinning spontaneous, breakneck tales with such force and rhythmic agility that he’ll leave no doubt about his enduring status as the titan of the tenor.