Sonny Rollins' jazz archive heads home to Harlem

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins' personal archive includes recordings from rehearsals and practice sessions, pages of musical notation, letters to and from his wife and notes he wrote.
Saxophonist Sonny Rollins' personal archive includes recordings from rehearsals and practice sessions, pages of musical notation, letters to and from his wife and notes he wrote.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Sonny Rollins.
Sonny Rollins.

NEW YORK • American saxophonist Sonny Rollins (left), perhaps jazz's most respected living improviser, is also one of its most relentless seekers. But that is well known; what is not as widely recognised is the diversity - and the depth - of his inquiry.

Yes, there is his herculean practice regimen (upwards of eight hours a day, even into middle age) and the years-long sabbaticals he took from performing to hone his craft.

But Rollins, 86, has also maintained a vigorous, syncretic spiritual practice and he has written hundreds of pages of personal notes over the years - reflecting on music technique and the music business and expressing social laments. He even started writing an instructional saxophone book, but dropped that project.

These are among the insights to be gleaned from his personal archive, which the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, has acquired. The centre will process the archive and eventually make it accessible to the public.

"I felt that if any young musicians or people were interested in my life and my career, this should be available," Rollins said in a recent telephone interview.

"I'm an introspective person," he added. "I always liked to improve myself and I always liked to learn."

The archive includes hundreds of recordings from his rehearsals and practice sessions, largely from the 1970s and 1980s; hundreds of pages of musical notation; a Selmer saxophone that he remembers playing as far back as the 1950s; scores of letters to and from his wife, Lucille, who managed his career starting in the 1970s; and a steady stream of philosophical, often self-scrutinising, notes.

He trusted his materials to the Schomburg Center partly because of a personal connection. He was born just two blocks away and grew up in Harlem and Washington Heights. (He remembers going to the centre as a child to check out a book for school.)

The announcement about his collection comes on the heels of another major purchase of materials from a Harlem native. The centre announced last month that it had acquired the personal archive of writer James Baldwin.

"That's one of our big desires: to bring the sons and daughters of Harlem home," said Mr Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center. "The context here is really rich. It's not just coming home in the sense of a physical place. It's also coming home to the body of reference and inference and connection that we've been building up for 92 years." The library declined to disclose the purchase price.

The archive also contributes to a small resurgence in the conversation around Rollins, who has not performed publicly for the past four years because of ailing health. A campaign recently began to have the Williamsburg Bridge, where he practised in isolation almost daily from 1959 to 1961, renamed for him. And on June 9, at Flushing Town Hall, his long-time confidant Jimmy Heath will lead the Queens Jazz Orchestra in a tribute concert.

It could take years to digitise and catalogue the Rollins archive, which includes some notes from the bridge period. Then the archive will be spread across four of the centre's five divisions and made searchable online. The centre does not have plans for major exhibitions of the material, but Rollins' home and studio recordings will become part of the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, which is to be renovated soon.

To achieve as much power as possible, Rollins recognised early that he would need to give up cigarettes, and he began to meditate and practise yoga well before they were common practices in the West. (He was addicted to heroin from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, but entered a rehabilitation clinic and recovered.)

The archives show that he even started the Sonny Rollins Yoga for Americans Club (or at least printed and used stationery for it). He established correspondences with spiritual gurus and yoga teachers abroad, all of which are reflected in the archive, along with photos taken during a trip to Japan.

The archive includes personal notes on breathing exercises and a full-page sketch of the bones making up the human core. (Rollins, who had briefly considered a career as a cartoonist, has always sketched constantly.)

When Rollins released The Freedom Suite in 1958, the first major work by a jazz musician to address civil rights concerns, he accompanied it with eloquent and persuasive liner notes. "How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity," he wrote. The Schomburg's collection includes personal notations that he wrote while working on the text for the album.

Why did he never turn his thoughts and his expansive personal history into a book? The explanation is quintessential Rollins.

"I felt that I needed more to learn," he said. "I always felt that I wanted to live more life. I wanted to find out a little more before I wrote about it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2017, with the headline 'Sonny Rollins' jazz archive heads home to Harlem'. Print Edition | Subscribe