Jazz giant Sonny Rollins to shake up the Hop on Sunday

by Joseph Debonis | 5/10/07 2:03am

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Iconic jazz legend Sonny Rollins, seen here playing at Washington D.C.'s Blues Alley, will perform at the Hopkins Center on Sunday.
by Courtesy of Jazz Vision Photos / The Dartmouth

Sonny Rollins, most notably, has his tenor saxophone. The man who many consider to be the last living legend of jazz will be serenading a sold-out Spaulding Auditorium on Sunday, just one week before he jets off to Stockholm, Sweden to accept the Polar Music Prize.

The latter will compete for shelf space with a host of other awards that Rollins has garnered over the decades, three Grammies notwithstanding. Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins, who was born in 1930, was playing with piano legend Thelonious Monk by age 11 and went on to record with such greats as Art Blakely, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

"Saxophone Colossus," recorded in 1956, was his most widely acclaimed album. It featured "St. Thomas," a Caribbean calypso that would go on to become the most recognized song in his repertoire. Nevertheless, 50 years and several recordings later, "Sonny, Please" came out in 2006. His latest work, whose title was derived from a favorite phrase of his late wife, coincided with the release of his website and Rollins's own record label, Doxy Records.

It is rare that one artist who has contributed so significantly to the evolution of a musical genre makes the trek to Hanover.

"There are very few jazz musicians performing today who played with legends Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins and continue to grow as artists, practicing daily and taking their performing as seriously as Sonny Rollins," explained Fred Haas '73, Senior Lecturer in music at Dartmouth. "The concert in Spaulding will provide a rare opportunity to hear one of the few remaining legends of jazz."

Anyone can listen to Rollins on iTunes (or, more authentically, on a record player), but witnessing a live performance of "the last jazz immortal," according to The Village Voice, is beyond comparison. More specifically, Rollins is particularly notorious for his unique improvisational skills.

"Sonny is known for ... his ability to work with small melodic and rhythmic fragments, twisting, turning and manipulating them into a rich sound murals," Haas said. "He will often play the saxophone unaccompanied, developing his ideas as an improvising storyteller would. Improvisation is spontaneous composition, and Rollins is a master."

Haas himself is an experienced jazz musician and has played for over 35 years, including performances alongside such big names as Ray Charles, Lena Horne and Dionne Warwick. He cites the "profound" impact of Rollins on his development as a young saxophonist, as he learned Rollins' spieces and took a great deal from the latter's interpretations of standard jazz tunes.

"[Rollins's] tone, phrasing and sense of melodic interpretation and development were, and are, unique," Haas said.

When asked to summarize the impact and legacy of Sonny Rollins on jazz and, more generally, the world of music, Haas quoted the master himself, saying "'The thing that I am most proud of in my career is the fact that I was able to see beyond being popular and all that stuff ... and do what my inner self told me to do. If young musicians can realize that that will help them stick by their ideals with music ... that is my legacy ... it's what keeps me going.'"