- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins' status as a jazz legend has been a matter of record for decades. So has his ability to stun and captivate audiences with his remarkable improvisational skills, dizzying technique and ebullient, full-bodied sound.
But the visceral delight fans derive from hearing him perform is rarely shared by Mr. Rollins himself. Unwilling to rest on his laurels, he constantly strives for new creative vistas.
"I'm glad it's a pleasure for people. I feel I'm a worthwhile human being when I can go someplace and touch people," Mr. Rollins says, speaking from his Manhattan apartment.
"It makes me feel there's some reason for me to be out here and to be alive and doing something. In other words, to be alive, I feel we're here to serve other people. That's my philosophy, and I feel really gratified if people enjoy it.
"But I don't enjoy it," he stresses, "because I'm trying to reach a certain musical place where I very seldom get to. So I don't leave [my] concerts feeling good. I'm professional enough to know when I have a fairly good night and don't have to hang my head in shame. But what I'm striving for is always a little beyond reach. That's why I hate to hear myself. I hear the little mistakes, things I could have done better or shouldn't have done."
Mr. Rollins has set the standard for his instrument since the 1950s. It was then that he made such landmark albums as 1956's "Tenor Madness" and "Saxophone Colossus" and 1957's "Way Out West" and "Newk's Time." It was then that he distinguished himself alongside such fellow jazz giants as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach. (His other recording partners range from Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock to Lee Ritenour and the Rolling Stones.)
Only fellow sax icon John Coltrane, Mr. Rollins' recording partner on "Tenor Madness," could match him for sheer musicality and ingenuity.
Similarly, no one else has proved as adept at transforming thematic improvisations into vital compositions night after night without repeating himself or resorting to crowd-pleasing antics.
"In any kind of creative music, you have to have technique to negotiate some of the difficult passages," Mr. Rollins says. "But technique is subservient to the feeling, the soul and the spiritual part of it. That said, you never want to be restricted from playing something because of your technique. I don't ever want to say, 'I hear it in my head, but I can't play it.' "
Mr. Rollins' nightly goal in concert is to let the music play him to soar by letting go of his ego, rather than spotlighting it.
"Whenever I approach a piece of work, I study it backward and forward, up and down and in and out, to get all I can out of the material and absorb what it is," he explains. "After that, when I go on stage and perform it, that's when I try to let the music play itself."
A master of extended solos that always seem to end too soon, Mr. Rollins is a mesmerizing aural force who sounds as potent at age 69 as he did at 29.
His ability to create transcendent music is so great that area jazz fans still speak with awe about his extraordinary 1987 concert at the University of California in San Diego.
His endlessly resourceful playing and joyous delivery can prompt a series of ovations during a single solo. He is able to captivate even neophyte listeners who know little about jazz or his lofty legacy.
"I love my audience," Mr. Rollins says. "I've always felt it was my responsibility to reach people; I don't expect them to bring anything to my show or to be a good audience and make me feel good. If they do, fine. But I don't really want to know about how people react to the things I play. I think it's a distraction.
"If people get enthused in the midst of a solo, then they have the right to show their appreciation. They paid their money and have the right. But in a perfect situation for me, I don't think I should know [how much people like it] because that can distract me."

Mr. Rollins has been married since 1957, and his wife, Lucille, has played a key role in his career since the 1970s.
She co-produces his albums, helps him decide what concert bookings to accept and arranges his interviews. Equally important, she serves as a buffer between him and the music industry, which he has long regarded with suspicion and disdain for its emphasis on fast-food aesthetics over vision and quality.
"Lucille used to run the physics department at the University of Chicago, and she's got good musical taste," Mr. Rollins says. "And she actually likes the music business. It's sort of a morbid fascination, I guess. She likes all of these shysters and con artists and parasites and bloodsuckers she actually gets a kick out of them.
"It's very important for anybody to have a partner, a helpmate, a wife. In this business, it's extremely important because most musicians end up in bad shape and get ripped off. I was getting ripped off and getting into arguments and fights, and people were black-balling me because I wouldn't go along with what I perceived as being treated unfairly. Lucille made it so we could have everything in-house, and we've become successful at it in our own right."
How would this self-effacing jazz giant like to be remembered?
"As an artist who stood up to the system," he says. "I'm proud I had the integrity not to accept a lot of crap from the music industry and the business people. I was able to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to, so at least I have that satisfaction."

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