The gains and revolutions, both political and musical, of the past sixty years can be measured in many ways, but few methods are more insightful than tracing the path of Sonny Rollins, a tenor saxophonist whose life is a portrait, which is to say a reimagining, of American freedom. When Rollins was twenty-seven, in 1958, he released “Freedom Suite,” one of the first recordings in postwar jazz to acutely protest racial injustice and demand civil rights. The liner notes, written by Rollins, are no less resonant today: “America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms; its humor; its music. 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.”
For Rollins, who is eighty-nine, the pandemic, the protests, and the President are familiar features of an ongoing civil-rights movement which Rollins bore early witness to. Much has changed, and much has not. “I don’t think things will change in this country,” Rollins told me last week, by phone, from his home, in Woodstock, New York, two days after George Floyd’s death and five days before National Guard units deployed tear gas on protesters outside the White House, clearing the way for the President to lift a Bible, fix a wooden smile, and pose for the cameras.
The occasion of my call with Rollins was not the death of Floyd. It was not the compounding crises of police violence and militarized assaults on constitutionally protected assembly. But these themes are scarcely separable from our conversation’s original focus: Rollins’s music and memory; the wish to hear if he’s O.K.—if he’s safe and settled, spared of a virus that has claimed his compatriots Henry Grimes, Ellis Marsalis, and Lee Konitz—and firmly aware that he is not just admired and loved but heard. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How are you doing? I want to hear what life is like for you right now, especially during this pandemic.
This is O.K. for me because I am trying to live in a different world, besides the world of the illness. I’m trying to live in a world of the spirit wherein I am concentrating on things such as the golden rule. This is my big thing; I am trying to live by it. The main thing is do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Sure, everybody knows it, but nobody lives by it. We live in a world where it’s about “I’ve gotta get mine, and—too bad for you—I’ve gotta get mine first.”
Six years ago or so, you were diagnosed with respiratory issues. You told Hilton Als at the time that it limits your breathing and you get fatigued. How are you now?
My breathing seems to be O.K. My main problem is that I can’t blow my horn anymore. I’m surviving, but my problem is I can’t blow my horn.