© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Our Top Ten: Sonny Rollins’ greatest live performances

Sonny Rollins
Atsuhiko Kawabata
Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins turned 93 today, (September 7, 2023) and to celebrate, we’re revisiting some of his greatest live performances. For his birthday, we’re sticking to live appearances because Sonny has always dreaded the studio, to put it mildly. “I hate it because I’m a perfectionist, and I’m a person that considers myself constantly evolving as a musician and a performer,” Sonny once said, “so I hate to put anything down that’s going to be there forever. And this is what recording is all about.” Fortunately for the rest of us, a lot of what Sonny put down is going to be here forever. Sonny felt more liberated in the live environment, where instant playback was impossible and it all had to be left on the stage. Self-conscious in the recording booth, he could soar when there were no red lights to slow him down. Some of the most transcendent performances were not recorded, but many were, some on film. (Rare silent eight-millimeter footage of Sonny live in the studio in the ’50s was recently discovered, from Dizzy Gillespie’s Sonny Side Up, here.) What’s listed below is just the tip of the iceberg. Sonny’s ongoing musical and spiritual journey is documented in my book, Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins—the paperback will be out November 14, 2023 from Hachette Books. Sonny keeps looking forward, but to mark the beginning of his next chorus, here’s a look back, presented in chronological order.

Live at Birdland, 1951 (Birdland 1951, Blue Note, 2004)
On February 17, 1951, Sonny appeared with the Miles Davis All-Stars at Birdland, on an effervescent live broadcast of Symphony Sid Torin’s Symphony Sid Show on WJZ. It was truly an all-star band: Miles on trumpet, Sonny on tenor, J.J. Johnson on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. They would never record together in the studio. Sonny was twenty, Miles twenty-four; only a month earlier, Sonny had made his first recording with Miles’s band, when Miles himself was making his Prestige debut. At Birdland, they played Sonny’s own composition, “Out of the Blue,” also known as “Evans,” Davis’s “Half Nelson,” Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit,” and Denzil Best’s “Move.” Sonny solos on every tune, with Art Blakey’s ride cymbal propelling him forward as he drops bombs on the bass drum. “It was just great just to be involved in [Sonny’s] bursting onto the scene,” recalled J.J. Johnson, “and burst onto the scene he did.”

Half Nelson (Live At Birdland)

A Night at the Village Vanguard, 1957
This album, recorded on November 3, 1957, put the Vanguard on the map and launched a thousand live dates recorded at the legendary club. It codifies the tenor-bass-drums trio, and this is one for the ages, with Wilbur B. Ware on bass, Elvin Jones on drums. Since this is a birthday post, the astrological connection is worth mentioning: Sonny on September 7th, Ware on the 8th, Jones on the 9th—a Virgo royal flush. Bassist Donald Bailey and drummer Pete La Roca played the afternoon session, which is also killer. This is true seat-of-the-pants playing. Ware didn’t know the changes to “Old Devil Moon,” and played it by ear, without a chordal instrument to clue him in. Neither member of the rhythm section had played “Sonnymoon for Two,” which Sonny unveiled that night. It’s arguably the greatest live album of all time in any genre, epitomizing everything jazz can be.

Sonnymoon For Two (Evening) (Live At The Village Vanguard/1957 / Remastered 1999/Rudy Van...

Jazz Casual, 1962
Sonny’s Williamsburg Bridge sabbatical is one of the totemic tales of jazz lore. After vanishing from the scene in 1959, he spent up to sixteen hours a day practicing on the Bridge, searching for the “lost chord” and harmonizing with foghorn blasts and the whir of passing subway trains. He descended from Sinai in the fall of 1961, and soon thereafter shared his newfound knowledge on his first album for RCA, The Bridge. Before that album’s release, though, on March 23, 1962, Sonny, Jim Hall, Bob Cranshaw, and Ben Riley performed some of the material on Jazz Casual, a syndicated television program hosted by Ralph J. Gleason. Sonny had become a master of space and time—compressing it on “The Bridge,” bending it on “God Bless the Child,” his ballad tribute to Billie Holiday. For many across the country, this was the first Sonny sighting since his disappearance, and it was worth the wait.

Jazz Casual Sonny Rollins & Jim Hall

Our Man in Jazz, 1962
In July 1962, Sonny recorded his response to the avant-garde in front of a live audience. He was working with half of his close friend Ornette Coleman’s quartet from The Shape of Jazz to Come—Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, in addition to stalwart bassist Bob Cranshaw. Over four nights at the Village Gate, Sonny proved that the lineage from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman was a straight line. As jagged and angular as this band could be, it was anything but chaos—Sonny referred to what they did as “Logical Music.” On the extended rendition of “Oleo,” he superimposes a slow blues over rhythm changes, then gradually returns to the form. Amiri Baraka called this group “The Assassins,” and anyone who hears this album will understand why.


Copenhagen, 1965
On October 31, 1965, Sonny played Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen with Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Boston drum virtuoso Alan Dawson. He stretches his dynamic range, experiments with multiphonics (playing more than one note simultaneously), and utilizes rhythmic displacement. They played “There Will Never Be Another You,” “St. Thomas,” “Oleo,” “Sonnymoon for Two,” “Darn That Dream,” and “Three Little Words,” the latter of which was becoming a signature song. Throughout this classic set, Sonny does it all, always showcasing his rhythmic inventiveness, peerless among saxophonists. “You don’t hear much rhythmic variety from sax players,” Dawson later said, “because when you’ve got all those pitches to deal with, you can’t very well get into that much rhythmically—Sonny Rollins being the exception, of course.”

Sonny Rollins live 65' 68' - Jazz Icons DVD

Ronnie Scott’s, 1974
Sonny felt so at home at London jazz shrine Ronnie Scott’s that he once locked himself in the venerable club overnight and emerged with the score for Alfie. In 1974, he returned to Ronnie’s, bringing with him Bob Cranshaw, drummer David Lee, guitarist Masuo, and bagpiper and soprano saxophonist Rufus Harley. Sonny’s highly personal song selection is in full effect: “A House Is Not a Home,” “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” “Dearly Beloved,” Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose,” and his own “Alfie’s Theme” and “East Broadway Run Down.” The highlight is the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with Harley coaxing a Vedic spirituality from the drone of the pipes. “It’s Sonny Rollins and a bagpipe!” recalled Mtume. “That’s how he heard. He was just so open, man. Who else would do that of his stature?”

Sonny Rollins 1974 Rescued @ Ronnie Scott's

Opus 40, 1986
It was a balmy August day at Opus 40, the outdoor sculpture park and concert venue in the Hudson Valley town of Saugerties, New York. Sonny’s saxophone had recently been relacquered, and he wasn’t getting the sound he was looking for. During one of his extended cadenzas, he leaped from the six-foot stage out of frustration, intending to venture into the crowd, but the fall broke his heel. It was all captured by filmmaker Robert Mugge for his 1986 documentary, Saxophone Colossus. For most artists, that would have meant the end of the concert, but for Sonny Rollins, it was just a flesh wound. He finished the performance on his back, blowing through the excruciating pain. Mugge tells the full story in his recent filmmaking memoir, Notes from the Road: A Filimmaker's Journey Through American Music. “I kept playing,” Sonny told me, “because, you know, the show must go on.”

Night Music, 1989, with Leonard Cohen
In 1989, Sonny made a guest appearance on Night Music, the short-lived late-night NBC show produced by Lorne Michaels and hosted by David Sanborn and Jools Holland. Music coordinator Hal Willner had a singular talent for orchestrating unlikely pairings, but this, he claimed, was his best. The Godfather of Gloom and the Saxophone Colossus never spoke, but they said everything that needed to be said on stage. They performed Cohen’s “Who by Fire,” his interpretation of the “Unetanneh Tokef,” the solemn Jewish prayer central to the High Holy Days. It’s become a tradition, at least in this household, to cue it up every Yom Kippur. “There was definitely something of a higher nature going on that night,” Sonny recalled. “This was the message there—we have to go on even though we don’t always reach any kind of satisfaction.” Well, in this case, they did.

Who By Fire

Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, recorded 2001
After 9/11, Sonny had to be evacuated by the National Guard from his 39th-floor apartment, only blocks from Ground Zero. He escaped with nothing but his saxophone. On September 15, 2001, he was booked to appear at the Berklee Performance Center with Bob Cranshaw, trombonist Clifton Anderson, pianist Stephen Scott, drummer Perry Wilson, and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. His wife and manager Lucille convinced him and the band that they had a duty to persevere and represent the indomitable spirit of the music in the face of destruction. According to one of the band members, they were only contracted to play a little over an hour; they played for three. When the album was released in 2005, it won Sonny a Grammy.

Sonny Rollins - Without A Song (Live In Boston / 2001) (Official Audio)

Beacon Theatre, 2010
On September 10, 2010, Sonny produced his eightieth birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre, featuring some of his closest collaborators: Bob Cranshaw, Jim Hall, Roy Haynes, Sammy Figueroa, Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, and others. Yet the concert is most memorable for the first onstage collaboration of Sonny and fellow octogenarian Ornette Coleman, who was six months older. In a sprawling 22-minute “Sonnymoon for Two,” the two elder statesmen paid tribute to their reciprocal towering legacies, and the continuity of the blues, also reaching a harmonic resolution to a longstanding rift between them. It was filmed by Dick Fontaine for the documentary Sonny Rollins: Beyond the Notes, and released as a full audio track on Road Shows, Vol. 2. Not even Sonny knew Ornette would come out until he did. A timeless moment of spiritual communion by two giants of improvisation.

Sonny Rollins & Ornette Coleman - Sonnymoon For Two (Live 2010)

Aidan Levy is the author of Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins and Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed, and editor of Patti Smith on Patti Smith: Interviews and Encounters. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village VoiceJazzTimes, and The Nation. He is currently a lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.