Sonny Rollins: Exit The Dragon

The scourge of heroin addiction among jazz musicians of the 1940s and 1950s is central to dozens of stories, novels, poems, plays and movies, most of them dreadful, overwrought clichés. Bad art aside, the monkey on the backs of musicians was real. It rode many of them to their graves. Unhorseing the habit required triumphing over more than the punishing chemical consequences of withdrawal. It meant also withstanding social pressure to conform in tight little communities of addicts whose lives were governed as much by the drug as by music.

It is impossible to exaggerate the courage of musicians who purged themselves of heroin addiction. Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Don Lanphere and others managed to survive a legion of colleagues who committed the slow suicide of slavery to heroin. However much the long-term effects of drug damage may have ultimately shortened their life spans, when they got clean they added productive decades.

Sonny Rollins is also a victor over drug addiction. There is power in the story of his struggle. As the recent Chicago Jazz Festival got underway with the 78-year-old Rollins as a headliner, Neil Tesser told Rollins’s story in an article in the Chicago Reader. The piece is called “How
Rollins.jpgSonny Defeated the Dragon.” Rollins told Tesser about temptation in Chicago when he went there in 1955 after being released from the narcotics hospital at the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. One night when he thought he had accumulated enough fortitude, he went to a prominent jazz club known as a gathering place of addicts.

“When I got there, I saw a lot of old friends, a lot of the guys: ‘Hey Sonny, let’s go get high,'” Rollins says. “I had to be strong enough to withstand that. And that’s where I faced my Goliath. It was hard, man, because some of these guys knew I was not that far from using drugs. It was one of these biblical-like temptations. I resisted–my palms got sweaty and everything, but I resisted. I went back to my custodial job, but I thought, ‘I gotta get back into music.’ It was very difficult, because to tell the truth, I just escaped that first time; I just was able to resist all my friends offering these free drugs. But I thought, ‘I’m a musician and I have to be strong enough to be around drugs,’ because that was the scene.”

To read all of the story, go here. The online piece incorporates two audio clips of Rollins playing with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet. One of them is a twenty-two-minute “Get Happy” with Rollins full of confidence and wit, and astonishing work by Brown. Thanks to Harris Meyer for tipping me to the Chicago Reader story.

In 1963, eight years after he rescued himself, Rollins appeared, hale and hearty, with his quartet on Italian television. Jazz had changed, in part because of the freedom introduced by Ornette Coleman.  With Rollins were Coleman’s trumpet pal Don Cherry; bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Billy Higgins. The tune is Thelonious Monk’s “52nd Street Theme,” in an eccentric sculpted arrangement by Rollins. As you will see, they didn’t call Higgins Smiling Billy for nothing. At the end, the lights go up, Sonny almost smiles, a big band plays them off and we get a quick shot of a woman who may have been the hostess of a variety show.

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  1. says

    good…sonny don’t do dope. i was in chicago for the performance the article opens with. at this point, sonny don’t play too much sax either. i also caught sonny’s 40th anniversary concert at carnigie hall. if it wasn’t for roy hanes backing him up in the first half of the outting, ditto.
    as an anti-drug piece…right on, yes?