Today is Sonny Rollins’s 88th birthday. He looks back on a lifetime in music that began when he was a teenager in New York City and took him to the heights of his profession, and of creativity unmatched by few artists in any category. It is tempting to bring you a survey of the saxophonist’s most notable works, but lists can’t say what music can. Mr. Rollins’s best playing—with its rhythmic power, lyricism and wit—helps a listener understand how jazz at its most expressive represents the spirit and character of a great nation. Let’s listen.
Here are two of his masterpieces; first, “St. Thomas,” a reflection of his Caribbean (Virgin Islands) heritage. This was filmed in Copenhagen at the Jazzhus Montmarte with Kenny Drew, piano; Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, bass; and Albert “Tootie” Heath, drums.
From 1955 and Sonny Rollins’s indispensable Worktime album, here is his transformation of a classic Irving Berlin song. I have always hoped that Berlin had a chance to hear it. This is where two of those qualities mentioned above, Sonny’s power and his wit, make a famous showstopper even more dramatic. He has inspirational backing from pianist Ray Bryant, bassist George Morrow, and drummer Max Roach, who has an inspired solo.
Happy Birthday, Sonny Rollins. Congratulations on a magnificent career.