When Music Was Bigger Than Life: Sonny Rollins in New York City
You know, I’m a New York guy — Sonny Rollins, in People Magazine
By Stuart Mitchner
New York City, Christmas week 1948, St. James Theatre: Ray Bolger is performing “Once In Love With Amy” and life will never be the same for the ten-year-old in the balcony. He’s in the heart of the holiday city, suspended above a bright new world of sight and sound, captivated, taken out of himself, “in heaven,” watching a living man, in person, here and now, singing and dancing while a live band plays, and there’s nothing to do but laugh in sheer delight when the man on stage does a drunken gambit singing “You might be quite the fickle-hearted ro-ver, so carefree and bold, who loves a girl and later — “ hiccup “ — thinks it over, and just … quits … cold!” When the chorus comes round again — “Once you’re kissed by Amy, tear up the list, it’s Amy!” — Bolger stops singing to go cavorting around the stage in an ecstasy, so full of the song that singing isn’t enough, he’s catapaulted by the music, waving his arms, leaping about, calling on the audience to share the joy until the whole theatre is singing along, “Once in love with Amy! Always in love with Amy!”
And though the ten-year-old from Indiana isn’t aware then of what he knows now, he feels something inside telling him that the Amy he’s in love with is New York City.
“A Little Health Issue”
I’ve been indulging in a night club reverie where Sonny Rollins is playing “Once in Love with Amy,” moving around the room tenor sax held high, bringing out
every dancing-with-joy nuance. All I can do is dream after learning that the 87-year-old is suffering from pulmonary fibrosis and will never play again. As he put it in an NPR interview last year, “I had to go through quite a period of adjustment after I realized that I couldn’t blow my horn anymore .… And maybe I’ll find some other way to express the music that I have in my mind .… Maybe I might start singing, who knows?”
He’s not serious, or is he? “Amy” is a very singable song, as I know from experience.
In the Village
Thirteen years after the St. James revelation it’s a summer night on Christopher Street, the windows are open, and I’m listening to Sonny Rollins have his way with another song premiered in the same theatre, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” from Oklahoma. The music most often heard pouring out of Village windows that year, however, was John Coltrane’s spectacularly reimagined version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. It was Coltrane’s time; in person, he and his band were incomparable, but Rollins had the Manhattan mystique, the tenor man standing in the shadows, on leave from the scene, honing his axe in exile on the Williamsburg Bridge. His mysterious eminence was displayed on the cover of his album Saxophone Colossus with its massive silhouette against a deep blue background. If you were living and working and listening to jazz in Greenwich Village at this time, you could feel the presence of the man on the bridge looming over your shoulder everywhere you went.
The way I saw it, Coltrane was a life force making passionate music inside the city while Rollins was the city, his body of work available from the record store I haunted halfway down the block from the Eighth Street Bookshop, where my earnings helped me purchase the array of albums Rollins had recorded in the years between 1953 and 1959, a metropolis of music for me to explore, many of the songs with a Tin Pan Alley/Broadway provenance that all but said “born in New York City.”
My New York began at the Biltmore Hotel where my parents and I stayed that holiday week. Four years later, home was an apartment building on the corner of Riverside Drive and 137th, which becomes Sonny Rollins’s 137th if you follow it due east past the City College campus and St. Nicholas Park into Harlem, two blocks north of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, now the home of the Rollins archive. Walk 20 blocks south and you come to Benjamin Franklin High School, on 116th and Pleasant Avenue, from which Sonny graduated in 1947.
Some 60 blocks south is 224 E. 53rd, the third floor walk-up where we lived in 1952-53, with a view out the back window of the floodlit towers of the Waldorf Astoria and the GE Building. Every weekday morning I rode the subway to McBurney School, at 15 West 63rd, unaware at the time that the Blue Note studios were located at No. 47, where five years later Rollins would record some of his best work, including “Surrey with the Fringe On Top” and a spellbinding rendition of “Misterioso,” whose composer, Theolonius Monk, resided just down the same street, between West End Avenue and Amsterdam. Ten years later I was living on West 87th across from Billie Holiday’s last residence and several blocks east of the apartment from which Charles Mingus devised a light show for his wife Sue after numerous break-ups and reconciliations.
East Side, West Side serendipity, everyone’s there, the composers as well as the musicians, thus if you travel 30 blocks north from West 87th, you come to West 107th, the street Frank Loesser grew up on. He’s the composer I have to thank for “Once in Love With Amy,” the song that made me once-in-love, always-in-love with New York.
The Golden Era
In Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins describes “the nearly fifty-year golden era, from Jerome Kern to Frank Loesser, when theater, radio, and movies created a far more capacious appetite for fresh songs, and when the unprecedented range and virtuosity of interpretive performers … helped boost and sustain high standards of melodic, harmonic, and verbal ingenuity.” In his account of Rollins’s July 1985 solo recital at the Museum of Modern Art, Giddins mentions some of the “shambling riffs that momentarily blossomed into familiar cantabile,” including “To a Wild Rose,” “Autumn Nocturne,” “Love in Bloom,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Open the Door, Richard,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” “Should I,” “Peter and the Wolf,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “St. Thomas,” and “There’s No Place Like Home.”
Mining the Movies
In a June 2005 Jazz Times interview, Rollins recalls passing by the original Cotton Club as a schoolboy and going every week to the Apollo Theater. At the same age he was spending many hours in Manhattan moviehouses, where he saw Dorothy Lamour in Hurricane (1937) crooning “The Moon of Manakoora,” a song he would cover decades later, and where he watched Fred Astaire charming Ginger Rogers in Swing Time with “The Way You Look Tonight,” which he exuberantly reinvents in a 1954 session with Thelonius Monk. He would have been 10 (same age as the schoolboy blissing out at the St. James) when his musical imagination was stirred by the score for the 1940 Bette Davis’s film, The Letter.
During my ninth-grade year in the city I used to haunt the Roxy, Radio City Music Hall, and various Times Square movie palaces like the Astor and the Mayfair, when you could get into matinees for 75 cents. Now I can’t help wondering where young Sonny saw his movies. A kid from Harlem would have known better than to approach the box office of any of those midtown cinemas.
Listening to Sonny Rollins play “Manhattan” just now, virtually a cappella with the bass under the radar and drums all but inaudible, I have an idea how it might have been between 1959 and 1961 on the Williamsburg Bridge, with the Brooklyn-bound subway on one side and traffic on the other. And “Manhattan” had to have been in the on-bridge rehearsal repertoire, with a lyric referencing his part of town, in those Grand Street days: “It’s very fancy on old Delancey Street, you know …. The subway charms us so, when balmy breezes blow to and fro/And tell me what street compares with Mott Street in July?/Sweet pushcarts gently gliding by/The great big city’s a wondrous toy just made for a girl and boy/We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.”
“I used to blow my horn back at the boats when the boats would blow,” Rollins told the Washington Post in November 2011. “All of that was great. I was in a place where nobody could see me. This was heaven. This was heaven.”
“Rollins possesses you with his own possession,” says Gary Giddins, “getting inside you to restore recollections of the first time you ever realized music was bigger than life.”