September 15, 2021

“Human and Heroic New York” — Celebrating Sonny Rollins and Michael K. Williams

By Stuart Mitchner

It was a madhouse. Everybody was running, women were screaming. All of this pollution coming out of the debris; it was like snow falling out of the sky.

—Sonny Rollins

I didn’t know how to release myself from him, and … I had some backlash, you know, on a personal level.

—Michael K. Williams on playing Omar

My idea of “shock and awe” has nothing to do with the label the Bush administration attached to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, wherein “awe” was supposed to suggest disarray, panic, confusion, and terror. “Awe” is what I feel watching Michael K. Williams’s astonishing performance as Omar in The Wire. And it’s what I’ve felt in the presence of the Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins, another native New Yorker who, like Williams, was hit hard by 9/11. With Rollins at his most wondrous, there’s no end to awe, it’s like his definition of music as “an open sky.” And 20 years on the other side of 9/11, the giant is still standing, having marked his 91st birthday on September 7, the day after the death at 54 of Michael K. Williams.

Toxic Snow

TV reports of New Yorkers being evacuated in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks referred to “an elderly black man carrying a saxophone case.” According to @jazztimes, “Sonny Rollins had been home in his Manhattan apartment, six blocks north of the World Trade Center, when the attacks occurred. From the street, he watched the second tower go down.” The next day the National Guard evacuated him from his apartment, where he’d been living for almost 30 years.

Interviewed on September 11, 2019, Rollins commented, “When that second plane hit, it was like snowfall coming down. And that snow, of course, was just toxic stuff. Anyway, I gulped some of it down. We were waiting until the next day to be evacuated, so I picked up my horn to play. I took a deep breath and felt that stuff down to my stomach. I said, ‘Oh, wow, no practicing today.’ … So yeah, it’s been conjectured that that’s part of what happened to me.” He’s referring to the pulmonary fibrosis that ended his playing days in 2012. As he put it in an NPR interview, “I had to go through quite a period of adjustment after I realized that I couldn’t blow my horn anymore.”

Becoming Omar

“You know, when I came into the character,” Michael K. Williams said, discussing Omar and The Wire with the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, “I wasn’t feeling good. I was depressed; I was on Paxil; I was smoking a lot of weed; drinking a lot of alcohol; 9/11 had kicked my ass  — I didn’t respond well to that at all, you know, burning flesh in the air and all that, I just did not know how to digest that. And mixed with looking out my projects window [the Vanderver Projects in East Flatbush, Brooklyn] — my reality — you know, knowing that I desired something more out of life, it was just, it was a really jagged pill to swallow at that time in my life. And that was the state of mind I was in when I went in to read for Omar.”

Williams had been working for almost two years in his mother’s daycare business when he got a fax from the casting director at HBO about “this dude named Omar Little.” Referring to what he heard from people who’ve watched the show and fallen in love with it over the years, Williams said, “First of all, he’s a Robin Hood. He’s an underdog. He is someone in society that, if given the chance, could have been President Barack Obama [one of the foremost admirers of Williams’s performance], had he been given the opportunities — great mind, great heart, a lot of courage. But he woke up one morning, with all that greatness, all that potential, and was like, ‘I’m stuck in Baltimore, Maryland — ‘Body-morgue Murder-land.’ …. And he just accepted where he was and who he was, and made no excuses for it, never complained, just, ‘It is what it is.’ ”

Williams’s reference to looking out his “projects window” leaves unsaid what he saw the morning of September 11, 2001. He wasn’t as close as his fellow New Yorker Sonny Rollins, but he was close enough to breathe it in. He was 34. Rollins was 71. As for what Rollins breathed in, jazz critic Nate Chinen writes, “Setting aside the implications of a story in which Rollins is harmed by the act of practicing — in search of inspiration, a word whose etymology literally derives from “to breathe in” — there’s something terribly definitive about this moment.”

In the Hollywood Reporter interview, Williams said, “I like to believe that I open my vessel to allow, for lack of a better word, ‘spirits,’ if you will, into me, and to project these characters, you know? Because what happened with Omar, you know — the only thing was I didn’t know how to release myself from him, and, you know, I had some backlash, you know, on a personal level.” As Williams observed in an online A.V. Club interview, “Omar’s very popular with the youth. It’s cool to love Omar. I love Omar, nobody loves Omar more than me, but make no mistake: I pray to God nobody wants to be this dude, because I had to get inside of his mind, and it’s a dark, dark vortex.”

Williams called The Wire “a love letter to our nation. Like a blueprint to show where we’re broken.”

What Was Broken

While I was looking online for the derivation of “Shock and Awe” I ran into my September 4, 2005 review of 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. The article is titled “The Ultimate Shock and Awe,” and includes a sentence that anticipates what I’m thinking on the 20th anniversary: “the ultimate manifestation of  ‘shock and awe’ exploded out of a beautiful clear blue sky on a September morning in 2001.”

In 102 Minutes, New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn suggest that that an inability to imagine the attack’s ultimate consequence may have caused more loss of life than any other factor except perhaps the 1968 building code revision that allowed the towers’ designers to weaken security in order to free up profitable rental space. It was too late by the time an engineer from the Department of Buildings warned that the stability of both structures had been seriously compromised. Although the possibility of total collapse was known by those few who were able to communicate the information, as many as a thousand of the men and women inside the towers that morning may have died because no one believed that the buildings could fall. The relatively contained effects of the earlier 1993 bombing had encouraged a false sense of security, and on top of that, a structural engineer had assured everyone that the towers had been designed to stand up to the impact of a Boeing 707. The authors of 102 Minutes compare the fall of the invulnerable towers to the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic.

East Broadway Run Down

If a failure of imagination contributed to 9/11, maybe I’m overcompensating by reimagining a recorded performance more than half a century after the fact. But there’s no way around it — Sonny Rollins’s album East Broadway Run Down (released in 1966, the year Michael K. Williams was born) is a different experience entirely when you know that East Broadway connects the immediate neighborhood of the catastrophe with Grand Street, where Rollins was living in 1959-1961, and with the Williamsburg Bridge, where he famously honed his art and his legend (he named an album after Grand Street and titled his return to recording life The Bridge).

In the fall of 1966, when all the excitement was coming from the rock renaissance, I was outside East Broadway Run Down “looking in.” Not now. Now it feels like being at the mercy of a street scene action painting of urban chaos powered by the convergence of Rollins’s dusky, brawling, who-knows-where-he’s-headed tenor with Freddy Hubbard’s piercing trumpet, Jimmy Garrison’s mood-making bass, and the drumming of Elvin  Jones, who as Nat Hentoff writes in the liner notes, “occasionally sounds as if he has at least four hands and four feet” as he builds “layers of cross accents and shifting textures into a percussion totality.” Hentoff hears “a hypnotic heartbeat” coursing through Jones’s waves of cymbal sounds” that makes it seem that “we have come back to the root of all music.”   

At the end, there’s an after-the-fall moment where it’s possible to imagine the collapse of the towers in the echo of Jones’s thunder on a streetscape haunted by the eerie cries Rollins creates by playing through the mouthpiece — in Hentoff’s words, “pyramiding overtones from the mouthpiece alone” above the pulse and throb of Garrison’s bass. At that point, Sonny Rollins, ever the wittiest of players in jazz’s human comedy, puts his horn back together again and blows the whole endgame noir melodrama into the “open sky” with a series bloops, whoops, and assorted derisive sounds. It’s as if he were back on the bridge again. “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.” And spread out all around him was the city that has inspired awe in all who have loved it — Walt Whitman’s “human and heroic New York.”

I found most of the quotations about Sonny Rollins on @Sonny Rollins Bridge Project, which seeks to rename the Williamsburg Bridge in his honor. The 2011 Hollywood Reporter conversation with Michael K. Williams (1966-2021) is extraordinary, thanks to Williams’s spirited responses.