For most of his career, Rollins reflects, "I was fortunate in having had my wife [Lucille] handle all this stuff I don't like doing. At the time she took over my management, in the early '70s, I already knew what I wanted to portray. Freedom Suite and Way Out West, for instance-those were my concepts."
Rollins had experienced promoter problems during his career, which led him to hold certain convictions about the business. But Lucille's involvement in his business affairs afforded him, for the first time, the benefits of effective artist representation-"and everyone had to be nice to her."
His wife's passing in late 2004 coincided with the expiration of his recording agreement with his longtime label, Milestone-and the establishment of Doxy Records. "I'm familiar with what needs to be done," Rollins says, "so I'm trying to be as involved as possible. We in jazz have to adapt to the new technology."
As Rollins told NPR's Howard Mandel, "The corporate culture is anathema to jazz. We don't like cookie-cutter everything exactly the same way. We're about grace and thinking things at the moment, like life is. Life changes every minute. I mean, a different sunset every night-that's what jazz is about."
Walter Theodore Rollins was born in Harlem, New York on September 7, 1930, of parents native to the Virgin Islands. His older brother Valdemar and sister Gloria were also musically inclined but only Sonny veered away from classical music after his uncle, a professional saxophonist, introduced him to jazz and blues.
He gravitated to the tenor saxophone in high school, inspired in particular by Coleman Hawkins. By the time he was out of school, Rollins was already working with big-name musicians such as Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, and Roy Haynes. In 1951 he debuted as a leader on Prestige; his affiliation with that label also produced classics such as Saxophone Colossus, Worktime, and Tenor Madness (with John Coltrane).
In early 1956, until he went out on his own permanently as a leader in the summer of 1957, Rollins played in the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet, one of the most definitive (and tragically short-lived) hard-bop ensembles of its day. Often with his own pianoless trio, Rollins then entered a tremendously fertile period during which he recorded major works such as A Night at the Village Vanguard, Way Out West, and Freedom Suite.
In 1959, Rollins took the first of his legendary sabbaticals. Living on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he was often spotted on the nearby Williamsburg Bridge, deep in a rigorous practice regimen. "I wanted to work on my horn, I wanted to study more harmony," he told Stanley Crouch in The New Yorker.
When Rollins returned to performing in 1961, he recorded The Bridge with Jim Hall and Bob Cranshaw, led a quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, and recorded with his idol Coleman Hawkins. He also received a Grammy nomination for his score for the popular film Alfie. At decade's end he undertook one final hiatus, studying Zen Buddhism in Japan and yoga in India. While living in an ashram, he considered leaving music permanently in order to pursue spiritual studies, but a teacher persuaded him that music was his spiritual path, and an uplifting force for good.
In 1972, with the encouragement and support of his wife Lucille, who had become his business manager, Rollins returned to performing and recording, signing with Milestone and releasing Next Album. (Working at first with Orrin Keepnews, Sonny was by the early '80s producing his own Milestone sessions with Lucille.) His lengthy association with the Berkeley-based label produced two dozen albums in various settings-from his working groups to all-star ensembles (Tommy Flanagan, Jack DeJohnette, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, George Duke); from a solo recital to tour recordings with the Milestone Jazzstars (Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner); in the studio and on the concert stage (Montreux, San Francisco, New York, Boston). Sonny was also the subject of a mid-'80s documentary by Robert Mugge entitled Saxophone Colossus; part of its soundtrack is available as G-Man.
He won his first performance Grammy for This Is What I Do (2000), and his second for 2004's Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert), in the Best Jazz Instrumental Solo category (for "Why Was I Born"). Sonny, Please was nominated for a best jazz album Grammy in 2006. In addition, Sonny received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004.
In June 2006 Rollins was inducted into the Academy of Achievement at the International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles, and in May 2007 was a recipient of the Polar Music Prize, presented in Stockholm.
Most recently, he was named best tenor saxophonist in the 2008 Down Beat Critics' Poll and the Jazz Times Readers' Poll, and by the Jazz Journalists Association in their June 2008 awards event.
"I believe that jazz is the music which best expresses the stirrings of the human soul," says Rollins.
A frequent visitor to Japan, Rollins returned there in spring '08 and, while in the neighborhood, made his premiere concert appearances in Singapore, South Korea, and Australia (at the Sydney Opera House). He will perform three concerts in Brazil this fall-his first visit there in nearly 25 years-followed by a tour of Germany in November/December.
"I feel tremendously privileged to have succeeded to some extent in a music that includes the likes of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller-all of these guys who I thought were such tremendous people putting out all of this positive music," Rollins says. "It was all that I could ever dream-to be involved in this."