The long-awaited first full biography of legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins, chronicling the gripping story of a freedom fighter and spiritual seeker whose life has been as much of a thematic improvisation as his music
Sonny Rollins has long been considered an enigma. Known as the “Saxophone Colossus,” he is widely acknowledged as the greatest living jazz improviser, having won Grammys, the Austrian Cross of Honor, Sweden’s Polar Music Prize and a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. He is one of our last links to the golden age of jazz—one of only two remaining musicians pictured in the iconic “Great Day in Harlem” portrait. His colossal seven-decade career has been well documented, but the backstage life of the man once called “the only jazz recluse” has gone largely untold—until now.
Based on more than 200 interviews with Rollins himself, family members, friends, and collaborators, as well as Rollins’ extensive personal archive, Saxophone Colossus is the comprehensive portrait of this living legend, tireless civil rights activist and environmentalist. A child of the Harlem Renaissance, Rollins’ precocious talent quickly landed him on the bandstand and in the recording studio with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, or playing opposite Billie Holiday. He became an icon in his own right, recording fifteen albums as a leader in a staggering three-year span, including Tenor Madness, featuring John Coltrane; Way Out West, which established the pianoless trio; Freedom Suite, the first civil rights-themed album of the hard bop era; A Night at the Village Vanguard, which put the storied jazz venue on the map; and the 1956 classic Saxophone Colossus.
Yet his meteoric rise to fame was not without its challenges. He served a ten-month sentence on Rikers Island and faced a battle with heroin addiction, which he eventually conquered after voluntary treatment at the “Narcotic Farm” in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1959, Rollins began a two-year sabbatical from recording and performing, practicing up to 16 hours a day on the Williamsburg Bridge, which has since inspired a campaign to rename the bridge in his honor. In 1968, he took another sabbatical to study at an ashram in India. With the help of his wife and manager Lucille, Rollins returned to performing from 1971 until his retirement in 2012.
The story of Sonny Rollins—innovative, unpredictable, larger than life—is the story of jazz itself, and Sonny’s own narrative is as timeless and timely as the art form he represents. Part jazz oral history told in the musicians’ own words, part chronicle of one man’s quest for social justice and spiritual enlightenment, this exhaustively researched account pulses with the rhythm and pathos of a literary novel and the depth and insight of a serious scholarly study. This is the definitive biography of one of the most enduring and influential artists in jazz and American history.