Mere months after acquiring James Baldwin’s papers, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has brought yet another beloved son of Harlem back home. The New York Public Library-owned institution, home to one of the world’s most important collections of materials documenting the Black experience in America and beyond, recently unveiled the archive of famed saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
Rollins’s 1958 Freedom Suite is regarded as one of the most powerful musical statements on the Civil Rights era, and at 87, he is the rare jazz icon who is able to see how the world has (and hasn’t) changed in the decades since. The saxophonist’s papers provide important insight at a moment where younger artists are working to both preserve the art form and create their own response to the social issues of the day as he famously did.
Though he is no longer able to play, Rollins’s impact can still be heard in nearly every corner of the genre. He still has a ton of musical ideas that he’d like to see come to life and his energy shined brightly during our recent phone conversation. Maybe it’s the years of practicing yoga, but he sounds wiser and sharper than many of the people running the country these days.
CASSIUS was honored that Rollins made time to discuss the donation of his archives, memories of taking the famed “A Great Day In Harlem” photo, and how the world that inspired Freedom Suite compares to the present day.
CASSIUS: What prompted you to donate your papers to the Schomburg?
Sonny Rollins: I have been accumulating my papers with my wife for many years. We’ve been keeping programs and my wife was a very, very fine accountant. She had so many contracts that she handled, and we kept everything. We kept everything, and of course the recordings. Private recordings and things like that from my career, as well as the business aspects of it. So these things have been accumulating, and I figured that – there was a time when everybody seemed to be contributing to archives. And I figured that the archives are there for someone who might want to find out what it was like for Sonny Rollins, a young Black musician born in Harlem to come up through the ranks in the music world. And all that material was there. So I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it. Let somebody else see it if they might be able to use it in their career, or write something about it or learn something about it.
And I figured that the archives are there for someone who might want to find out what it was like for Sonny Rollins, a young Black musician born in Harlem to come up through the ranks in the music world.
C: How does it feel to have your papers in Harlem for good, sitting alongside the archives of James Baldwin, Ron Carter, Don Redmon, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes?
SR: It feels great to be with these people. I’m honored, so honored to be with these people that you mentioned. Langston Hughes – I didn’t even know his papers were at the Schomburg. Maya Angelou, Nat King Cole, James Baldwin…that’s a lot of highly-regarded people who contributed a lot while they were here on the planet. So it’s an honor for me to be with them, no doubt.
C: You grew up in that community. Does this feel like a full-circle journey?
SR: Yes, it really does. It’s very prophetic. Very mystical in a way. You know I was born on 137th Street, between Lenox and 7th Avenue and the Schomburg is located a couple of blocks from there. I used go into the original Schomburg building when I was going to P.S. 89 on 135th Street. It’s all very prophetic.
C: In making this donation, you’ve given a big part of yourself and your story to be accessible to people.
SR: People are writing books on me and all of this stuff. I think there’s maybe a book or two out already…This is my life as I lived it day-to-day and I was associated with some great, great people. It was my honor to be associated with some great musicians, and during the period of what’s commonly referred to as “the golden age of jazz” this portrayed in that wonderful photograph “A Great Day In Harlem.” When you have all these great jazz musicians in there I was honored, privileged to be in there myself. It was of all the people – many older people than me at the time – and it was a wonderful period that I was so privileged to be a part of. That was around the middle of the century. All kind of great musicians. Count Basie. Duke Ellington – no Duke wasn’t in it. Duke was one of the musicians that was working. Anybody that wasn’t in that picture had a gig, they was playing someplace. And then Miles [Davis] and [John] Coltrane were playing someplace, so they were not in that picture. It was quite a document, and as I said it represented that middle of the century.
C: Do you remember anything about that day that stood out to you?
SR: I was called by a photographer (Art Kane, who was freelancing for Esquire.) “Sure,” I said, “Yeah it would be great.” I mean he said here’s gonna be all these prominent musicians that’s gonna be in that picture. So naturally I said, “Happy to do it. Where? Just tell me where and I’ll be there.” So when I got there it was a lot of people. A gang of people that you saw in the picture. Many of whom I knew, some I didn’t. So it was just a wonderful, a wonderful day. And I understand that most of the people that were called about it were anxious to do it. Because there wasn’t really a document like that, showing all the jazz musicians that had some kind of prominence were there together. It was really something unusual, and they were all happy to do it. ‘Cause we needed to be all together, we needed to show everybody together.
C: Talk about what inspired your 1958 album Freedom Suite.
SR: Well you see, my grandmother was very much what you would call an activist. I was this young boy and I would be marching up and down Lenox Avenue and maybe 7th Avenue sometimes for causes. When a lot of people couldn’t sit down and eat (at lunch counters). And there was a case where they had the Scottsboro boys. Three or four or maybe five passengers met this one woman. They were accused of raping her. Which was a lie. And they were gonna execute them, and they knew it was a lie. So there’s a big movement trying to get them free. And I remember walking up and down with my grandmother as a little boy. Anything that had to do with Black liberation, Marcus Garvey, all of that stuff I was marching for. And we had a flag in the house for Black nationalism. So when you say what was happening to get them free, it all came out of that. In the Civil Rights Movement. That’s how I was brought up.
When I say it was time, it was the same thing that’s happening now. Out here now, what was happening then. It was happening before then and is always happening. And I don’t know whether I should go into this because I don’t know who you playing this for. So let’s just say that the Freedom Suite was right on time, okay? It was written in ’57 and it was recorded in the beginning of 1958.
C: Do you see history repeating itself? Or maybe that we’re moving forward in a way?
SR: Well I’d say we’re moving forward because when I was a little boy they had Negro History Week. Now it’s a month. Is that progress?
C: *pause* Sounds like it…
SR: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s a month now. Negro History Week is a month. Of course the month is February. The month with all of the missing days in it. But seriously, look: this is the way it is, man. This is just the way life is. And we’re Black. Born Black in America. So it’s always gonna be a bitch to get through. It’s always gonna be a struggle. You got three hundred, four hundred years of white privilege. How are they gonna give that up all of a sudden? How that’s gonna happen, I don’t know.
But that doesn’t mean (we give up)– we still have to keep the struggle. Keep the struggle going like we always have. And life is a struggle. So if you’re born Black in America, then you’re gonna have a particular type of struggle. A struggle different than other people, but it’s a struggle anyway. There ain’t nothing new about what’s happening. Nothing new about this stuff.
C: How do you feel about watching like younger generations that are attempting to carry the musical torch that was passed to you by the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie?
SR: It’s good, it’s good. There are a lot of young people that are keeping it going. Keeping the tradition going. There’s a lot of young guys that’s really talented and good. It will continue as long as they elevate it. There will always be these young brothers coming up, keeping the music moving because this is the greatest music in the world and it influences so many other aspects of life. People don’t even realize how many other aspects of life jazz influences. A lot of young people are coming up. They got the talent and they have the ancestors behind them. And they have their ancestors in them. So it’s all good, man.
C: Can you talk about the role of the artist in terms of the political climate and activism?
SR: A long time ago somebody was asking me about politics and I told them, “Look, I’m a Black musician in the United States. I am automatically playing to the political bag.” I’m automatically political. I’m not trying to be – I’m automatically political. Okay, now whatever they should do that? Well, you know that’s individual. I’m not gonna tell anybody, “Oh, you should talk politics.” No, no. Do whatever you want to do. Maybe you might not need to do that.
Today, it’s hard for a Black artist not to be involved in politics. All the shit that’s happening today – excuse my language – it’s hard not to be involved. But if you don’t want to be, that’s okay. I’m not gonna criticize. Everybody has their own way of making it out here.
SC: What’s next for you?
SR: You know every day I’m learning something. So I’m not, I’m not that smart to say what’s next for me. I don’t know what’s next for me. I’m open to the fact that I’m learning every day. I’m learning something about life, about how I’m supposed to be out here as a human being. See on that level, how I’m supposed to treat other people. How I want other people to treat me and uh, well not stealing from nobody at least. These are things that I’m learning every day.
I hope I continue to learn because that’s what it’s all about. This life – life is a school man. We’re here to learn. That’s all we’re here to do, to learn. And so that’s where I’m coming from now. As far as what’s next for me, who knows? That’s an answer you’re asking the universe. You got to ask the universe that question. But I’m ready to be taught.