Artist Profiles - Saxophonist Sonny Rollins

Credit John Abbott / Courtesy of the artist

Walter Theodore "Sonny" Rollins is a jazz tenor saxophonist, widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians. In a six-decade career, he has recorded at least sixty albums as leader, and a number of his compositions, including "St. Thomas", "Oleo", "Doxy", "Pent-Up House", and "Airegin", have become jazz standards.

Rollins was born in New York City on September 7, 1930. Rollins started as a pianist, changed to alto saxophone, and finally switched to tenor. Rollins made his first recordings in early 1949 as a sideman with the bebop singer Babs Gonzales. he began to make a name for himself, recording with J.J. Johnson and appearing under the leadership of pianist Bud Powell on a seminal "hard bop" session. Rollins briefly joined the Miles Davis Quintet in the summer of 1955. Later that year, he joined the Clifford Brown–Max Roach quintet; studio albums documenting his time in the band are “Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street” and “Sonny Rollins Plus 4.”

His widely acclaimed album “Saxophone Colossus” was recorded on June 22, 1956 with Tommy Flanagan on piano, former Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins, and his favorite drummer, Roach. This was Rollins's sixth recording as a leader and it included his best-known composition "St. Thomas.” In 1958, Rollins recorded another landmark piece for saxophone, bass and drums trio: “Freedom Suite.” By 1959, Rollins had become frustrated with what he perceived as his own musical limitations and took the first – and most famous – of his musical sabbaticals.

During the 1970s and 1980s, he also became drawn to R&B, pop, and funk rhythms. Some of his bands during this period featured electric guitar, electric bass, and usually more pop- or funk-oriented drummers. In 1997, he was voted "Jazz Artist of the Year" in the Down Beat magazine critics' poll. Rollins won a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for “This Is What I Do.” Rollins was presented with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2004.