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. "I always had a strong rhythmic thing," Sonny says. "That was there from the start." 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 piano-less 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 from music. Living on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he was often spotted on the nearby Williamsburg Bridge at night, deep in a rigorous practice regimen. "I wanted to work on my horn, I wanted to study more harmony, I wanted to better myself," he told Stanley Crouch in The New Yorker, "and I wanted to get out of the environment of all that smoke and alcohol and drugs."
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); 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"). 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 - and gave a solo performance - at the International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and attended by world leaders as well as distinguished figures in the arts and sciences.
"I am convinced that all art has the desire to leave the ordinary," Rollins said in a recent interview for the Catalan magazine Jaç, "and to say it one way, at a spiritual level, a state of the exaltation at existence. All art has this in common. But jazz, the world of improvisation, is perhaps the highest, because we do not have the opportunity to make changes. It's as if we were painting before the public, and the following morning we cannot go back and correct that blue color or change that red. We have to have the blues and reds very well placed before going out to play. So for me, jazz is probably the most demanding art. “
And Sonny Rollins - seeker and past master – remains one of jazz's most exacting, exhilarating, and inspiring practitioners.