In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Becoming Sonny Rollins
  • Benjamin Givan (bio)

In late 1939 a twenty-five-year-old Harlem resident named Ralph Ellison stopped to talk to a small boy on the sidewalk near the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. Ellison, who had arrived in New York three years earlier from Tuskegee, Alabama, was on a job collecting urban folklore for the Federal Writers’ Project. Pencil in hand, the aspiring novelist asked the child whether he knew any rhymes. His youthful informant cheerfully offered a few lines about the local elementary school, which was just a stone’s throw away: “Remember the Eight, Remember the Nine, Remember that ‘City Dump’ 89.”1

Public School 89 was one of upper Manhattan’s most overcrowded, underfunded city schools; in dimly lit classrooms with broken blackboards, pupils as old as twelve sat cramped in seats meant for kinder-gartners.2 The dilapidated building nevertheless stood at the bustling epicenter of Depression-era African American urban life, near an intersection where crowds often congregated around soapbox orators.3 Within a couple hundred yards’ radius could be found the Harlem branches of the New York Public Library and YMCA, the local NAACP and Urban League headquarters, the offices of the Amsterdam News and New York Age, and Harlem Hospital.4 A few minutes’ walk southward, an array of clubs and saloons known as “Jungle Alley” was clustered along 133rd Street.5 Ninety-eight percent of those inhabiting the congested blocks surrounding the four-story schoolhouse were African Americans; scores hailed from the southern states, and many were Caribbean migrants and [End Page 493] their offspring.6 Among the latter was another young boy enrolled at PS 89, a nine-year-old whose family rented a nearby apartment at 69 West 135th Street.7 His name was Walter Theodore Rollins.8 Everyone called him “Sonny.”

His parents, Valborg (1904–58) and Walter William Rollins (1903–76), had arrived in New York ten years earlier from the US Virgin Islands, not long after the formerly Danish West Indian colony’s residents were granted American citizenship.9 The couple brought with them two small children, a boy and a girl; Sonny, their youngest, was born a year later, in 1930. Like many Harlem families, the Rollinses moved often, and within a decade they had lived at four different addresses in the same neighborhood.10 One day, around 1939, walking home from PS 89, Sonny passed by a local nightclub called the Elks Rendezvous and gazed up to see a captivating photograph of the venue’s tuxedo-clad resident bandleader, Louis Jordan (1908–75), clutching a shiny King Zephyr alto saxophone.11 Not long afterward, he asked his mother to buy him a horn.

In the decades to come, with a horn in his hands, Sonny Rollins would make countless international tours and record dozens of albums; he is today acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest living musical improviser and widely regarded as, along with John Coltrane (1926–67), one of jazz’s two most influential tenor saxophonists since World War II.12 Rollins has also come to epitomize a popular romanticized notion of the individual jazz artist as a lone creative spirit. He has been called “a heroic figure,” and the critic Nate Chinen even described one of his late career outdoor summer performances in New York City, attended by thousands, as a “descen[t] from Mount Olympus.”13 There is something to all this: the saxophonist has long relished solitude, and the musicologist Barry Kernfeld proposes that “if ever there was an argument for conceiving of jazz group playing . . . as being dominated by a great individual artist, that artist is Rollins.”14 Yet Rollins has always rejected any heroicization of his personal achievements, preferring to credit the experiences of his youth—the music suffusing his daily world, the performers who influenced him, and those with whom he played and studied.15 When honored with accolades or awards he typically insists, “My idols . . . deserve to get this award and in getting it I am getting it for them.”16 Looking back, he says, “I just was born in the right place at the right time.”17

It would...


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