Sonny Rollins’ Radical Protest Jazz

On August 27th 2020 » By Andy Beta

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In December, 2016, JazzTimes traced the history of protest in jazz. It touched on classics like Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” right up to Max Roach’s fiery We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite and Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues. But they left out the first album-length statement of the Civil Rights era, leading longtime subscriber Sonny Rollins to write in and defend his magnificent yet oddly overshadowed 1958 album, Freedom Suite. The editors of JazzTimes weren’t the only ones to mistakenly pass it by.

In the late ’50s, Rollins was operating on a plane few jazz artists have managed, much less cut to wax. Saxophone Colossus for Prestige, Way Out West for Contemporary, and Volume 1 and 2, A Night At The “Village Vanguard,” and Newk’s Time for jazz powerhouse Blue Note remain lodestars for each successive generation of jazz players. Rollins gained renown as an improviser whose solos were endlessly creative, breathtakingly inventive, melodically impeccable, and slyly sardonic (try to picture John Coltrane ever donning a cowboy hat for an album cover). A romantic at heart boasting gale force lungs, Rollins paired that fount of ideas to a stamina as tireless as Niagara Falls. He knew the works of his forebears front and back, and there was no songbook standard too hokey that he couldn’t dust off and drastically reconfigure. Yet he was always boldly moving forward into the unknown, as he did with the stunning longform, through-composed composition that defined Freedom Suite, released at the peak of his late ’50s prowess and the most controversial album of his storied career.

“Why did I do it?” Rollins said to Hilton Als in 2016. “Because I was trying to get black consciousness into people.” His label, Riverside, blanched immediately, thanks in no small part to Rollins’ two sentence liner notes that included the incisive observation that American culture is “Negro culture.” Yet for that contribution, “the Negro … is being rewarded with inhumanity.” The label pulled the record, and when it was finally reissued four years later, Freedom Suite was now repackaged as Shadow Waltz. The original’s bold cover — of a bare-chested Rollins next to a series of columns spaced just so as to suggest jail bars — was replaced with a betuxed Rollins. Its running order was revamped, Rollins’ liner notes excised, and his most powerful recorded statement to date was relegated to the B-side. And so in the 21st century, Rollins found himself — nearly a half-century after doing it back in 1958 — defending himself and his work from being erased from the narrative: “It was an attempt to introduce some kind of black pride into the conversation of the time,” he wrote to the JazzTimes editors. “That was my history.”

Born in the kitchen on the sixth floor walk-up of a tenement building on West 137th Street, Walter Theodore Rollins’s family resided near two of the most influential churches in Harlem, Mother AME Zion church and Adam Clayton Powell Sr.’s Abyssinian Baptist church. Powell Sr.’s sermons often spoke to the racism and disenfranchisement felt by his congregation, a feeling that carried over to the Rollins household. A strong and proud West Indian family that had immigrated to the United States, Sonny’s grandmother Miriam Solomon was “very militant,” he recalled to journalist Hugh Wyatt. “She was into Marcus Garvey and Paul Robeson.” The African national flag hung in the house and Rollins as a young boy recalled the soapbox speakers along 125th and Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem. “I didn’t fully understand all the heavy-duty talk from the speakers, but I understood enough of it to know that the black man in America suffered greatly from racism and that something should be done about it.”

Rollins went through all the trials and tribulations like many African-American musicians of his generation, his prodigal gift for the saxophone cut with a debilitating heroin habit that landed him first at Rikers Island (on an armed robbery charge) and later at the United States Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, where he finally kicked it for good. From there, his star was ascendant. Adjacent to that rise, there was also a seismic societal movement across the country. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down decisions for Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas and Bolling v. Sharpe, rulings that overturned the foolish notion of “separate but equal” and prohibited segregation in public schools, respectively. And with that, the war for civil rights was on. And it was a war, with the gruesome murder of Emmett Till in August of 1955, and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat later that year, but two of the battles that lay ahead.

It was in the late ’50s that the strength instilled in Sonny by his grandmother came to blossom. As he told The Atlantic at the time: “You can’t have jazz without protest. Protest may be too narrow a word to apply to men like Basie, Ellington, and Hawkins. But by carrying themselves with pride, just by acting like men, [they] influenced younger guys like me.” Despite being an international star and celebrity in his hometown of Manhattan, Rollins reached a breaking point. “It didn’t matter to the landlords, I was still a n——-,” he told Wyatt about being blocked from getting the apartment he wanted. “This is the reason I wrote the notes and recorded the suite.” Freedom Suite was Sonny Rollins’ protest, but it’s singular in the field, in that he didn’t need to utter a word or sound a full-throated roar through his reed. It’s not a raised fist, and never needs to shriek. Freedom Suite is so disarming that you might not recognize it for a protest anthem at all.

Sit-ins, boycotts, and demonstrations were roiling the country when Sonny Rollins booked time with producer Orrin Keepnews, assembling a piano-less rhythm section that he had been deploying ever since Way Out West. But bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach were perhaps the most formidable rhythm section of the era, respected composers in their own right and riveting improvisors no matter the session date. Together, the three had cut a classic Thelonious Monk album, Brilliant Corners, and also an energetic Kenny Dorham date. But when the session at WOR Recording Studios started, Rollins wasn’t there. And when he did arrive hours later, as Keepnews wrote years later, the saxophonist was “impatient and unsettled…we had to deal with an unusual number of false starts and abruptly interrupted takes.”

The trio laid down some standards that day, two of them taken in waltz time. As was his knack, Rollins wrings new pathos from boilerplate like Noel Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You” and The Music Man’s “Til There Was You” (which was tackled six years later on the Beatles’ first album). Roach and Rollins readily slot back into a dynamic they honed after years of cutting sessions uptown and playing together with trumpeter Clifford Brown, as when the two race together on a lively read of the Tommy Dorsey hit “Will You Still Be Mine.”

But as Orrin Keepnews recalled, it was a fairly standard — perhaps even substandard — session. His recording sheets list an “untitled original” that clocks in under eight minutes, but there was “no distinct reference… to the extended work that would become the focal point and title number of the album.” Frustrated with how that day of work had gone, Keepnews bowed out from the attendant session that yielded the title track.

Just how the sprawling, jaw-dropping “Freedom Suite” came to be in the world has few witnesses. While the initial session lurched in fits and starts, when they reconvened nearly a month later in March, Rollins-Pettiford-Roach were fully locked in and telepathic. Played through without interruption across four distinct sections full of tempo changes and pivots, it stretches well beyond 19 minutes, moving from brisk jaunt to cooled-out balladry, contemplative blues forms to sinewy bass-drums workouts before flipping back to fiery bop. Built from a chirrupy, needling, dead-simple melody that verges on playground chant or street vendor call, Rollins continually disassembles the chords and rearranges them into new forms on the fly as Pettiford and Roach provide supple, crackling accompaniment.

The trio make each block of the “Suite” similar yet wholly distinct, as if strolling freely through Harlem. It’s a raucous jam at Minton’s and down and out in A. Philip Randolph Square, as busy as 125th Street at noon and hushed as Strivers Row in the wee hours. Pettiford’s solo at the 11-minute mark is lyrical and provident, the resonant center of the ballad section, the very heart of the “Suite.” But just about any occasion for the bassist and Roach to interact sizzles with polyrhythmic play, lowering the pulse almost all the way down to the asphalt before snapping back into brisk alignment, as when they leap from that smoky ballad into the song’s furious final act. Brilliant as Rollins is throughout, savor the times when he lays out and the other two band members converse. Roach and Pettiford shadow and buoy Rollins as he embodies this wide array of moods, vagaries, and emotional states.

The album served as a template for how jazz musicians could relay black consciousness in their music, and soon after Rollins’ peers gave voice to their own anger, resentment, despair, and exasperation. Within the year, Charles Mingus’ would bark out the racist and fascistic notions of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus with “Fables Of Faubus.” Though Columbia balked at that original set of lyrics, and it was over a year later that the hilarious vocal evisceration of the governor could be heard in full on Presents Charles Mingus.

Roach himself soon set about with his own form of protest. Working with lyricist Oscar Brown Jr., sax legend Coleman Hawkins, and Roach’s new girlfriend, supper-club singer Abbey Lincoln, they cut We Insist! Freedom Now Suite two years on. He and Lincoln soon turned their attention to her own self-righteous pronouncement, 1961’s Straight Ahead, marking a sea change for many musicians and singers, the end of African-American musicians as merely being entertainers to the status quo.

It also marked a divergence between these two bop titans. Rollins and Roach enjoyed a fertile time playing together, but Freedom Suite was a split in the road for the two. No doubt Rollins was irked to have his drummer lift the title for his own neglected Suite, but Rollins was known for being especially demanding of his drummers. Whatever transpired that day at WOR Recording Studio ultimately ended their professional relationship. Roach’s music in the civil rights era became more militant, angrier (the climax of Freedom Now Suite is Lincoln’s full-throated roar). And the fiery jazz to come in the ’60s aligns with that approach. At the heart of the matter was a different approach to the problem of being black in America. Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. themselves disagreed on the other’s route, and so it went for Rollins and Roach.

Freedom Suite sounds like the path not taken. He himself never approached such an ambitious composition or recording again. (As he confessed to Keepnews, “all recording is a traumatic experience.”) He had two more recording sessions later that year, before dropping out of the jazz scene completely for the next three years. Rewarded with inhumanity in American society at large, where anger might seem like the most readily accessible reaction, Sonny Rollins instead chose to go high. Embracing Walt Whitman’s “multitudes” as well as Langston Hughes’ “I, too,” Freedom Suite proudly proclaims his freedom to be black and human.

Andy Beta

Andy Beta has been writing about music for many years, covering everything from the sacred music of Alice Coltrane and to the rise of AI in pop, to the Tropicália revolution and Japanese minimalism. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Pitchfork, Texas Monthly, Bandcamp, and New York Magazine.

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