There’s a campaign afoot—a bill was recently introduced in the New York City Council—to rename the Williamsburg Bridge after the jazz musician Sonny Rollins. Most efforts to monumentalize a notable figure are lame and, even if successful, go ignored. Nearly a decade ago, the Triborough Bridge was rechristened the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, but no one calls it that because RFK had nothing to do with the bridge or that part of town. He was barely a New Yorker.
The Sonny Rollins Bridge, though—that would be something else. The renaming would resonate with the man, the site, and a vibrant slice of the culture of the city.
It also has a great backstory: the stuff of mythic lore, but true. In the summer of 1959, Rollins—28 years old, at the peak of his career, the greatest jazz improviser alive, the “Saxophone Colossus,” he was called—dropped out of the scene: simply disappeared.
One evening in 1961, a writer named Ralph Berton was walking on the bridge, from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to his home in Brooklyn, when he spotted Rollins, all alone, playing his tenor saxophone. Berton wrote a story about the encounter in Metronome magazine. He fictionalized it a bit—calling the vanished sax legend “Buster Jones”—but most readers knew he was writing about Sonny.
It turned out, as Berton discovered when he later knocked on his door to ask questions, that Rollins had been playing his horn on the bridge almost every day for the previous two years. Rollins and his wife Lucille had moved from Harlem to an apartment downtown. He didn’t want to bother neighbors with his playing. One day, he noticed a walkway on the Williamsburg Bridge just a couple blocks away. It was almost always deserted. So he made it his special spot for practicing.
Rollins was, and remains to this day, his harshest critic. He winces when he listens to most of his recordings, hearing in even his most sublime solos only the notes he missed or the phrases he bypassed, which he’s certain would have led him closer to the perfection he always seeks. In 1959, he felt himself drifting further from the ideal sound he sought, and he sensed the audience drifting, too.
Jazz was going through great changes. Miles Davis, his contemporary and fellow former acolyte of Charlie Parker, was exploring a new kind of jazz improvisation, more limber and moody, based on scales instead of chords. John Coltrane, his fellow tenor sax man and close friend (though the jazz press portrayed them as rivals), was scouring every crevice of harmony for some untapped spirit and doing so with mind-ripping speed and energy. Ornette Coleman was toppling structures altogether. Not just jazz fans but cultural mavens of all sorts were flocking to hear these musicians and their “new thing,” as the era’s innovations were labeled by promoters, and Rollins felt flustered that he didn’t have one.
So he took his horn to the bridge and spent endless hours blowing scales, arpeggios, extended chords, phrases from exercise books, variations of whole songs, seeking some new thing of his own, against the sounds of cars, seagulls, and tugboats zooming, flying, and sailing around him.
The Metronome article sparked a sensation and helped bring Rollins off the bridge. For one thing, jazz fans were starting to prowl the bridge in search of the vanished master. His days of privacy were over. For another, it was getting hard to live on his wife’s secretarial salary alone. So Rollins came back to the scene, and the major record labels came calling. RCA offered him a $90,000 contract (equivalent to $750,000 in today’s dollars), the largest advance ever awarded a jazz musician, on the condition that he call his next album The Bridge.
Rollins’ albums before all this were adventurous, but The Bridge, released in 1962, possessed a new, restless urgency: fierce tones, fragments of melodies, blown in staggered cadences with abrupt shifts of tempo. Yet compared with the rocket flares his peers were sending up (Davis’ Kind of Blue, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come), The Bridge—which consisted mainly of standards and ballads—seemed a bit old hat.
So Rollins pushed further, soon recording a live album (Our Man in Jazz) with two members of Ornette’s quartet, then another (Now’s the Time) with some of Miles’ new bandmates, then a still more radical album (East Broadway Run Down, on the indie Impulse! label) with Coltrane’s quartet. Except for The Bridge, none of these albums made much money. RCA dropped him after two and a half years, and his stint with Impulse! was short-lived as well. Yet those years—1962–66—are now widely viewed as his most vital and creative: a period of relentless experimentation and reinvention.
On his best nights, which have amounted to hundreds of nights in the decades since (not least at his 80th-birthday concert at the Beacon in 2010, which is captured on Road Shows, Vol. 2), Rollins has plowed songs with new paths for chorus after chorus, no two alike, exploring every avenue that a chord or melody might open up—then, just as you think he’s exhausted them all, he darts into some uncharted alley and invents a new way of playing music, never losing grip on the pulse, swing, shape, and above all the joy of a song.
It was this time on the bridge that set the bar and the pace for the adventures to come, and this is why the bridge should be renamed for Sonny Rollins, who is very much alive at the age of 87—not just for what it means to the history of jazz (an admittedly esoteric field) but for what it could, and should, mean to the vast variety of artists and art lovers in New York.
So many aspiring writers, painters, actors, dancers, designers, and musicians come to this city to trace the steps of their predecessors and test their own talents in the hothouse dens and temples of culture where they and their competitors and collaborators strive to find their voice and make their mark.
To these artists and their audiences, the vision of Sonny Rollins shedding on the bridge day after day, year after year, deferring (in his case, abandoning) fame and luster until he got it right, could be a stirring monument. The Statue of Liberty, within sight of where Rollins stood those days, bears the famous welcome of Emma Lazarus’ poem (which was titled “The New Colossus”): “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The Sonny Rollins Bridge (named for the Saxophone Colossus) might inspire those yearning to study and work tirelessly as artists.