Sonny: Mythic musician, noisy neighbour

The Williamsburg Bridge. Pic: Tyrael 28

The Williamsburg Bridge.
Pic: Tyrael 28

A saxophone player stands and plays for hours on a bridge – the sky above, the Hudson river below. It’s 1959, it’s New York City and the musician is Sonny Rollins.

For weeks he’s been walking to the Williamsburg Bridge from his apartment on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan. Once he arrives at his chosen spot he stands and practices, often for hours. Sometimes he brings friends, more often he’s alone. Usually he spends hours blowing, choosing to play on the bridge rather than in the city clubs.

Three years later Sonny Rollins returns to the jazz scene, releasing an album inspired by (though sadly not recorded on) the bridge – and named after it.

What did Rollins find during those 15 hour days he spent alone over the Hudson River? Whatever it was, it led him back to the music scene that he had stepped away from, frustrated by his self-perceived limitations. His album The Bridge would be acclaimed by fans and critics.

"Sonny

Popular culture, for its part, found something else – a ready-made mythic image, the lone saxophone player practicing over the city, a mid-century outsider urban seer. Rollins’ legend slipped easily into the musical culture of the time – the artist exiling himself to find his muse.

There are echoes of the same story in Bob Dylan’s retreat to Woodstock, or Robert Johnson’s disappearing for six months and meeting the Devil at a crossroads, returning with a new take on the blues.

But every myth has its roots in the everyday and Rollins’ is no different. He first set foot on the Williamsburg Bridge by accident, while rambling around the neighbourhood where he lived with his wife, Lucille. And he returned there not to seek the muse, but rather to avoid annoying his neighbours.

“The problem was that I had no place to practice. My neighbor on Grand Street was the drummer Frankie Dunlop, and his wife was pregnant. The horn I’m playing, it’s loud. I felt really guilty,” he later recalled.

As for his return from the bridge – after two years of daily practice there –  the reality was less revelation and more, well, perspiration.

“I could have just stayed up there forever. But Lucille was supporting us, and I had to go back to work.”

And so pregnancy and the daily grind led to a quintessential jazz myth. The next time I listen to The Bridge I should think of Sonny Rollins’ neighbour and his hardworking spouse – the real reasons he walked on to the Williamsburg Bridge one day in 1959.

But the myth sounds better. As does the music.

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