Biographer Aidan Levy puts the spotlight on jazz great Sonny Rollins

Seven years in the making, the book is Levy’s second published biography and the first to examine Rollins, the legendary tenor saxophonist and composer, with such granularity

When the author Aidan Levy bought his first jazz album at the age of 11 in the late 1990s, he had no inkling that Sonny Rollins’ breakout 1957 masterpiece, Saxophone Colossus, would set him on a uniquely fortuitous path — the product of which is a major new biography, Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins, released last month to critical acclaim.

Seven years in the making, the meticulously researched and exhaustively plotted book is Levy’s second published biography and the first to examine Rollins, the legendary tenor saxophonist and composer, with such granularity, including detailed accounts of his many celebrated recordings, ecstatic live performances and fabled practice regimens.

The biography, at 772 pages, hinges on extensive archival research as well as hundreds of interviews with close associates and family members of Rollins, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest improvisers in jazz.

Now 92, Rollins last performed in 2012 and stopped playing the saxophone altogether eight years ago as a result of pulmonary fibrosis. But Levy said he was helpful with the book’s creation and personally approved the idea from the beginning, even as he has still not read it in full. 

“He had a copy of the manuscript, but he was reluctant to read the whole thing,” Levy, 36, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “It sounded like it might be too uncomfortable to read a book that details your life with all the minutiae — that it might be like, for Sonny, listening to playback from his recordings, which is something he never liked to do.”

The musician who recorded with Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach and other jazz luminaries has long resisted looking back on his own music, according to Levy. “He was always looking to the next gig,” Levy said. “He’s still looking to the next gig, in a sense, and has had just a lifelong quest to improve.”

Levy, who published a biography of Lou Reed in 2015, lives in Lancaster, Pa., and is now teaching a class on jazz and fiction at Columbia University, where he recently completed his doctorate in English and comparative literature. His new book, published by Hachette, was longlisted on Friday for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, which is given to a “biography of exceptional literary, narrative and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research,” according to the announcement.

Speaking with JI, Levy discussed the painstaking process of writing a biography worthy of its subject and gave insight into some of the lesser-known aspects of Rollins’ artistry, including an apparent interest, detailed in his journals, in the connection between the saxophone and the shofar, or Jewish ram’s horn, as well as a one-off recording with Leonard Cohen captured on video in 1989, among other things.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: Have you always been a fan of Sonny Rollins? 

Aidan Levy: As a young saxophone player, Sonny Rollins was an early inspiration. When I was about 11 years old, I went to a record store to buy my first jazz CD. I picked up Saxophone Colossus, and listening to Sonny play “You Don’t Know What Love Is” immediately set a standard for what I hoped to do on the saxophone, although having heard that, I already suspected that I may never get there. 

JI: Well, that is certainly a high standard.

Levy: Of course, Sonny himself, as it turned out, tried to reach his own impossible standards, so it’s always been nice to have him as a model for what one could do through improvised solo.

JI: How did the idea for this book come about, and how did you begin to put it together? It seems like it was a massive undertaking. 

Levy: Around 2012, I was writing editorial content for Blue Note Records, and I ended up doing this interview with Sonny Rollins that was pitched around the 55th anniversary of his album “Newk’s Time” — “Newk” is one of his nicknames. To connect with Sonny then for an hour or so was so inspiring that I started looking deeper into his life and music. I read every book that was out there on Sonny and saw some documentaries, and I got so much out of that experience but I still wanted to know more. I thought at one point maybe I would try to work on a biography myself, and after I finished my first book, Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed, I thought about working on a book on Sonny. 

I applied for a fellowship at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center, and at the time, the esteemed jazz critic and historian Gary Giddens was the director. I didn’t expect to get the fellowship, and when Gary called me in the spring of 2016, I almost had a heart attack. I was so ecstatic to hear this news, and at that moment, I realized I would write this book. Prior to applying for the fellowship, I contacted Sonny to see if he would allow me to work on the book, and to my surprise, he said “OK.” I didn’t want to move forward with it unless I knew that he would not object.

JI: It sounds like it was important for you to have Sonny’s approval out of respect for his wishes, but from a research perspective, it was probably extremely useful to have access to him for interviews as well.

Levy: Right. And when I started the book, I wasn’t sure how many conversations we’d be able to have. But as it turned out, over time, he was able to answer many questions, and then after I turned in the first draft of the manuscript, we actually talked through the entire book together. He had a copy of the manuscript, but he was reluctant to read the whole thing. It sounded like it might be too uncomfortable to read a book that details your life with all the minutiae — that it might be like, for Sonny, listening to playback from his recordings, which is something he never liked to do. So we talked through the whole book after I completed the manuscript, and I was able to make additions based on that.

JI: Did you meet him in person?

Levy: No, a lot of the material I had for the book was put together during the pandemic, so it just precluded that.

JI: Have you ever met him in person?

Levy: No.

JI: Do you think he would have been resistant to doing an interview in person? I know he’s done them before at his home.

Levy: He doesn’t really do in-person interviews anymore.

JI: I interviewed Sonny just once, on the phone, in 2015, for a story about the 80th anniversary of the Village Vanguard, the storied New York City jazz club where he made some of his most memorable recordings. He gave me an amusing detail about a cook who used to work there named Elton, who “made the greatest hamburgers in the world.” I found Sonny to be very thoughtful and deliberate, even for the brief conversation we had. How would you describe your own interactions with him?

Levy: I would say that Sonny’s a very caring and compassionate person. Very generous and thoughtful. It was great to be able to speak with him.

JI: As his fans are keenly aware, Sonny has not been able to play the saxophone for the past eight years as a result of pulmonary fibrosis. What is he up to now that he’s stopped playing?

Levy: He’s starting a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the golden rule and living by the golden rule — and particularly, he’s focusing on spreading that approach to life to other musicians. So he’s been studying Vedanta and other spiritual traditions and has really settled on the golden rule as a way to kind of synthesize everything that he’s found in a variety of religious traditions. That nonprofit, I believe, is something that he’s very passionate about.

JI: Can you describe the research process for this book? The endnotes are quite extensive, and you seem to have done a broad range of interviews and sifted through a lot of archival material.

Levy: The book was based on interviews with Sonny and more than 200 other people who worked with him, friends of his, family members and other folks who I connected with over a period of years. I was able to speak with people like Randy Weston, the great conguero Cándido Camero, Sheila Jordan, his nephew Clifton Anderson, a drummer of his who worked with him for a while, David Lee. I could go on and on and on. 

But I also did archival research, first and foremost, in the Sonny Rollins collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, just a couple of blocks from where Sonny was born. The collection there is truly extensive, and it goes all the way back to the ’50s. Sonny just saved so much material there, and this includes writings, correspondence, business records and practice notes. It turns out that Sonny was a prolific writer, and a prolific letter-writer, and most of this material was unpublished. He also kept track of what he was working on, musically, on music manuscript paper, and he would write out exercises for himself that he worked on, really, every day when he went out to practice. I also conducted archival research at the Max Roach collection at the Library of Congress, the National Library of Norway, in Oslo, Jazzinstitut Darmstadt in Darmstadt, Germany, and many other places. 

Finally, I had access to the collection of an archivist named Carl Smith, who co-founded a high-end audio company in Maine called Transparent Audio, and Carl has amassed an enormous collection of Sonny Rollins’ live tapes going back to the first known recording of Sonny in 1950 in Chicago, and there are hundreds of tapes in that collection totaling probably thousands of hours. To be able to document Sonny’s life in a book like this, I felt it was important to listen to as many live recordings of him as I could find, and Carl Smith’s collection was just staggering in its scope

The project became the challenge of synthesizing all this material and also drawing from the thousands of articles that had been written about Sonny and interviews he had done over the course of his career, and just to take all of that and present it as a cohesive narrative of the life of one of the greatest musicians in the 20th century.

JI: Did you have any sort of model in mind for the book? Robin Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk seems similarly exhaustive and ambitiously plotted.

Levy: Robin Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk was definitely an inspiration, as well as Lewis Porter’s biography of John Coltrane. I also love Ben Ratliff’s biography of Coltrane. I got a lot out of many of the books that have been written about Billie Holiday by scholars such as Farah Jasmine Griffin and John Szwed. There are some others, as well as many of the memoirs. I should also mention Stanley Crouch’s book on Charlie Parker.

JI: Do you have any favorite jazz writers or critics? Who did you read when you were starting out in the field?

Levy: Let’s see, Amiri Baraka and Blues People. I read Whitney Balliett. I drew a lot of inspiration from Robert O’Meally’s anthology The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. Dan Morgenstern is influential. Val Wilmer. There are so many people I could name. 

JI: It’s always struck me that there is a preponderance of jazz critics who are Jewish as well as Jewish jazz producers and impresarios and musicians, among others. Do you have any insights into the connection between Jewish identity, or Jewish culture, and jazz?

Levy: There is that connection there. I mean, one thing I can point out is that klezmer music provides space for improvisation, and I’ve always been drawn to John Zorn’s exploration of what he terms “radical Jewish culture” and his various groups in the Masada universe. But what exactly it is that has drawn so many Jewish people to jazz is not something that I can give you a definitive answer for. There’s definitely that legacy there, and in this book there are a number of Jewish characters who make appearances throughout — people like Bob Weinstock and Ira Gitler. Weinstock founded Prestige Records, and Gitler worked with him. Teddy Reig. Nat Hentoff, of course, who was very critical of Sonny Rollins when he first came onto the scene but was gradually won over and became an ardent supporter of Rollins.

JI: The live, televised collaboration between Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins that you mention in the book seems like a unique and unexpected partnership — more so, even, than the time Sonny recorded with The Rolling Stones. Can you provide some of the backstory there?

Levy: That was in 1989. They met on a television program called “Night Music,” which was hosted by David Sanborn and, I believe, Jools Holland. The music director for that program was Hal Willner, who for ages was the music director at “Saturday Night Live,” and Willner put together these tribute compilations where he would have unexpected pairings. For example, he would have Lou Reed doing Kurt Weill. On this show, he did something similar, so one of his ideas was to pair Sonny Rollins with Leonard Cohen. He thought maybe they could do Cohen’s song “Who By Fire,” which is an interpretation of the “Unetanneh Tokef.” 

They were not familiar with each other, they’d never met, and, as I understand it, they never even spoke. They only spoke through the music. It turned out that, according to Willner, this was maybe the greatest collaboration he produced on the show. They both had a shared spirituality, and I know from talking to Sonny that he felt the spiritual connection in that performance, because the solo that he plays is just beautiful, and I believe Leonard Cohen was elated by the results. You can kind of see it when you watch the recording. I make a ritual of watching that every year on Yom Kippur.

JI: Sounds like a worthwhile tradition. 

Levy: It’s really just one of these magic moments, and fortunately it’s available to us. When you listen to Sonny’s solo, you can even hear him playing a little bit of the harmonic minor scale that’s so common in klezmer music and in the liturgy. 

JI: There’s a detail in the book where you write about Sonny, in a journal entry, “noted the similarities between the saxophone neck and the shofar, ‘or ram’s horn, of ancient times.’” That’s an interesting comparison for him to have drawn.

Levy: I never asked him if he actually blew a shofar. But Sonny is interested in the history of instruments, and I found in his archive, actually, an illustration of a shofar. I think of him as in this grand tradition of prophets going back to Joshua at Jericho, in a sense, and I think that there was even some reflection on that accompanying this illustration. That’s how I made that connection to the idea of taking the neck and mouthpiece piece off and playing that way. This is something that he does on, I believe, “Now’s the Time.” You can hear that. It’s also something that he does in a kind of different context, briefly, on “East Broadway Rundown.”

JI: Your experience as a jazz saxophonist must have been particularly useful while you were writing this book. Can you tell me about how you got into jazz more broadly and ultimately transitioned to writing about it professionally?

Levy: I grew up in a town that has a communal passion for jazz, and the town is West Hartford, Conn. There’s a jazz program at Hall High School, which is a public high school, that has fostered generations of jazz talent. This guy named Bill Stanley started this program at the high school I went to, and Hartford has always been a jazz-loving town. There was always the Hartford Jazz Festival every year that I would attend in Bushnell Park. When I went to school, we had people who had gone there years before I went, like Brad Mehldau and Joel Frahm and the saxophonists Kris Allen and Erica von Kleist, Drew Sayers. My year, there was another saxophone player in the jazz band with me named Noah Preminger.

I also started writing about music all the way back then in high school or so. I did it a little bit in college and, afterwards, began writing about music in addition to performing it. I moved to New York in 2008, and shortly thereafter I joined a big band in New York called the Stan Rubin Orchestra. Stan — who, incidentally, is a Jewish bandleader and clarinetist — started the band in about 1955 when he was a student at Princeton University. His band the Tigertown Five performed at Grace Kelly’s wedding in Monaco. Stan would make these records with Milt Hinton and people like that, but he kept the band going through all those years, so I joined right after I moved to New York, and then I started writing articles about jazz for The Village Voice and JazzTimes and some other publications.

JI: Do you have a favorite period or favorite album by Sonny, having listened, I assume, to his corpus many times over?

Levy: I don’t have a favorite period, but I do love “A Night at the Village Vanguard.” Sonny was known for playing without a chordal instrument, although sometimes he used a piano or a guitar, and “A Night at the Village Vanguard” features the bassist Wilbur Ware and the drummer Elvin Jones in addition to a separate group with the drummer Pete La Roca and the bassist Donald Bailey, not to be confused with the drummer Donald Bailey. I think it exemplifies everything that jazz can be. There was no set list; it was entirely unplanned; Sonny was just calling tunes and expected that Wilbur Ware would know them all — and he did. I just love that entire album.

JI: Do you have any thoughts on why Sonny is the way that he is? Why is he so self-conscious, for example, and as you mentioned, about not wanting to listen back to his music? 

Levy: He’s always been a perfectionist, so when he listens to a recording of himself he hears everything that he hopes to improve on for the next performance, and it becomes a painful experience. In one interview that he did, he said that listening to himself is “like Abu Ghraib.” Obviously that’s an exaggeration, but it was a painful experience for him. He was always looking to the next gig. He’s still looking to the next gig, in a sense, and has had just a lifelong quest to improve. Even when people thought that nobody could ever do better, Sonny still was always looking to the next frontier.

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