The last time saxophonist Sonny Rollins played Jazz Fest, closing out the Jazz Tent in 1995, his performance resulted in a milestone moment. Russ Cole, a veteran sound engineer and long-time production manager for the British guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson, remembered it this way: "Easily one of the greatest sets I have ever witnessed. Wildly ecstatic playing and an incredible audience. I thought I might spontaneously combust while I was dancing!"
In an interview with jazz writer Chip Stern in 1996, Rollins said, "There's something that I'm just getting to now, ever since I played at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last year. During that performance, this just came to me, an expansion on the normal rhythms that bridge the jazz attitude with the rhythms of Congo Square. And since then, I've been working on it a little bit each time I play. Hopefully, it won't be long before I break through to something new in that area."
When I spoke with him recently at his retreat in upstate New York, Rollins still remembered that day fondly. He chose "St. Thomas" to close the set, and the song's calypso vibe, based on a folk tune from his family's native West Indies, seemed to connect with the Caribbean spirit that's part of New Orleans. "It was like I was getting in touch with my ancestors," Rollins says. "And then I was getting that back from the audience."
One of the most lauded jazz musicians of the modern era, Rollins' career dates back to the dawn of bebop, when he came of age playing beside greats like Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
In March, he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts at a ceremony at the White House.
Many critics have categorized Rollins' standing in the history of jazz based on his recordings. In the course of the 1950s and '60s, he made dozens of groundbreaking albums, many of them classics in the jazz canon. But since then, his primary focus has been on live performance and expanding the jazz palette to include easygoing rhythms and popular tunes, taking a more laid-back approach to jazz orthodoxy and commercial success.
Rollins' deepest musical roots go back to a sound that has a lot in common with New Orleans' music. When he was very young, his grandmother took him to storefront Sanctified churches in Harlem to hear gospel music. And he first played professionally in a dance band, idolizing Louis Jordan, a purveyor of early rhythm and blues whose popular jump-jazz anthem "Saturday Night Fish Fry" is set in New Orleans.
He recently performed at a benefit for a hospital in upstate New York. "This one lady got up, and she just started dancing like crazy," Rollins says. "Then everybody got up and started dancing. It just made me feel so good, because that's how I grew up, playing for dances. In fact, whenever somebody comes up to me and says, 'Sonny, I really don't like jazz that much, but I really like you' — well, that just makes me feel so great."