Interview with Sonny Rollins, Musical and Spiritual Autodidact

When I first spoke with jazz saxophone legend Sonny Rollins in May 2011, interviewing him in advance of a concert in Newark, I remember being struck by the combination of confident dedication and playful curiosity in his approach to music and life. At the time, he hinted at a relationship between these traits and a deepening interest in Buddhism and yoga, which he seemed to connect to his developing sense of himself as an artist in the twilight of his career. So when he began conducting press interviews to promote his new album, Road Shows, Vol. 4: Holding the Stage, I reached out to see if he would be interested in discussing his process of integrating Buddhism and spirituality into his life. Through his publicist, he responded affirmatively; this conversation, which took place over the phone from our respective locations in Chile and upstate New York, is what transpired. In the spirit of what Sherry Ortner has called an "ethnographic stance," I have reproduced the entire 45-minute interview in the transcript below, with very light editing for clarity.1 In this conversation, Rollins tells of his initial forays into spiritual practices, his fondness for Buddhist teachings and iconography, his thoughts about death and dying, and his sense of ethical imperatives for young artists and spiritual practitioners. My questions are printed in bold, with his responses following in plain text. See the following video for a preview of the album, out now from Doxy Records and Okeh Records:

The last time we spoke was five years ago when I worked for The Newark Star-Ledger before you played a show in Newark. I remember you letting on a little bit that this was becoming a more active part of your life, thinking about yoga and the spiritual practices and exercises that you’re doing. I’d love it if you can tell me a little bit more about that part of your life and how that has grown recently.

Yeah, that is what was happening, and it has become more a part of my life. With my acquaintances and friends that I talk to, the conversation always seems to go in a spiritual area. This is all that I’m interested in talking about, really. As you know, I have had a little health problem and so I haven’t been able to perform. That presented me with a crisis of sorts in my life. Of course I have always had a strong feeling from my childhood that there was a higher self within me—or conscience if you would. That’s always been within me, and it has been expressed in later years in my interest in various religious practices. I’ve refined that down to yoga and Buddhism as the two that speak to me.

Let’s talk a little bit about the path that brought you to that point with Buddhism. I know you’ve mentioned that you first were exposed to those ideas in the 1950s. Can you tell that story of how that came on your radar?

In my own life, as I told you, I’ve always had an inner feeling of this spirituality, of this spiritual world. I used to investigate the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians are sort of a metaphysical group who claimed to have their origins back in Egyptian times. At any rate, they used to advertise in popular magazines of the day—and I remember Woody Allen, the comedian, in one of his movies, was telling his girlfriend, “Well, I wouldn’t believe in anything that I could read in the back of a popular magazine, an advertisement …” So I was in the Rosicrucians for awhile, I attended some of their meetings. It was very interesting, I read a lot of their books and their lessons and so on. It was an interesting introduction to metaphysics. And then as time went on, I began to get into yoga, and Buddhism was somewhat always there—even before I started doing any practicing of Buddhism, I never did any Buddhist classes or studied Tibetan Buddhism or other kinds of Buddhism—I always felt this strong spiritual emotional tie to Buddhism. And of course when I was in Japan I did visit some Zen Buddhist monasteries.

That was the first time you went to Japan [in 1963]?

SR: Yeah, when I first went to Japan I was very interested, and I had someone take me around to the Buddhist temples. I visited some of the Zen Buddhist places, where people were studying Zen. So I did have some formal introduction to Zen Buddhism at that time. Back in those days, in the 60s, I had a bust of a Buddha, I think it was about a foot tall, or a little larger. I used to carry that around with me—it was big, and I had it in my home.

How did you come by that?

Around that time, several of these statuaries were available in shops in and around New York, so I bought one. But I saw them in other shops, maybe around Greenwich Village, places like that. Anyway, I was very intrigued and I bought this statuary which of course I still have. I’ve had it from that time—it’s still sitting in my bookshelf here. At any rate, I’ve been told by some people that practice Buddhism that this was a Bodhi Vista or something technical, that this was not a depiction of the Buddha.

A Bodhisattva?

Yeah, maybe. You see, this is the thing about me: You’re asking me about Buddhism but I never studied it and practiced it in classes. I have friends that do, and they talk about the scriptures and this and that. But most of my interest in these things have come out of an intuitive feeling about things.

That makes a lot of sense and reminds me of something else I want to ask you about. I’ve noticed, especially on this new album, Holding the Stage, there are a lot more overt references to the blues. I get the sense of that intuition you’re describing in terms of your developing relationship with spirituality, and I hear something similar in these recent performances. I’m curious: has there been a similar path for you in music? Has that same intuition guided your music over time?

That would definitely apply to me. I wouldn’t say I’m quite completely self-taught, but I’m very much of a self-taught musician. It’s all about intuition with me. As I said, when I was very young, I always felt the presence of a higher self within me, something akin to conscience. That has been strongly within me all my life. Anything that I do really comes from that place—it comes from a very deep, inner place. My music would reflect that as well. And I’ll add that there’s always a mixture of the outer and the inner. There are outer things and then there are inner things. The inner aspect of all my endeavors has always been predominant, and this might be what you discern in my music.

You’re not the only person in this tradition—African American music in the 20th century, jazz, whatever we want to call it—who, especially as you get older, are connecting with this spiritual way of talking about music. I’m curious if you saw the Open Letter to Young Artists that your colleagues Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter sent out to the world a couple of months ago—are you familiar with it?

No, I’m not familiar with that.

What you’re saying resonates a lot with what they write in this letter, which is encouraging young artists to embrace their humanity. Do you have any ways that you might orient musicians who are just starting on their path today? I’m 31 years old, so people my age and younger—are there some things you can share that might be helpful to orient the generation that’s coming forward?

Well, that’s a very complicated question. There’s no doubt that the field of music, or the world of music, is something which entails a lot of the unknown, the unseen, the inner rather than the outer. Also, being a Buddhist, and believing in reincarnation, I also believe that sooner or later we will all have to get to the truth of life, the spiritual aspect of life. All of us, either in this life, or another life. That’s what karma is, we have to live and make mistakes, and go through life that way. And then this life is over, and the next life, and the next life, and so on and so forth. But we’re all going towards the light in our many lives. So I don’t know where many young musicians might be in their karmic evolution, and some people might feel that more than others. But I would say to young musicians, as well as to everybody, that it’s important that they live by certain principles. I think the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a primary one; in my life I’ve tried to get the understanding of that, and the importance of that—and why you cannot abrogate that. That’s what I feel is a universal law, just like much of the Buddhist teachings. These are universal truths, there’s no way you can avoid it. And just as with karma: if you steal, say, from somebody, or you hurt somebody in this life, you will have to come back at some time in some way and account for that, either in this life or another life. I’ve always had that belief, but it had to be nurtured, I had to learn how it worked out in the outer life, but I had to live my life and see how it affected me as an individual. So for young musicians, it would be good if they tried to live by those practices, because that’s what everybody should do. Naturally, of course it would help their music, because it would make them a more centered person. And music, as we know, is such a pure thing that if you approach it with these principles, it’s got to be good!

Now why I say this is complicated is because music is there, but music is sort of neutral in many ways, I believe. You can have music that makes people want to go to war. You can have music that makes people want to make love. You can have music that makes people want to meditate. Music is neutral, music is there. It’s up to the person how they approach music, what they want to get out of it. What you want to get out of it has to do with your understanding of these universal Buddhist principles. So in a way, it’s a little tricky how to get the two in sync, if you know what I mean.

Yes, I’ll say! That’s really helpful; thank you. You talked a little bit about karma and reincarnation, and that’s something that has been on a lot of people’s minds, especially just this past couple of days with the passing of Prince. This past year, we’ve seen so many great, spiritual musicians make their transition in this life—starting with Ornette Coleman just under a year ago, Maurice White, David Bowie. That’s been something that has been on my mind a lot, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about how that has been arising for you as you start to contemplate death. I know a lot of us—certainly me—are always avoiding the conversation about that, but you’re someone who is bravely addressing this in a public way right now, and I’m curious if you have any thoughts.

When we talk about life and death and all of these things: purportedly no one knows what happens after you die, so this is always a big question mark to everybody, “Gee, what happens after I die, we die, is this it?” There’s a lot of spiritual writings about that, and in many ways you can say, “nobody knows, so what good is any advice because nobody knows, so what’s the worth of hearing somebody talk about that?” I can only talk about my own experiences—as we all are individuals, we have to matriculate through life and get our own information, clean up our own karma individually. As an individual, what I’ve felt about the death thing is that even before I was really deeply into studying these things, it was always not as much as it was cracked up to be.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other night, and they asked me about when I was a small boy growing up. My family, we had a cat—a Persian cat, a beautiful cat, her name was Beauty. And I remember when Beauty got sick and transitioned my sister was very upset, and the cat was very sick. And I was, she thought, too anxious to have the cat transition, to put it out of her misery, so to speak. My sister was very much, “oh, no, no, we can’t do that, we can’t do that.” As I look back on that, I had a not-so-tragic view of life and death. It’s very interesting—all through life, that might have been part of that deeper understanding that I had from very early on, when I realized that there was a higher self residing within me. That seems to be how I approach death.

Of course, my Buddhism and the practices, some of my yoga teachings, and so on, have reinforced that. The whole belief in reincarnation is part of that: there’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s nothing to be afraid of. And let me speak about myself here, so I don’t sound like I’m preaching to other people—there’s a lot that I have to learn, that I am learning, every day as I go through my journey here on Earth. And it has to do with being able to understand, as much as possible, this death experience. Now, I can tell you that there are a couple of experiences that I’ve had personally in my life which have substantiated my way of thinking, and also have given me reason to believe that I’m on the right wavelength of thinking when it comes to life and death: that there is no real Death, we’re just transitioning to someplace else, another body, another set of experiences we have to go through before we get to that deep understanding. And Buddha, of course, through his life has been such an inspiration. That’s what it’s all about: trying to get that wisdom, that wisdom, so that this particular life is not that important insofar as death, and life. What’s important is how we’re living our short lives. We have to realize that life is short, we’re not going to live as long as we can see here forever anyways, so what’s the point of feeling afraid? That’s another thing that I’m beginning to understand: there’s nothing to be afraid of in the universe. The universe is good. We just have to understand where we fit into it, and why things happen as they do. I might break my ankle, or get a disease, cancer, whatever—bad things that happen to people are happening for a reason. It’s a grand reason, it’s a grand picture here. We have to think like that, understand that there’s nothing random that happens in this world.

In the Bible they say, “We reap what we sow”—same thing. In all these religions, you’ll find there’s one truth which permeates each and every religion: one truth. And this is the same, so when we think about death, we’re thinking about it in a very small way when people are worried about death and all. What they have to worry about is how they’re living their lives, now. We only have now, as far as we know. We don’t have after-death, we don’t have anything—all we have is this moment, and this is our chance to live in which we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, you know, these principles. That’s what we have: we have now. So therefore, the more you get into that, you should understand that death is something which is not a reality. Death is not a reality. Death is not something to despair about. The reality of death is that it happens, and this is in the outer world. If I fall down and break my foot, well this is the outer world and I’ve got to deal with it, but that’s not the inner world, that’s the outer world, you see?

It sounds like you’ve really learned how to cultivate confidence in that inner world.

Right, that’s what I’m hoping: every day that I live I can get more into the universal truth, that world. I’m getting to understand more and more that there’s a little world picture and then there’s a big world picture. What we’re living in and experiencing is the little world: “Oh gee, I cut my finger on something,” or “Oh, wow, I ate some food and it made me sick,” or “I’ve got a personal relationship with somebody and wow, we’re not making it,” all this stuff, that’s the little world stuff. But of course, our big world can impinge upon everything as we learn. The little world is within the big world, not the other way around. I find it very useful to look at my life in that way, that there’s a little picture and a big picture—and that’s it. Things happen in the little picture that are little picture stuff, which has nothing to do with the big picture. The big picture is where it’s at—that’s where I want to get to, see?

We talked about young musicians, you had some thoughts about things to prioritize in terms of that big picture throughout our lives. I’m also part of an organization of young people in their 20s and 30s who are inspired by the vision of the Buddha. What about the Buddha’s example, or about Buddhism, might you emphasize in talking to younger people today?

Well, you know, I have some friends of mine who study Buddhism, and the ancient scriptures, and so on and so forth. As I said, when I was younger, I joined this Rosicrucian group, and I used to go to some of their meetings, and we’d have psychic meetings and all that. But generally, I find that, myself, I’m not so much of a person who enjoys group therapies, you know. I’m more of a loner type, that just happens to be the characteristics of my particular self. But my friends—I have a friend who goes to classes, different things about Buddhist lives and everything—and I’m sure that those are helpful, but they’re not for me. I read something that the Buddha said, and I always go back to that. The Buddha said, “Do good, be good.” Okay? Period. Do good, be good. And that’s it. That’s it.

Hear, hear.

That’s what I’m trying to get to, and I think that’s where everybody is going, whether it’s in this life, or the next life, or whenever. That’s what’s happening in the universe, that’s where we’re going: to be in that space, that light, I should say.

The last question that I have for you is about this universal direction that you’re talking about, and particularly as it relates to the fact that we are, as a civilization, starting to become more and more of a world society. So you can experience these teachings on Zen in Japan, or I can be talking to you from my apartment in Santiago, Chile. You recently did an interview with Melissa Aldana, who’s also from Chile—and I see how this musical tradition has been spreading all over the world for already 100 years. As someone who has touched the lives of so many people through your art all over the world, can you reflect on how you see these things connecting, this spiritual direction and the world that is coming into this little picture?

I don’t want to sound pessimistic or something like that, so I have to be careful how I answer this question. Because you’re talking about the world now, you’re not talking about an individual. If you’re talking about an individual, it’s always optimism, always optimistic, always learning, always. To me, God is wisdom; as we get our wisdom, then we become God. But when you’re speaking about the world, and technology able to connect people, well I would say it’s OK, sure, it’s fine. But maybe 500 years ago they lived without this modern technology and they survived then with whatever they had to do. So we have this technology that can connect the world, today. I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but what I tell people when we talk about this, is that the world has never changed. If you look into ancient times, as far as our scriptures and books of knowledge, people are always killing each other. It’s always been the same, so the world will always be the same—that’s my understanding up to this point in my life. It’s not about the world; the world will always be the way it is. It was created, I can assume, from that. It was created to be this way: to have killing, rape, stealing, the whole thing. That’s what this world is, it’s not about connecting this world. I don’t think this world is ever going to, as a mass. It’s up to individual people, it’s up to individuals.

People studying Buddhism, they’ve got to come through it individually, they’ve got to find out. I don’t care what you’re studying, yoga, Buddhism, whatever—this world is going to be an impediment to your spiritual advancement. That’s what this world is, it’s always going to be that way, it’s not going to be better in that sense. If I’m understanding your question, to me it doesn’t mean anything really that there are these better forms of communication. Sure, in a little sense, it might mean something—like you were saying, people can hear jazz that couldn’t before. But now people can hear about killing that they didn’t hear about before. The world is the world: that’s my understanding now. I’m learning, so I might find something to change that understanding that I have. But as of now, I’m not encouraged nor discouraged by the fact that there’s more communication and all of that.

That makes a lot of sense. You were talking about music being neutral earlier, too; it seems like there’s a similar equanimity that you feel towards the whole situation. Are there any questions that I haven’t asked that have been on your mind, or anything that came up during our conversation that you’d like to add?

No, I’ve enjoyed your questions and I can’t think of anything. There’s so much happening all the time, and I’m in a learning place in my life. Your questions are very good, and I haven’t learned enough to say, well, “do this” or “do that.” I don’t know that, I’m just learning. I’m just going through life trying to learn something.

I admire your humility and your bravery, I have to tell you.

Well, thank you very much. Right, that’s what I’m trying—but I’m far from being satisfied. I think I’m making progress, but you know how it is: you make progress and then this small world will throw something else at you. Another way to question your spirituality, to challenge your spirituality. It’s a constant struggle while we’re here, and we have to fight the good fight. We have to keep fighting as long as we’re alive. I feel it’s a fight, it’s a struggle. But it’s a good struggle. It’s a good fight, that’s why I say now, “Fight the good fight, and fight the right fight.” Now I do want to fight, but I don’t want to just kill somebody because I’m fighting—“oh yeah, I’ve gotta struggle and fight, that means I’m doing anything to win”—no, no, that’s not it. It’s the good fight. The good fight is where you do unto others, as I said, that good old Golden Rule. That’s the good fight. You fight that fight, which is difficult in this world as we know. But that’s the fight: that’s the right fight, that’s the good fight. And that’s what the fighting is about in this world.

Thank you so much. It has been such a privilege to listen and have this conversation.

Rollins's latest album, Road Shows Vol. 4: Holding the Stage, is available for purchase, download, and streaming.

Alex W. Rodriguez is an improviser, trombonist and PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at UCLA, where his current research focuses on jazz clubs around the world and the creative improvised music communities that surround them, with case studies in California, Chile, and Russia. He also co-founded the Sounding Board in 2013 and served as Editor in Chief for Ethnomusicology Review in 2014. You can read more about Alex at his website.

  • 1. Ortner, Sherry. 1995. "Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal." Comparative Studies in Society and History (37:1):173-193.
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