In this 1977 television ad for Pioneer Electronics, jazz saxophone great Sonny Rollins wails into the New York City night air while standing on the Brooklyn Bridge. A voice-over announcer tells viewers of Rollins’ 1959-61 hiatus from the jazz scene, when he took his sound to the streets to rediscover himself musically. It’s mostly a true story. Only trouble is, Rollins actually retired to the Williamsburg Bridge—admittedly not quite as picturesque! Here’s the story as Rollins tells it:
In the 50s and 60s, Lucille and I had a small apartment on Grand Street on the Lower East Side of New York. It was a nice time. I had a lot of friends there and I was welcomed by the neighborhood people. Like most of New York, the Lower East Side has undergone gentrification but back then, it was a much more ethnic place.
I started practicing in the house because I had to practice, but I felt guilty because I’m a sensitive person and I know that people need quiet in their apartments.
I was walking on Delancey Street one day, not far from where I lived on Grand Street and I just happened to look up and see these steps that I decided to check out. And there, of course, was the bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge. It was this nice big expanse going over the East River. There was nobody up there. So I started walking across the bridge and said, “Wow. This is what I have been looking for. This is a private place. I can blow my horn as loud as I want.” Because the boats are coming under, and the subway is coming across, and cars, and I knew it was perfect, just serendipity. Then, I began getting my horn and going up there regularly. I would be up there 15 or 16 hours at a time spring, summer, fall and winter.
Rollins’ perfectionism paid off. He returned to the music business with his brilliant 1962 album The Bridge, a chronicle of where he’d been those four years, sometimes in freezing cold temperatures, alone or with friends. British documentary filmmaker Dick Fontaine captured Rollins discussing his bridge sabbatical and has released a 2012 film about Rollins called Beyond the Notes, which features live performances of the jazz great in his 80s, and has been showing in the UK since last spring. Rollins recently took home three trophies from the annual Jazz Awards in New York, including a best-record award for his latest album of live recordings, Road Shows, Vol. 2.
Josh Jones is currently a doctoral student in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.