Sonny Rollins Plays Jazz on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1977 Pioneer Electronics Ad

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.

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