In interviews, jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins has described himself as a “primitive” or intuitive musician. Manuscripts in his personal archive dating from the 1960s indicate that this is not true. During this period, he closely studied several published instrumental primers and handwrote many highly systematic practice exercises using staff notation, along with much technical and introspective prose commentary. In a holistic quest for self-knowledge, he also read a wide variety of literature, including texts on music theory and acoustics, works on human anatomy and the physiology of breathing, and esoteric theories of pitch and color. The contradiction between Rollins’s claims to rely on subconscious knowledge and his extensive private engagement with written, self-analytical modes of musical conceptualization reflects a recurrent tendency among early generations of jazz musicians, noted by pianist and educator Billy Taylor, to publicly deny the actual extent of their own conscious, technical musical knowledge.

What is actually known about us? Very little. Certainly little that we do not wish to tell. Because we do not refuse to answer questions does not mean that we welcome probings. We are a polite people. So we say something, and usually what we say is what is expected of us, rather than the truth.

—Zora Neale Hurston1

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (b. 1930), who has been called the “greatest living jazz improviser,”2 occasionally describes himself as “a primitive.”3 He uses this word—which has a long, fraught history in jazz discourse, casting Black musicianship as primordial and uncivilized4—in the sense of “closer to nature,”5 suggesting that his musical knowledge is largely subconscious because he received minimal formal musical schooling. “I never went to…conservatory and all this stuff,”6 he reflects, recalling that when he began learning to play the horn during his youth in Depression-era Harlem, “I didn’t know what I was doing.”7 Rollins is far from alone in characterizing his own musical knowledge in this way. Many other major jazz artists, especially those who came of age before the late twentieth century, have in their public statements emphasized intuitive, expressive, and social aspects of their music and creative process, shying away from discussing the structural details of what they do. “I don’t think you should analyze music,” Louis Armstrong declared. “Like the old timer told me, he say, ‘Don’t worry about that black cow giving white milk. Just drink the milk.’”8 “It is an intelligence that is not used voluntarily,” McCoy Tyner explained. “A lot of it is natural. We are endowed with more knowledge than we actually realize.”9

Since the 1990s, an influential cohort of researchers, reacting against an earlier strain of postwar scholarship and criticism whose Eurocentric formalism was largely irreconcilable with the beliefs, values, and lived experiences of jazz’s African American culture bearers, has cast its collective gaze more toward the music’s various social, political, and cultural dimensions than toward details of sound, conceptual structure, and the everyday practicalities of instrumental performance.10 Like much discourse geared toward specialists, abstract theorization and formal analysis can certainly, in their more abstruse forms, seem remote from many, even if not all, players’ and listeners’ most immediate concerns (which by no means necessarily invalidates such modes of inquiry as bases for understanding).11 But musical technicalities are not matters of only academic interest. There are many ways of thinking in any context, ranging from the intuitive and heuristically pragmatic to the studied and self-reflective,12 and musical knowledge takes various forms. The kinds of thinking that jazz musicians do in real time while improvising typically tend to be embodied and nonreflective, grounded in “procedural” (i.e., tacit), as opposed to “declarative,” knowledge.13 “When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level,” Rollins has said. “I don’t want to overtly think about anything, because you can’t think and play at the same time.…It goes by too fast.”14 The result from a performer’s perspective can be a sense of detachment or of mind-body disassociation.15 “There are some occasions when I really can stand back mentally and sort of listen to myself play. The music just plays itself,” Rollins explains. “It’s an out-of-body experience.”16

When not actually performing, though, a lot of jazz players express their musical thoughts and ideas with great clarity. They talk, often at length, about the particulars of rhythm, timing, melody, harmony, form, and so forth—as well as aspects of meaning and emotion.17 Many of them also put pen to paper, whether with words, musical notation, or otherwise, for purposes ranging from private informal communication with fellow artists to publication for a wider audience.18 But a good deal of their writing about music—be it expressive, technical, or conceptual—is just for their own reference and unavailable to others. Musicians can at times be inclined to highlight publicly their music’s nontheoretical dimensions even while concerning themselves privately with concrete elements of pitch, rhythm, form, and so forth: John Coltrane’s album liner notes for A Love Supreme address the suite’s lyrics and biographical sources of inspiration, but there is no record of his having discussed the details of its key and motivic structures, which he notated in surviving sketches.19

It is, moreover, far from unheard of for jazz musicians who vocally object to analytical thinking and writing about music to contradict themselves by elsewhere engaging with such modes of thought and communication. Cecil Taylor publicly denigrated written music while privately using a self-invented graphical and alphabetical notation system; Bill Evans expressed skepticism toward intellectualized analyses of jazz yet occasionally explained his own playing in highly technical terms.20 Black musicians in particular have often been guarded when questioned by non-Black interviewers or ethnographers,21 and their reticence about musical particulars reflects a long-standing practice of shielding cultural trade secrets from appropriation by outsiders.22 For this reason we cannot always take at face value remarks dismissing the kind of declarative knowledge associated with music notation and theory.

Aside from nonverbalized, embodied musical knowledge and the orally transmitted wisdom that Thomas Christensen deems “hidden theory,” jazz players have at times spent considerable time and effort reading and writing texts concerning music-theoretical concepts.23 Marc Hannaford, drawing on Britt Rusert’s work in literary studies on “fugitive science,” has recently called such creative activities among Black American artists “fugitive music theory,”24 a phenomenon exemplified by well-known published texts by George Russell, Anthony Braxton, and Yusef Lateef, as well as Ornette Coleman’s famous unpublished theory of harmolodics.25 Often residing outside of mainstream (white) institutions, such work may not always be easily available to those beyond its originators’ immediate circles. It can remain entirely private. Or it may not surface until well after its creation, as is the case with Rollins’s voluminous written musical materials, which were inaccessible for many decades until, after retiring from performing, he sold them to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a Harlem branch of the New York Public Library that he patronized during his youth.26

Rollins’s spoken characterizations of his own musicianship as natural and intuitive have occasionally been echoed by his professional peers; he recalled that Thelonious Monk remarked, “Sonny just plays that shit out the top of his head”27—and fellow saxophonists Joshua Redman and Dave Liebman have marveled at his spontaneity as an improviser.28 In the 1990s the musicologist Robert Walser adopted a comparable stance, highlighting the social aspects of Rollins’s music while faulting the Eurocentricism of earlier writers such as Gunther Schuller, who in 1958 commended Rollins’s improvisations because, he believed, their structural unity and intellectual sophistication reflected “the astounding richness” of the saxophonist’s “musical thinking.”29 Though “flattered” by Schuller’s praise, Rollins responded at the time that “it’s really difficult to analyze my own playing.…If I were to try something like that, I’d worry about becoming too conscious of some aspects of my improvising,”30 and decades later recalled, “when I read that it made me so self-conscious that I couldn’t play.”31 Such comments give no indication of his having anything more than a tacit awareness or understanding of music-theoretical, scientific, or philosophical aspects of his craft. In actuality, however, there was more to it. Much more.

Growing up in Harlem during the 1930s and ’40s, Rollins received only a few occasional lessons in saxophone technique, acquiring almost all his knowledge of melody, rhythm, and harmony through close listening, long hours of stream-of-conscious improvisatory practice, and informal advice from musical friends and neighbors.32 He learned to read staff notation but had no involvement to speak of with any jazz-oriented published educational material;33 his main instruction in Western classical harmony and counterpoint came in high school, a distressing experience with an unsympathetic teacher that, he recalled, left him “kind of traumatized…about musical skills”34 and with “sort of…a mental block in my head” that he felt “might have had some kind of psychological effect on my thinking about formalized teaching of the music.”35 Regardless, by the time he graduated from high school in 1947 Rollins was playing professionally with some of postwar jazz’s leading figures, and before turning nineteen he had recorded with bebop luminaries such as trombonist J. J. Johnson and pianist Bud Powell. Within a decade he had become a prominent artist in his own right, despite daunting personal setbacks—including two jail terms—stemming from a heroin habit that he did not overcome until 1955, when he spent several months at the United States Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.36 What followed was an extraordinarily prolific creative period: twelve months with the now-legendary Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet followed by three years of national and international touring as a leader, yielding some eighteen LPs in his own name between 1955 and 1959, as well as nine more album appearances as a sideman.

By the late 1950s Rollins had been lauded as “possibly the most courageous improviser since Charlie Parker”37 and ranked highly in Down Beat magazine’s annual polls, but for all his popular and critical acclaim he was determined not to rest on his laurels.38 Having grown up in a “middle class” family,39 as he recalled it, with two siblings who studied classical music at New York’s High School of Music and Art before pursuing other professions (his brother became a doctor), he regretted having missed out on “all that formal schooling like my older brother and sister”40 and “always tried to push [him]self to make up for it.”41 “I was thrown into making records without the background I should have had,” Rollins told the writer Nat Hentoff in November 1956, adding that he had considered enrolling at the Manhattan School of Music after high school and subsequently received some fleeting instruction at the University of Chicago. “Next year I may take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene completely until I’m finished. I’ve continued studying off and on by myself and with teachers. I’ve just scratched the surface.”42 A year and a half later his desire to spend more time honing his musicianship was undiminished. “It’s very difficult to set aside some time every day for practice,” he explained to journalist Dom Cerulli. “Right now, I feel I just want to get away for a while.…I think if I could go to Europe…or even get away from the New York scene for a while, I could assess things, judge myself more objectively.”43 In the fall of 1959 he took the plunge, abandoning a performance itinerary worth as much as $2,000 a week (equivalent to over $19,000 in 2022).44 For the next two years, while living with his wife, Lucille, in a tenement apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he regularly spent long practice sessions on the nearby Williamsburg Bridge’s pedestrian walkway, an anonymous daily routine that was to become the stuff of jazz lore, memorialized in his famous 1962 album The Bridge as well as by decades of published literature ranging from press reportage to poetry.45

Although Rollins’s personal archive contains some music-related material dating from the mid-to-late 1950s—mainly lead sheets, sketches, and practice exercises—its most extensive documentation of his musical activities dates from the early through mid-1960s: scores of pages of handwritten prose and staff notation, annotated books, correspondence, and so forth. These years saw him begin a lifelong project of self-education.46 In addition to reading a range of musical literature on his own, he briefly enrolled in music classes at the New School and the Henry Street Settlement in New York.47 His various efforts toward greater musical knowledge and understanding were enmeshed within a larger quest for personal improvement, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. He quit smoking, curtailed his alcohol consumption, and followed an exercise regimen. He read widely in fields ranging from poetry to physics and took a sustained interest in anthropology.48 And he practiced Rosicrucianism and took up yoga.49 Music was, for Rollins, just one of several intersecting “technologies of the self,”50 so to speak, and his musical activities of the time—his daily saxophone practicing along with his studies of scales, harmony, and the physics and metaphysics of sound, as well as the physiology of breath control—can only be adequately understood within the context of his multifaceted endeavor for self-mastery.

As he reached his thirtieth birthday, Rollins was well aware that many of the extraordinary creative abilities he had acquired through dedicated effort at a young age had become second nature. Among his effects of the early 1960s is a hand-typed quotation from William James’s Principles of Psychology: “We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can.”51 This Rollins had certainly done, to an exceptional degree. His quest thenceforth for greater conscious, declarative musical understanding was not motivated solely by artistic ambition; it was also about self-knowledge. Contrary to his public claims, it was by no means “primitive” or intuitive. But it was kept largely to himself. Until now.

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“If I decided to save something, I’m pretty certain that at least I felt it had some value at that time,” said Rollins in 2017. “But as for what I kept, other than that, I’m not aware of what it might be.”52 Many jazz musicians have been autoarchivists,53 gathering and preserving personal items in assemblages that, as Michael C. Heller has noted, are inevitably not neutral or replete; each is a “social entity, in which patrons, administrators, research subjects, and archivists…are equally implicated.”54 Even though Rollins himself apparently undertook little culling or even cursory sifting of his archive (its cataloguer found among its papers several thousand dollars in cash, presumably left over from concert tours), much may have been undocumented, discarded, or mislaid.55 Still, it reveals a great deal.

One thing it discloses is that Rollins wrote a lot. During his hiatus in the early ’60s from public performing, he and Lucille sometimes had different daily schedules and before setting off for practice sessions on the bridge he would occasionally write multipage notes to her dealing with anything from quotidian travails (“Dearest, the dog just got spanked for making a puddle in front of the door…such is the life of a dog”56) to reflections on his inner life. “The weather is changing and a period of depression can easily accompany the transition,” he wrote on one occasion. “What with warmer weather and the same conditions, one may experience a feeling of being imprisoned, only free to observe the passing of seasons through the window.…As you know hot weather incites a listlessness in me which is extremely dangerous to the [musical] progress I have made.”57 These intimate exchanges evince Rollins’s introspective, self-analytical disposition, as do several dozen surviving handwritten letters, many several pages long, that he wrote to Lucille during the first few months after he resumed touring in 1962, while she sometimes stayed home. A lot of these missives concern the logistical practicalities of life on the road (“I caught a cold yesterday while practicing at the club…am now lying in bed with a sniffling nose and no Vicks”58). Some detail artistic self-criticisms and aspirations (“I will try to: (A) be constantly in top form. (B) Not be adversely affected by mistakes around me. (C) Concentrate on communicating with my audience—which is the same as (A) and depends on (B), but which has possibilities of its own”59). And others address the usual vicissitudes of married life, again often adopting a markedly contemplative tone. “In general it’s time for you to cease ‘jumping on the defensive’ to me whenever I try to evolve your consciousness a peg,” he reflected in early 1962. “Just for a while I deserve to have you assume that what I say is correct. Even if I’m not correct, I deserve to be regarded intelligently and not emotionally, as you did recently. Remember Socrates: ‘ONLY A WISE MAN ADMITS OF BEING A FOOL!!!’60 Rollins’s attunement to matters of consciousness and invocation of philosophical wisdom paint a portrait of studied self-examination. Even when going about humdrum everyday activities he habitually observed, reflected, systematized—and recorded his thoughts in writing. Tasks as mundane as parallel parking an automatic-transmission car were methodically detailed on paper.61 For him, learning was a matter of rigorous close analysis more than intuitive experimentation.

An array of Rollins’s private writings muse on weightier philosophical issues. Some are brief, such as a few sentences headed “Jazz is the embodiment of the American Ideal” in which the saxophonist takes a decidedly nonracialized stance, cautioning that “one should be careful not to depict Jazz as ‘Social Protest’ or ‘Negro music’” and declaring that the idiom “is in reality the Music of America, by Americans, + for edification of all Mankind.”62 Other such reflections are more expansive, including a single-spaced full-page aesthetic statement against genre segregation, couched in somewhat grandiose language:

Who can deny that the greatest of any music is of a one-ness which transcends period, style, country, etc.…Any definition which seeks to separate Johann Sebastian Bach from Miles Davis is defeating its own purpose of clarification. Thus we shall now hereafter and henceforth integrate if you will the word jazz into the word music.63

Conceptualizing of essential artistic values on a plane so elevated as to encompass all musical idioms on equal footing—in effect, a relativism framed by higher-level universalism—Rollins again formulates fundamental principles as bases for apprehending concrete particulars.

But most of Rollins’s private writing was more self-directed, examining and analyzing his own thoughts, feelings, experiences, and activities to better understand—and thereby improve—himself. In addition to recording succinct aphoristic principles and observations (“The MOTIVE for doing a thing is inevitably and ultimately ABOVE that thing”64), the saxophonist also addressed artistic issues such as his relationship with his public: “I must not be concerned with applause by the audience.…I should not be either pleased or dispondent [sic] over a performance and/or solo—always rather directing my attention to the SOUND of the music, and in this way what is produced will assume its subsidiary nature to what my intent and ideal is.”65 He also documented his struggle to wean himself off tobacco, on one occasion methodically listing five mental and physical effects he experienced from cigarette smoking.66 Rollins often made explicit his determination to control and ameliorate his own imperfect habits and tendencies, as with a 1962 note on punctuality: “A person who keeps an appointment is demonstrating a control which while beginning within himself, reaches outward to include anything with which he comes in contact.”67 Taking an objective perspective, he affirmed that he saw his private activity of writing about all these concerns as not simply a functional means of documentation but a necessary, essential element of his pursuit of self-discipline.68

In its systematic thoroughness, Rollins’s private writing of the early 1960s emphatically belies his public characterization of himself as “a primitive,” a self-description recalling the “intuitive, natural, and spiritual” essentialized depictions of African American individual subjectivity that, Ingrid Monson notes, represent “one of the worst discursive legacies of the 1950s and 1960s.”69 Even so, when it came to the musical activities that were his principal concern, day in and day out, during these years, it is not inconceivable that he might nevertheless have set aside his habits of conscious scrutiny and highly analytical thought, instead relying on subconscious, embodied knowledge and skills. His comments often gave this impression. But it was not even remotely the case.

                       * * *

Rollins’s private daily practice routines and musical studies of the period were every bit as methodical and self-reflective and just as amply documented in writing. He immersed himself in widely used classical saxophone instruction books by Paul de Ville and Sigurd M. Rascher, annotating many passages with underlinings and comments. De Ville’s 1908 Universal Method for the Saxophone, which Rollins was evidently using around 1963,70 offers advice regarding physical posture (“The head and body must be kept erect”) that Rollins thought warranted additional verification, writing “check this position with other saxmen and note their reaction to it.” To de Ville’s direction “do not practice too long at one time,” Rollins added: “Don’t go beyond where you get a bang out of playing. Each day is different.”71 He later recalled that during the early 1960s he was practicing for up to fifteen hours a day.72 For him, “too long” was evidently a limit not easily reached.

Rascher’s book Top-Tones for the Saxophone (1941), an advanced manual for extending the instrument’s upper range authored by a classical virtuoso, was in Rollins’s possession by the late 1950s.73 Rollins initiated an exchange of letters with its author, and in 1962 the two saxophonists attended each other’s performances and met in person several times.74 Their correspondence continued until Rascher’s death in 2001, and Top-Tones remained a regular reference for Rollins; in 1991 he bought two new copies and in 1993 was still practicing its overtone exercises daily.75 Copiously annotating its pages and adorning its back inside cover with a hand-drawn fingering chart, he read Rascher’s book, as he did de Ville’s, with due consideration for both parallels and dissimilarities between classical and jazz playing. Responding to Rascher’s assertion in a passage titled “tone imagination”76 that saxophonists ideally actualize tones that they conceive in their “inner ear,” Rollins commented in a separate notepad: “It seems that Mr. Rascher is…referring to the interpretation of a piece of repertoire by a performing artist. As he himself does today. There is however a link or cord which makes the above condision [sic] equally applicable in improvised music.”77 In reading these publications he sought generalizable wisdom, applicable beyond the particularities and circumstances of any given case. The books also represented a pedagogical model that, during the early 1960s, Rollins fleetingly thought of emulating by writing his own saxophone primer (he considered titles such as First Rules for Saxophone and Saxophone First Rules: A Student Guide).78 Although it never came to fruition, this passing notion may have been a factor motivating his sustained production of written music-related texts at the time—texts ranging in scope from extensive, highly detailed documentation in staff notation of music-theoretical concepts to prose accounts of his musical ideas, interests, and reflections.

Among music’s fundamental elements, pitch receives the greatest attention by far in Rollins’s surviving manuscripts from the 1960s. While harmony, as discussed below, is by no means ignored, it is no surprise that, since the saxophone is a monophonic instrument, his focus in terms of pitch is linear, chiefly melodic patterns and scales. (He methodically handwrote all the major and minor scales in treble clef, making notes to practice them on his instrument.79) Rollins valued scales not just as finger calisthenics but as sources of creative possibilities, as had his erstwhile musical associates Miles Davis, a pioneer of modal jazz improvisation in the late ’50s, and John Coltrane, who around the same time studied scale treatises by George Russell (The Lydian Chromatic Concept) and Nicolas Slonimsky (Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns).80 Rollins was at least cursorily familiar with Slonimsky’s book—he jotted down its author’s neologisms for categorizing pitch insertions within melodic patterns (“ultra-,” “inter-,” and “infrapolation”)81—but its influence on his written practice material seems to have been minimal, limited at most to its systematic approach.

Some scales he treated purely in terms of their intervallic structures: a page of staff notation titled “symmetric scale” illustrates several, each comprising a different pair of stepwise alternating intervals.82 Rollins contemplated using one of them, a hexatonic collection (C, C♯, E, F, G♯, A), as a prompt for ensemble playing; under the heading “Equal Division of 12 Notes Tones” (sic) he wrote letter names listing the two hexatonic collections that contain C, E, and A♭, followed by the instruction “the Bass would EMPHASIZE or SUBTLY ACCENTUATE THE C, E and A♭/THE IMPROVISOR would THEN BLOW A CHROMATIC RUN OF ALL OF THE 12 TONES AGAINST EACH AND EVERYONE [sic] OF THE SCALE.”83 On the next page the saxophonist designated this approach “‘CHROMATIC IMPROVISATION’” and added “INTUITIVE RELATION OF THE SOLOIST TO THE BASS,”84 making clear that he saw these guidelines as merely a starting point for more spontaneous playing strategies. Rollins explored atonality occasionally during a two- or three-year period of avant-garde experimentation in the early 1960s,85 but other than the sporadic appearance of fleeting hexatonic patterns in his saxophone solos,86 it is not evident that he ever followed through on these chromatic ideas in practice. Still, he at least considered deliberately incorporating all twelve pitches into his improvised performances, an approach somewhat comparable to Coltrane’s well-known written motivic transposition scheme (“through all twelve keys”) for the “Acknowledgement” movement of A Love Supreme (1964).87

In studying scales, Rollins may have consulted the classical composer Vincent Persichetti’s 1961 book, Twentieth-Century Harmony.88 A practice note titled “SYNTHETIC Scales” lists, with letter names, two of the fourteen scales that appear in a figure from Persichetti’s section headed “Synthetic Scale Formations.”89 One is an octatonic collection (called “Symmetrical” by Persichetti), a scalar structure that Rollins occasionally deployed while improvising.90 The other, which the saxophonist wrote out at several transpositions, is what Persichetti termed an “overtone” scale (e.g., C, D, E, F♯, G, A, B♭, C; also commonly called an “acoustic scale”); alongside it Rollins notated and labeled a melodic fragment from the third movement of Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, probably its best-known instantiation.91 Elsewhere, displaying a multicultural eclecticism that was common among his musical contemporaries, Rollins invoked long-standing linkages between specific scales and various nations or ethnicities.92 Under the subheading “Chinese—Scottish—India—Irish” he methodically outlined in staff notation several pentatonic collections, each omitting a different pair of scale degrees from their parent seven-note major or minor scales.93 And a manuscript titled “Hungarian, Gypsy, Oriental Minor Scale Formations” mainly consists of different transpositions of another scale appearing in the above-mentioned figure from Twentieth-Century Harmony, which Persichetti called “Hungarian minor”; describing this scale, the saxophonist writes “Harmonic Minor Scale with augmented 4th,” and he adds hairpin symbols to denote semitones between scale degrees, as does Persichetti (albeit with reference to the octatonic collection).94

While Rollins studied musical intervals extensively in relation to scales—in one instance writing a summary note indicating that “Minor 3rd[s] are naturally formed in the DIATONIC scale between [scale degrees] 6 and TONIC, 3+5, 7+9, 2+4 (9+11)”—he also considered them in and of themselves. His practice notes contain references to their sound-wave frequency ratios and, in staff notation, various pitch series generated by successively reiterated single intervals (perfect fifths, major sixths, major sevenths, and minor sevenths) with the directive to “exercise this daily.”95 But intervals mainly occupied his attention as components of short melodic patterns, typically transposed sequentially to create the sorts of exercises that have since proliferated in published jazz improvisation manuals (such as Oliver Nelson’s well-known 1966 book, Patterns for Improvisation).96 Example 1 is transcribed from a handwritten page in which a three-note figure, a falling perfect fourth and major second, descends by whole steps (diplomatic transcriptions based on Rollins’s holographs are presented here because photographic reproductions of music notation in his archive are not permitted). The exercise is repeated, first with the figure’s intervals in reverse order and then with the initial pattern expanded to four notes by restating its initial pitch after the other two; next a different four-note cell, containing a descending major third and minor third followed by an ascending tritone, likewise descends by whole steps.97 A longer melodic pattern appears in example 2, from another handwritten page: a chain of sixteen pitches, divided with barlines into two beamed eight-note groupings on each staff line, rises and falls by whole-step transpositions.98

Example 1.

Three- and four-note patterns (SRP, Box 4, Folder 4).

Example 1.

Three- and four-note patterns (SRP, Box 4, Folder 4).

Close modal
Example 2.

Sixteen-note pattern (SRP, Box 3, Folder 2).

Example 2.

Sixteen-note pattern (SRP, Box 3, Folder 2).

Close modal

In other instances Rollins explored patterns involving arpeggiated triads. Example 3 first gives descending whole-step transpositions of rising root-position minor triads and then deploys augmented triads, alternating between rising and falling arpeggiations as they ascend by major seconds.99 The saxophonist’s textual annotations reference the whole-tone collections yielded by the latter sequential processes (“also of course on W.T. group two [below]”); he transposes the same exercise down a semitone and, at the foot of the page, uses letter names to write out the two distinct forms of the whole-tone collection, each ordered as two augmented triads.100 Occasional whole-tone patterns, as well as various sequentially transposed short melodic figures, can be heard on his recorded improvisations of the period,101 but very little of the pattern-based written material includes any verbal mention of specific practical applications; one exception is a sequence of major-triad arpeggiations, descending by whole-steps, which carries an instruction to “use part or more of above for turnbacks,”102 i.e., as a melodic device for launching the top of a new chorus.

Example 3.

Arpeggiated-triad patterns (SRP, Box 3, Folder 5).

Example 3.

Arpeggiated-triad patterns (SRP, Box 3, Folder 5).

Close modal

At times Rollins conceived of his melodic practice patterns solely as interval structures, disregarding any scalar or chordal implications; in one instance some staff lines containing a sequenced four-note melodic cell are prefaced with the recommendation “think intervallically” followed by a shorthand description of the cell: “N1 N–3 N+3 U5”—that is, a negative (i.e., descending) whole step, descending minor third, descending major third, and upward (i.e., ascending) perfect fifth.103 More often, though, he indicated suitable harmonic contexts for using them improvisationally; in example 4 he writes lead-sheet chord symbols beside each four-note figure.104 Some of these exercises may have been intended for his never-completed instruction book: beneath the ascending quarter-note patterns shown in example 5 he writes, on the same page, “The progression of tones with which we are here concerned is the sequence of ♭5, Major 3, 7 and 13th. You will note that this encompasses 3 octaves. To enable you to successfully play all of these notes you will play this p. of t. [i.e., progression of tones] in the manner of ex. C [Rollins writes D♭4, B4, F4, and E5 open noteheads on a staff]. It is however to be remembered that the original sound is the 3 octave effect. This can also be obtained with study.”105 All this is, needless to say, far from tacit, procedural knowledge; it is the work of a musician conveying what he knows in clear, precise prose using conventional terminology.

Example 4.

Melodic patterns with lead-sheet chord symbols (SRP, Box 4, Folder 2).

Example 4.

Melodic patterns with lead-sheet chord symbols (SRP, Box 4, Folder 2).

Close modal
Example 5.

Progression of tones: ♭5, 3, ♭7, 13 (SRP, Box 3, Folder 3).

Example 5.

Progression of tones: ♭5, 3, ♭7, 13 (SRP, Box 3, Folder 3).

Close modal

Intent on a thorough, detailed understanding, Rollins examined melodic structures from multiple perspectives. Example 6 transcribes a manuscript displaying a four-note cell descending sequentially by minor thirds. At the cell’s first appearance he labels each pitch’s harmonic status in relation to a chord root (C, E♭, F♯, and B are identified as the minor ninth [♭9], third [3], fifth [5], and tonic [T, i.e., the root] of an inferred B-major harmony). Next, with the cell’s second iteration, he indicates the melodic intervals between its adjacent pitches (a major sixth [6], minor third [-3], and perfect fourth [4]). Above the staff Rollins writes: “Designation as related intervals, as plain intervals, as diminished Δ [i.e., triad] and interval.”106 Elsewhere he also addressed the aural perception of certain patterns—one handwritten note explains that, when sequentially transposed, a melodic cell’s initial harmonic implications may be perceptually negated: “In the case of [A, G, E, C] the original [B, A, F♯, D] concept (of in this case starting on the minor’s tonic and ending on its -3rd) becomes unrecognizable as such when repeated in sequence a whole tone beneath the first sequence.”107

Example 6.

Four-note pattern described in three ways (SRP, Box 4, Folder 2).

Example 6.

Four-note pattern described in three ways (SRP, Box 4, Folder 2).

Close modal

Of Rollins’s infrequent notes dealing with practical applications of music theory concepts, the most extensive concern triadic superimpositions on a concluding tonic harmony or final resolving cadence. The saxophonist begins by posing a question: “Which of the so-called finality chord Δ’s [i.e., triads] can be used to finality without any resolve to the TONIC chord, and which can be run as a finality Δ but should be followed by some portion of the TONIC chord?”108 Example 7 transcribes two illustrative examples, notated on staff lines (with an implicit treble clef): a stemmed tonic C preceding an ascending arpeggiated C major-seventh harmony followed by a superimposed D-major arpeggiation—labeled “Δ on 9th”; and a stemmed tonic E followed by an ascending arpeggiated A♭ major triad (labeled “Δ on 3rd”).109 On an accompanying page Rollins handwrote a table listing the distinctive harmonic effects of each of the twelve possible major-triad superimpositions on a concluding tonic harmony.110 For instance, his table indicates that a major triad whose root is the ninth of the underlying tonic produces a “♭5 type finality sound” (since this particular superimposed triad’s third is a flattened fifth away from the tonic note); Rollins gives equivalent indications for each of the eleven other major-triad superimpositions. Writing in block capitals on the same page, he answers his initial question: “Triad finality is achieved on steps 9, -3, 3, 5th, major 7th; others [which] can be used directly prior to final chord are +5, (V before I) ♭5, Dom-7, ♭9, also the 6th has some finality to it and may be interspersed with tonic triad + maj. 7 if called for.” The “others” are presumably the major-triad superimpositions that Rollins regarded as insufficiently stable, therefore necessitating a shift to a different chordal superimposition in order to convey a relatively consonant sense of conclusive resolution (he deploys this sort of harmonic device on his 1962 live recording of Ellington’s “In My Solitude” where, in the key of E-flat major, he concludes by arpeggiating an F♭ (♭II) triad before resolving to the tonic).111 On a separate page Rollins added that the unstable superimpositions “may color the chord directly prior to the ‘KEYNOTE CHORD’ with it’s [sic] ‘Finality Δ’s’ as referred to above”112—presumably meaning that such triads may be superimposed to good effect on a chord (typically a dominant) that resolves to the final tonic. This extensive examination of chromatic harmonic devices, employing both prose and musical notation, exemplifies Rollins’s proclivity for explicit musical theorization, systematically and exhaustively investigating practical usage to establish general succinct principles.

Example 7.

Arpeggiated triadic superimpositions: D major/C and A-flat major/E (SRP, Box 4, Folder 2).

Example 7.

Arpeggiated triadic superimpositions: D major/C and A-flat major/E (SRP, Box 4, Folder 2).

Close modal

Naturally, musical improvisers tend to be more methodically self-reflective off the bandstand than they are in performance.113 “Up to a certain point, of course you have to think and play,” Rollins noted in his later years. “Beyond that, though, you can’t think and play. You have to let your deeper soul play.”114 His public remarks have, however, emphasized spontaneous creativity to an extent markedly at odds with the analytical disposition evinced by his written materials. The disjuncture can be stark. He has, for instance, said that his occasional interpolation of musical quotations while soloing is “supposed to be instantaneous and spontaneous” and he “do[es]n’t consider them really right unless they come out of nowhere, and I surprise myself,”115 whereas he would in fact sometimes privately identify specific well-known melodies for the purpose of quoting them in suitable harmonic circumstances while improvising: a sheet marked “Patterns for Improvisation” gives handwritten staff notation for measures 5–8 of the 1928 Harry Warren song “Nagasaki” accompanied by his comment “can be used whenever 1 goes to 4 (I to IV).”116 Rollins’s sweeping statements along the lines of “it’s all about intuition with me” do not tell the entire story.117

His archive instead reveals a searching, wide-ranging musical intellect, engaged not only with music-theoretical concepts such as intervals, scales, melody, and harmony but also with matters of auditory perception as well as broader related concerns, both physical and physiological. For the saxophonist, music was never purely an artistic practice; it was always also an acoustic, psychological, and embodied phenomenon, inseparable from the natural and human worlds. He even explored its metaphysical dimension.

Like a variety of musicians, writers, and painters since at least the nineteenth-century European Symbolist movement, Rollins was intrigued by pitch–color correspondences.118 These sorts of aural-visual equivalencies, manifest for some people as synesthesia (cross-modal sensory experience), were theorized extensively within certain esoteric spiritual movements, including the Rosicrucianism that piqued the saxophonist’s interest at the time.119 According to the teachings of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC, one of several Rosicrucian orders), each note of the chromatic scale is associated with a particular color.120 Rollins listed these correspondences in a handwritten chart titled “Musical Keyboard’s Relation to Colors,” sketching an AMORC emblem to the left of its heading and taping to it a hand-painted color wheel.121 He also contemplated various synesthetic pitch–color relations reported by both personal acquaintances and historical figures. A note in his hand from early 1963 lists several such relations “according to Don Cherry,” the trumpeter who was a regular member of his quartet at the time: “orange—E, red—A, blue—A♭, green—D, yellow—F♯, violet—E♭.”122 He also handwrote a table listing, in separate columns, the color–pitch relationships postulated by Isaac Newton, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Scriabin alongside the AMORC scheme.123

The intellectual curiosity that inspired Rollins to explore such speculative and subjective terrain, without direct practical musical applications, also drew him into entirely nonsonic realms, such as esoteric theories of color healing124—and, contrariwise, toward the science of musical acoustics. His handwritten notes include a bibliographic listing of Hermann Helmholtz’s classic late nineteenth-century tome, On the Sensations of Tone, along with books on acoustics from the early and mid-twentieth century by Alexander Wood, Charles A. Culver, and Harry F. Olson.125 Exactly what Rollins gleaned from these volumes is uncertain, but he clearly studied the physics of music and sound with some diligence, taking notes on topics such as the velocity of sound waves, the frequencies of the pitch C♮ at various octaves, and the distinction between musical sound and “noise.”126 “Sensations from a ‘musical wave’ or tone are differentiated from noise by the regular frequency of the waves,” he wrote. “Noise waves are of a discontinuous order. Musical sound waves are equally spaced. Noise [sound waves] are irregularly spaced.”127 (These comments are likely based on the first chapter of Wood’s The Physical Basis of Music, which draws this distinction similarly.128) The saxophonist also investigated the phenomenon of overtones experimentally. In a note addressed to Max Hughes, a pianist with whom he briefly studied harmony and counterpoint at the Henry Street Settlement, he describes playing a single pitch on his horn with three alternate fingerings, thus activating, as sympathetic vibrations, various overtone combinations from the same fundamental note on a grand piano:129

As if to confirm my understanding of whether or not a note can be different and yet the same—I listened to the overtone ring from the Grand Piano as it responded to my notes.

I discovered that many variations of an (in tune) note produce different amounts of vibrations—thus producing different sounds (or tones). I played 3 alternate fingerings of the same note.

All of the fingerings produced a note (or tone) which was in tune, by virtue of the fact that they each made the (A♭) or rather piano G♭ ring out, but each one produced a ring of more or less vibrations which amounted for the different overtones achieved.130

He goes on to recount further experiments testing a provisional hypothesis: “could the RULE Be that since D produces an F♯ in it’s [sic] 5th partial, an F♯ (fingered) produces a D? YES—I HAVE NOW SO PROVEN. Now to see if this implies and bears out what I think…”131 Though the concrete nature and veracity of Rollins’s findings may be somewhat indistinct, his concern with the physics of sounds, adoption of an objective scientific method, and use of formal discursive rhetoric when documenting his findings in writing all reflect his inclination to systematize, to verify firsthand what he learned from reading, and to comprehend music and sound in terms of verbalized objective principles.

Rollins also took a scientific perspective on embodied, physiological aspects of musicianship such as hearing—he consulted the introductory text Waves and the Ear (1960), by three Bell Laboratories researchers—and breathing.132 His notes on breathing, dealing with both human biology and the practicalities of saxophone playing, are extensive, comprising many pages of detailed technical descriptions and observations. One point of reference was F. B. Chapman’s 1936 book, Flute Technique; Rollins had on hand a copy of this primer’s opening page, containing thorough instructions on breath control.133 Having studied some basic anatomy, in particular bone structure and muscle function, as well as the physiology of respiration,134 he scrutinized his own breathing practices, writing of closely observing his facial features in a mirror while inhaling and exhaling.135 “In my case,” he wrote, “the first breath I take with the horn in my mouth is an exhale, which then leads to the inhale as the action breath.”136 Based on this self-analysis, he tried to refine aspects of his instrumental technique, such as his “bad habit of taking a quick breath before hitting or attacking a note…eliminate this habit now!!”137 Among his goals in this regard were to coordinate better his breathing with his fingering of saxophone keys (“Play this scale continuously; during breathing intervals continue to finger keys; then resume in meter the scale, at the point it was interrupted for breathing”138) and to perfect his technique of accenting notes (“Chromatic Scale Must Be played accenting every other note. Among things which must be observed daily is Breath-Blow exercise. This Leads to a sort of double tonguing effect when done faster. e.g. B♭ would be hit more or less open and accentend [sic], B would be closed up by tounge [sic] and so on chromatically up”139).

Rollins’s principal reason for developing his instrumental breathing practices, however, was to improve his saxophone tone. “Pharyngeal breathing,” he wrote, “allows for the bottom lip to be more in place for the tone production.”140 Typical of his meticulous explanatory prose is the following:

Insufficient wind intake will not allow a tone to be hit and sustained without tone variation upon the attack, therefore for the sustaining of tones and other playing as well, take a deep breath thru the NOSE. Be sure not to breathe in through the mouth and what is also incorrect up through the horn, but always through the nose—audibly. This automatically makes you tighten your grip on the mouthpiece and thus sustain embrochure [sic]. Also play a phrase out of breath before taking in more wind through the nose.141

Such acutely self-analytical precision is, at the very least, a far cry from his public descriptions of his musicianship as “intuitive.” His embouchure, including detailed accounts of lip, cheek, tongue, and throat usage, was scrutinized, documented, and analyzed in comparable detail.142

And this is where Rollins’s dedication to his instrument dovetailed with his concern for his own physical well-being. At home in his apartment, during the early 1960s, he kept his saxophone, piano, and sheet music in the same room as his weightlifting barbells, a slant board, and other exercise equipment, regarding both activities as inextricably entwined.143 “The 2 things are ‘married’ to each other,” he wrote in a note titled “SAXOPHONE AND HEALTH.” “The very act of playing into your horn, with the increased breathing required, brings to every saxophonist an extra measure of well being energy & vitality even though the player might not realize it.”144 Not only were musical excellence and physical health mutually constitutive in his view; they also shared certain preconditions. “Deep breathing,” for instance, had “many therapeutic values,” aiding his concurrent endeavor to quit smoking as well as enhancing his saxophone tone and phrasing.145 Similarly, he considered good nutrition to be directly beneficial to saxophone breath control—in that “foods which are hard to digest…divert the nerve energy needed for the breathing processes (playing processes)” and overeating caused him to feel “extremely uncomfortable when going for air.…I could not…attack thru my horn”146—as well as for general health.147 Meanwhile, he viewed all these activities as having a spiritual dimension: breathing and physical exercises were an element of his meditative yoga practice.148 Decades later, he explained that “the yogic concept of prana, the life-force or breath,” which he had encountered before 1960 in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, is “in everything, including…musical energy.”149 At one point during the mid-1960s he even couched a description of an ideal tone production exercise in the rhetoric of a prayer: “Therefore the directive this 23 day of August 1964 A.D., to attain (through possibly held sustained resonating tones), this ‘bell like’ ring on my B♭ (A♭ concert) directly under 440 (my B). Thanking you OH GOD. I remain your faithful servant.”150 In its idiosyncratic integration of religiosity, spiritual discipline, scientistic precision, and abstract music theory, all in service of an ideal sonic desideratum, this statement encapsulates Rollins’s “holistic attitude,”151 as he later put it—an attitude, shared by saxophonists such as Coltrane and Lateef, that invites comparison with the individualistic tradition of maverick white American composers, from Charles Ives through Harry Partch and La Monte Young, from which Black musicians have often been excluded in the musicological literature.152 This all-embracing outlook underpinned his conviction that, as he wrote in a 1963 letter to Rascher, “the ‘Requirement of Artistry’ is that one assembles the ingredients of his ‘work’ and ‘profession’ into what may be called a WHOLE…a complete, operating, efficient, functioning entity.”153 The same belief in universal interconnectedness, transcending mind/body or intellect/emotion categorical binarisms, caused him more generally to “wish people would stop trying to separate art from every-day life.”154

All Rollins’s methodical, introspective everyday practices, systematic habits of thought, and sustained commitment to articulating tacit knowledge in concrete, written form were in pursuit of a self-understanding and self-mastery whose ultimate purpose was simply personal liberty. To be sure, he continually tried, until the end of his career, to make artistic advances and explore new creative possibilities.155 But never was this the principal goal of his private studies during the 1960s; upon returning to active concertizing following his hiatus, he predicted: “Some people will be disappointed that I haven’t come back on the scene with some brand new [musical] thing…, but I did come back with a brand new thing—me.”156 What he sought, above all, was freedom from his own imperfections, from undesired personal habits and tendencies, and from the social strictures imposed by the world—a world from which he at times chose to withdraw professionally for the sake of his aspirations and ideals.157

                       * * *

And what of the gaping chasm between rhetoric and reality? Certainly, Rollins insists that jazz is “intellectual, makes you use your mind”158 and rejects being seen as “some kind of noble savage.”159 Yet an enormous gulf nonetheless remains between his routine public descriptions of his musicianship as primitive or intuitive, on the one hand, and his abundant private written expressions of creative concepts and ideas, both verbally and in staff notation, on the other.160 Rollins, the journalist David Hajdu once observed, “tends to speak in well-intentioned platitudes that don’t begin to suggest the advanced sophistication of his music.”161 Or, one might add, the systematic, self-analytical clarity of his detailed musical texts. Unlike various other jazz performers who have at times sought, or taken advantage of, opportunities to write or speak publicly about their music on their own terms, he has only ever expressed his views through intermediaries, mainly journalists. He is a private person.162 He is shy.163 For nearly seven decades, he has graciously responded to the questions put to him. But he has never been especially forthcoming. Of all that he has left unsaid, the evidence briefly surveyed here is merely the tip of a vast iceberg awaiting further exploration.

In foregrounding musicians’ own views, jazz researchers since the late twentieth century have not entirely overlooked many players’ extensive, highly verbal engagement with music-theoretical minutiae.164 But, particularly among exponents of the “new jazz studies,” many authors have displayed, as Travis A. Jackson writes, “a near-complete lack of concern with—if not a dismissive attitude regarding—music analysis or any direct engagement with the material, rather than figurative, sound of jazz.”165 A major reason for scholars’ turn away from the sort of close engagement with musical sound and structure that Rollins’s private writings exemplify is that some of the chief sources of musicians’ own documented views are interviews given to journalists, generally as a means of professional self-promotion, for audiences with little expertise in such issues.166 Erroneous mystical or naive depictions of Black music and musicianship have consequently pervaded the commercial press.167 And the potential for misapprehensions can only grow if researchers feel any ethical imperative to take first-person accounts at face value in deference to musicians’ human agency.168 It may be true that, as Walser contends, many performers’ published discussions of their music emphasize its social functions and cultural meanings.169 But that is not necessarily all there is to it.

People routinely tailor their remarks to particular contexts.170 They change their minds; they contradict themselves. Not only that, but “musicians lie about what they do,” according to the pianist and educator Billy Taylor, who had in mind various influential Black jazz artists among his friends and acquaintances: “I knew that these men knew intellectually what they were doing, but I read interview after interview where they came off sounding like idiots. The writers reported accurately what they were saying, but what they said was bullshit. It gave people outside the field reason to say jazz cannot be analyzed.”171 That the majority of writers involved in such exchanges have been white is a point worth stating plainly, given that, in general, as the sociologist Elijah Anderson notes, Black Americans are accustomed to resorting to occasional dissimulation when dealing with white people, if only to maintain their exterior composure when confronted with negative prejudices or disrespect.172

So when Louis Armstrong expresses skepticism toward analyzing music, McCoy Tyner characterizes Black musical intelligence as involuntary, or Ornette Coleman says “you can’t intellectualize music,”173 we should always be prepared to take such comments with a judicious pinch of salt. After all, Armstrong also described jazz as “a secret order,”174 and indeed, writers such as Fred Moten and Amiri Baraka have observed that “secrecy ha[s] been a form of protection” for Black Americans throughout history.175 In calling himself a primitive or intuitive musician, then, Sonny Rollins simply shields from scrutiny the actual nature of his creative intellect—what he knows, and who he truly is as an artist. There is no easier way to mislead the misguided than to affirm what they already believe.176 This he knows for sure.

For their invaluable help, I thank Matt Snyder, Lewis Porter, and the staff of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.


Zora Neale Hurston, “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” in You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays, ed. Genevieve West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Amistad, 2022), 107–16, at 111. See also James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 4.


Francis Davis, “An Improviser Prepares,” in In The Moment: Jazz in the 1980s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 117–32, at 121; John Fordham, “Horn Culture,” in Shooting from the Hip: Changing Tunes in Jazz (London: Kyle Cathie, 1996), 336–39, at 336; and Gary Giddins and David Yaffe, “The Greatest Living Jazz Musician,” Village Voice, January 2, 1996, 24–28, at 24.


Graham Reid, “Following His Inner Voice,” Listener, April 30, 2011, 44–45, at 45; and Juan Rodriguez, “The Improvisational Virtuoso,” Montreal Gazette, June 27, 2010, A14.


Kathy J. Ogren, The Jazz Revolution: Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 139–61.


Eric Nisenson, Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 212.


Larry Appelbaum, interview with Sonny Rollins, Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, February 28, 2011, 8,


Jeffrey Brown, “Legendary Saxophonist Sonny Rollins on His Enduring Love for Jazz,” Newshour, PBS, November 29, 2011,


Louis Armstrong and Richard Meryman, Louis Armstrong: A Self-Portrait (New York: Eakins Press, 1966), 57–58.


Joe Brazil, “Joe Brazil Interviews McCoy Tyner,” November 22, 1971, Joe Brazil Project,


For a succinct synopsis of this trend in jazz scholarship, see Paul Steinbeck, review of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and Experimental Music, by George E. Lewis, Journal of Music Theory 51 (2007): 333–40, at 334–36; and Travis A. Jackson, “New Bottle, Old Wine: Whither Jazz Studies?,” in Issues in African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, Representation, ed. Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim (New York: Routledge, 2017), 30–46, at 35.


Tom Perchard, “New Riffs on the Old Mind-Body Blues: ‘Black Rhythm,’ ‘White Logic,’ and Music Theory in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of the Society for American Music 9 (2015): 321–48; and Michael Tenzer, “Introduction: Analysis, Categorization, and Theory of Musics of the World,” in Analytical Studies in World Music, ed. Michael Tenzer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3–38, at 9.


See, for example, Thomas C. Schelling, “The Intimate Contest for Self-Command,” in Choice and Consequence: Perspectives of an Errant Economist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 57–82; and Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).


For a summary of the concepts of procedural and declarative knowledge, see Howard Gardner, The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 161–62. See also Marc Perlman, “The Ethnomusicology of Performer Interaction in Improvised Ensemble Music: A Review of Two Recent Studies,” review of Knowing Music, Making Music: Javanese Gamelan and the Theory of Musical Competence and Interaction, by Benjamin Brinner, and Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction, by Ingrid Monson, Music Perception 15 (1997): 99–112, at 101–4; and David Temperley, review of Music in the Galant Style, by Robert O. Gjerdingen, Journal of Music Theory 50 (2006): 277–90, at 283.


Arun Rath, “Sonny Rollins: ‘You Can’t Think and Play at the Same Time,’” All Things Considered, NPR, May 3, 2014,


Jeff Pressing, “Improvisation: Methods and Models,” in Generative Processes in Music: The Psychology of Performance, Improvisation, and Composition, ed. John A. Sloboda (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 129–78, at 139–40.


Terry Gross, “Sonny Rollins: The Quintessential Jazz Man,” Fresh Air, NPR, July 29, 1994,


See, for example, Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 146–69.


Eric Porter, What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 240–86.


Coltrane’s sketches for A Love Supreme are reproduced in Ashley Kahn, The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), 125–26.


Adam Shatz, “The World of Cecil Taylor,” New York Review of Books, May 16, 2018,; Don Nelsen, “Bill Evans: Intellect, Emotion, and Communication,” Down Beat, December 8, 1960, 16–19, at 16; and Steve Larson, Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2009), 10–17.


Douglas Henry Daniels, “Oral History, Masks, and Protocol in the Jazz Community,” Oral History Review 15 (1987): 143–64; discussed in Jackson, “New Bottle, Old Wine,” 41.


Lawrence Gushee, Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 172; Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: Picador, 2005), 79; Margo Jefferson, “Ripping Off Black Music,” Harper’s Magazine, January 1973, 40–45; Greg Tate, ed., Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (New York: Broadway Books, 2003); Portia K. Maultsby, “The Politics of Race Erasure in Defining Black Popular Music Origins,” in Issues in African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, Representation, ed. Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim (New York: Routledge, 2017), 47–65; and Wesley Morris, “American Popular Music,” New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2019, 60–67.


Thomas Christensen, “Fragile Texts, Hidden Theory,” Musica Humana 3 (2011): 177–208, at 188–89.


Marc Hannaford, “One Line, Many Views: Perspectives on Music Theory, Composition, and Improvisation through the Work of Muhal Richard Abrams” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2019), 193–94; and Britt Rusert, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2017).


Hannaford, “One Line, Many Views,” 221–23; Ingrid Monson, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 287–96; Ronald M. Radano, New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton’s Cultural Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Ingrid Monson, “Yusef Lateef’s Autophysiopsychic Quest,” Daedalus 148 (2019): 104–14; and Stephen Rush, Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman (New York: Routledge, 2017).


Giovanni Russonello, “Headed Home to Harlem: Sonny Rollins’s Jazz Archive, Now at the Schomburg Center, Reveals a Striver,” New York Times, May 30, 2017, C1, C5.


Ishmael Reed, “Sonny Rollins: Three Takes,” in Mixing It Up: Taking On the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (New York: Da Capo Press, 2008), 63–88, at 68.


Joshua Redman, “Newk’s Time,” Jazz Times, June 2005, 46–55, 130, at 49; and Dave Liebman with Lewis Porter, What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012), 303.


Robert Walser, “Deep Jazz: Notes on Interiority, Race, and Criticism,” in Inventing the Psychological: Toward a Cultural History of Emotional Life in America, ed. Joel Pfister and Nancy Schnog (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 271–96, at 285–91; and Gunther Schuller, “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” Jazz Review 1, no. 1 (1958): 6–11, 21, at 9. Discussed in Benjamin Givan, “Gunther Schuller and the Challenge of Sonny Rollins: Stylistic Context, Intentionality, and Jazz Analysis,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 67 (2014): 167–237.


“Är det utomordentligt svårt att analysera mitt eget spel.…Om jag skulle försöka mej på något dylikt, är jag rädd att jag skulle bli för medveten om vissa komponenter i mitt improviserande.” Carl-Erik Lindgren, “Tio frågor till Sonny Rollins,” Estrad 21, no. 4 (April 1959): 13.


Dave Gelly, “Toying with Good Tunes,” Observer, October 26, 1986, 27.


Benjamin Givan, “Becoming Sonny Rollins,” American Music 37 (2019): 493–531, at 499–508.


“In the absence of a formalized jazz pedagogy,” Monson writes, “all jazz musicians in some ways had to become their own music theorist” (Freedom Sounds, 286).


David M. Yaffe, “When the Spirit Comes: An Interview with Sonny Rollins,” Village Voice, January 2, 1996, 28–29, at 29.


Tim Graham, “Sonny Rollins: Life of a Sax Colossus,” Goldmine 23, no. 26 (1997): 16–20, 56, 58, 62, at 18.


Nisenson, Open Sky, 68.


Whitney Balliett, “Jazz: Hot and Cold,” New Yorker, December 7, 1957, 208–10, at 209.


“International Jazz Critics Poll,” Down Beat, August 6, 1959, 19–21, at 20; and “Down Beat 23rd Annual Readers Poll Results,” Down Beat, December 24, 1959, 21–35, at 25.


Davis, “An Improviser Prepares,” 123.


Ted Panken, “It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews from 2000,” Today Is the Question, September 7, 2011,


George W. Goodman, “Sonny Rollins at Sixty-eight,” Atlantic, July 1999, 82–88, at 84.


Nat Hentoff, “Sonny Rollins,” Down Beat, November 28, 1956, 15–16.


Dom Cerulli, “Theodore Walter Rollins: Sonny Believes He Can Accomplish Much More Than He Has to Date,” Down Beat, July 10, 1958, 16–17.


“Absent Two Years: Sonny Rollins Returns to the Jazz Scene,” Jet, December 7, 1961, 60–61, at 60.


Sonny Rollins, The Bridge (RCA Victor LPM-2527, 1962); Ralph Berton, “Conversations on a Bridge,” Metronome, July 1961, 15–17, 38–39; Whitney Balliett, “Sabbatical,” New Yorker, November 18, 1961, 41–42; Sonny Rollins, “Sax and Sky,” as told to Adam Shatz, New York Times Magazine, April 26, 2015, 27; and Philip Levine, “The Unknowable,” in The Mercy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 36–37. Sonny and Lucille Rollins were officially married in 1965.


Considerable additional practice-related written musical material, which lies beyond this article’s scope, encompasses the entire remainder of Rollins’s performance career, through 2012.


Information from Lewis Porter, based on his own interview with Sonny Rollins in March 2015; Balliett, “Sabbatical,” 42; and George T. Simon, “A Horn Silenced for Discipline,” New York Herald Tribune, December 3, 1961, C6.


Rollins acquired a reading list compiled in 1958 by Dody (Hannah) Giletti for Columbia University anthropology PhD students. Sonny Rollins Papers (hereafter SRP), New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Box 2, Folder 7.


Nisenson, Open Sky, 144; Bill Coss, “The Return of Sonny Rollins,” Down Beat, January 4, 1962, 13–14; Mary Bolster, “With a Song in His Heart,” Yoga Journal, May 2006, 119–20; and Linda Sparrowe, “Sonny Rollins,” in Yoga at Home: Inspiration for Creating Your Own Home Practice (New York: Rizzoli, 2015), 200–201.


Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 46–74.


SRP, Box 3, Folder 1; and William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890), 1:122. On tacit knowledge, see also Gilbert Ryle, “Knowing How and Knowing That,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 46 (1945–46): 1–16; and Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 71–77.


Nate Chinen, “Sonny Rollins on His Colossal Archive,” Jazz Night in America, NPR, May 30, 2017,


Brent Hayes Edwards, in Jed Rasula and Brent Hayes Edwards, “The Ear of the Behearer: A Conversation in Jazz,” New Ohio Review 3 (2008): 42–64, at 60.


Michael C. Heller, Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 148.


Matt Snyder, personal conversation, August 10, 2017.


Note to Lucille Rollins, SRP, Box 105, Folder 4.


Note to Lucille Rollins, March 28, 1961, SRP, Box 105, Folder 4.


Letter to Lucille Rollins, February 28, 1962, SRP, Box 105, Folder 5.


Letter to Lucille Rollins (probably February 1962), SRP, Box 105, Folder 5.


Letter to Lucille Rollins (probably February 1962), SRP, Box 105, Folder 5.


“After moving in Drive and wanting to move next in reverse with cut wheels, cut the wheels while brake is on and still in DRIVE. Then shift to Reverse and let her slide back on her own for a second before cutting her the rest of the Reverse Swing…test this procedure on other automobiles before establishing it as a RULE!—naturally.” Spiral-bound notepad, SRP, Box 2, Folder 6.


Handwritten note, SRP, Box 2, Folder 7.


Handwritten statement, SRP, Box 2, Folder 7.


Handwritten note, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1.


Handwritten statement, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1.


Handwritten statement, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1.


Handwritten note, October 18, 1962, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1.


A 1960 comment on bettering his eating habits expresses this basic conviction directly: “By the very documenting of the transgressions I am demo[n]strating my awakening strength which will come into full bloom at such time as I have suffered through the various manifestations of these problems.” Handwritten statement dated September 8, 1960, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1.


Monson, Freedom Sounds, 295.


Paul de Ville, Universal Method for the Saxophone (New York: Carl Fischer, 1908), SRP, Box 4, Folder 3. On the “author’s note” page, Rollins wrote handwritten staff notation, along with several sentences of performance notes, to his composition “At McKie’s,” which he recorded on July 18, 1963, for his album Sonny Meets Hawk! (RCA Victor LPM-2712, 1963).


SRP, Box 4, Folder 3.


Appelbaum, interview with Sonny Rollins, 30.


Sigurd M. Rascher, Top-Tones for the Saxophone: Daily Embouchure Drills and Four-Octave Studies (New York: Carl Fischer, 1941). The edition of Rascher’s book preserved in SRP, Box 5, Folder 1, is Top-Tones for the Saxophone: Four Octave Range, rev. ed. (New York: Carl Fischer, 1961); Goodman, “Sonny Rollins at Sixty-eight,” 84; and Frank Kofsky, “The Return of Sonny Rollins,” Jazz Journal 15 (May 1962): 12–14, at 13.


Sigurd M. Rascher, “A Double Welcome,” Saxophone Symposium 14, no. 2 (1989): 16–17.


Letters to Sigurd Rascher, February 5, 1991, and January 16, 1993, SRP, Box 110, Folder 1. On Rollins and Rascher, see also Bill Beuttler, “Saxophone Colossus,”,, accessed January 31, 2022.


Rascher, Top-Tones, 8.


Practice Notebook, 1963–64, SRP, Box 2, Folder 6.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1. Asked whether he ever considered publishing any of his private writings on music theory and saxophone technique, Rollins explained, “I thought about doing things like that but my stuff is unorthodox.…All these things that I might have been writing, I didn’t feel they were applicable to other people. So I didn’t pursue them.” David Marchese, “Sonny Rollins Is at Peace. But He Regrets Trying to One-Up Coltrane,” New York Times Magazine, February 27, 2020,


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 1.


John Szwed, So What: The Life of Miles Davis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 171–72; Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 149–50; George Russell, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Concept Music, 1959); and Nicolas Slonimsky, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (New York: Scribner’s, 1947).


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2; and Slonimsky, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, ii.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


See, for instance, Sonny Rollins, Our Man in Jazz (RCA Victor LPM-2612, 1962); and Sonny Rollins, Sonny Meets Hawk!


Rollins plays a four-note hexatonic melodic formula, transposing it sequentially by descending major thirds, during his solos on “Improvised Medley,” recorded on January 15, 1963 (Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry Quartet, The Complete 1963 Copenhagen Concert [Jazz Lips 767, n.d.]), at 15:01; “Without a Song,” recorded on January 17, 1963 (Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry Quartet, New York 1962/Stockholm 1963 [Rare Live Recordings 88648, 2009]), at 2:39; “Solitude,” recorded on January 19, 1963 (Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry Quartet, The Complete 1963 Paris Concert [Gambit 69292, 2008]), at 8:01; and “Where Are You?,” recorded on January 17, 1965 (Sonny Rollins, Live in London Volume 3 [Harkit 8204, 2006]), at 13:04.


Lewis Porter, “A Deep Dive into John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme by His Biographer, Lewis Porter (Pt. 1),” WBGO, July 17, 2020, See also Coltrane’s twelve-tone composition, “Miles’ Mode” (John Coltrane Quartette, Coltrane [Impulse! A-21, 1962]).


Vincent Persichetti, Twentieth-Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961).


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2; and Persichetti, Twentieth-Century Harmony, 44. The application of the term “synthetic” to musical scales dates from at least 1929. See J. Murray Barbour, “Synthetic Musical Scales,” American Mathematical Monthly 36 (March 1929): 155–60. This term was also adopted by Eric Dolphy in the early 1960s. See Yusef A. Lateef, Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns (New Albany, IN: 1981), 15; and Yusef Lateef with Herb Boyd, The Gentle Giant (Irvington, NJ: Morton Books, 2006), 128.


The term “octatonic,” which Rollins did not use, was coined by Arthur Berger in “Problems of Pitch Organization in Stravinsky,” Perspectives of New Music 2 (1963): 11–42. Rollins plays brief octatonic melodic figures in his solos on “Love Letters,” recorded on March 4, 1959 (Sonny Rollins Trio, Live in Europe 1959 [Solar 4569910, 2011]), at 4:44; “On Green Dolphin Street,” recorded on October 29, 1965 (Sonny Rollins Trio, Live in Munich 1965 [Domino 891215, 2011]), at 15:29; and “Standards Medley” (Live in Munich 1965), at 3:26.


Handwritten manuscripts, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2. On Bartók’s use of the acoustic scale, see Ernö Lendvai, Béla Bartók: An Analysis of His Music (London: Kahn and Averill, 1971), 69–70.


See Robin D. G. Kelley, Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1–3; and Richard Brent Turner, Soundtrack to a Movement: African American Islam, Jazz, and Black Internationalism (New York: New York University Press, 2021), 150–57.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 3, Folder 4; and handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 4.


Oliver Nelson, Patterns for Improvisation (Los Angeles: Noslen Music, 1966).


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 4.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 3, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 3, Folder 5.


Another manuscript in Rollins’s hand indicates a prose description and illustration in staff notation of the whole-tone collections with bibliographic references to Willi Apel and Ralph T. Daniel, Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960); and Percy A. Scholes, Oxford Companion to Music, 9th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955). Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 21, Folder 1.


Whole-tone melodic patterns occur during his improvisations on “Doxy #2,” recorded in July 1962 (Sonny Rollins Quartet, Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 [Solar 4569959, 2015]), at 16:00; and “Standards Medley” (Live in Munich 1965), at 14:38. Sequentially transposed short figures can be heard during his improvisations on “St. Thomas” (Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962), at 2:23, 7:07, and 7:55; “On Green Dolphin Street” (The Complete 1963 Copenhagen Concert), at 13:52, 14:07, and 14:30; “Blue ’n’ Boogie,” recorded on January 8, 1965 (Sonny Rollins, Live in London, Volume 3 [Harkit 8204, 2006]), at 5:56; and “Three Little Words,” recorded on July 8, 1965 (Sonny Rollins, On Impulse! [Impulse! A-91, 1965]), at 0:00.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 3.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 4.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 3, Folder 3. Per standard jazz parlance, by “7” Rollins means a flattened seventh. Assuming an implicit treble clef, the third pitch in example 5, E♭, is apparently an error in the manuscript; it should be D♭.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 4.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2. In both instances, Rollins adds some additional notation, not transcribed here, relating to “optional extension” of the arpeggiations.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


“Solitude” (Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962), at 10:19.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2.


Discussed in Clément Canonne, “Rehearsing Free Improvisation? An Ethnographic Study of Free Improvisers at Work,” Music Theory Online 24 (December 2018),


Melissa Aldana, “Melissa Aldana and Sonny Rollins,” Burning Ambulance, March 2016,


Pete Gershon, “Saxophone Colossus,” Soundboard 2 (1997): 8–11, at 10.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 5, Folder 1.


Alex W. Rodriguez, “Interview with Sonny Rollins, Musical and Spiritual Autodidact,” Ethnomusicology Review, May 30, 2016,


Kevin T. Dann, Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 17–45.


On pitch–color synesthesia, see B. M. Galeyev, “The Nature and Functions of Synesthesia in Music,” Leonardo 40 (2007): 285–88. On Rosicrucianism and music, see Justin Andrew Owen, “The Handmaiden of Gnosis: Music in Esoteric Societies” (PhD diss., Louisiana State University, 2018), 15–18.


Riley Crabb, Color: The Bridge to The New Age (Vista, CA: Borderland Science Research Associates Foundation, n.d.), 8. Discussed in John Floyd Gay III, “The Correlation of Sound and Color: Three Major Metaphysical Sources” (DMA thesis, University of Missouri–Kansas City, 1972), 21.


SRP, Box 4, Folder 3. Rollins discusses his passing interest in Rosicrucianism in Rodriguez, “Interview with Sonny Rollins.”


Handwritten manuscript, dated March 2, 1963, SRP, Box 4, Folder 1.


Handwritten table, SRP, Box 4, Folder 1. In this table, Rollins lists musical pitches in circle-of-fifths order and notes that, in the cases of Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin, “keys signify major scales.” He gives the Rosicrucian column the abbreviated heading “R.C.” For another listing of the two composers’ synesthetic perceptions, see Kenneth Peacock, “Synesthetic Perception: Alexander Scriabin’s Color Hearing,” Music Perception 2 (1985): 483–505, at 494.


A handwritten table by Rollins linking pitches to “color,” “nervous reaction,” and “perfume” includes a reference to the work of Roland Hunt, author of The Seven Keys to Colour Healing (Ashingdon: C. W. Daniel, 1954). SRP, Box 22, Folder 1.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 3, Folder 1; Hermann L. F. Helmholtz, On the Sensations of Tone, trans. Alexander J. Ellis (1877; New York: Dover, 1954); Alexander Wood, The Physical Basis of Music (1913; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925); Charles A. Culver, Musical Acoustics (Philadelphia: Blakiston, 1941); and Harry F. Olson, Musical Engineering (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952).


Handwritten manuscripts, SRP, Box 2, Folder 6; and Box 3, Folder 1.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 6.


Wood, Physical Basis of Music, 11–13.


Simon, “A Horn Silenced for Discipline,” C6.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1 (ellipsis in original).


Willem A. Van Bergeijk, John R. Pierce, and Edward E. David, Jr., Waves and the Ear (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1960); this book is referenced in a handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 6.


SRP, Box 21, Folder 1; and F. B. Chapman, Flute Technique (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), 1–2.


Rollins owned some page excerpts from Martin Keen, The How and Why Wonder Book of the Human Body (New York: Wonder Books, 1961), 11–12; SRP, Box 22, Folder 2. His notes include detailed prose descriptions of abdominal and diaphragmatic respiration, as well as paradoxical breathing disorders and the diagnostic technique of auscultation; SRP, Box 3, Folder 1.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 22, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 22, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 7.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 7. This appears to be the exercise that Ralph Berton described having heard Rollins practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1961 (“Conversations on a Bridge,” 17).


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 3, Folder 1.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 4, Folder 2. Pharyngeal breathing uses the throat (pharynx).


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 3, Folder 1. During the 1960s, Rollins began in his live performances to occasionally use circular breathing, which involves inhaling through the nose as described here. Circular breathing can be heard on his recordings of “52nd Street Theme” (New York 1962 / Stockholm 1963), at 15:57; and “There Will Never Be Another You,” recorded on June 17, 1965 (Sonny Rollins, There Will Never Be Another You [Impulse! IA-9349, 1978]), at 13:05.


Handwritten manuscripts, SRP, Box 2, Folder 7; Box 4, Folder 2; Box 4, Folder 4; Box 20, Folder 1; Box 21, Folder 1; and Box 22, Folder 2.


Berton, “Conversations on a Bridge,” 17; and Coss, “Return of Sonny Rollins,” 14.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 22, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 1. Another page-long handwritten note contemplates “the effects of tobacco on the human body”; SRP, Box 22, Folder 2.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 21, Folder 1.


“Do not EAT FOOD in a cramped position as the indigestion resulting is often acute”; handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 2, Folder 7.


Some of Rollins’s written manuscripts from the early 1960s are on printed letterhead titled “The Sonny Rollins ‘Yoga For Americans’ Club,” including the above-mentioned statement on “Saxophone and Health,” and another describing a yoga routine; SRP, Box 22, Folder 2. For an overview of jazz improvisation, meditation, and mysticism, see Jason C. Bivins, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 192–219.


Crispin Cioe, “Sonny Rollins: ‘I’m Still Reaching,’” High Fidelity 33 (May 1983): 76–78, 90, at 90; Bolster, “With a Song in His Heart,” 119; and Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (1946; Bombay: Jaico, 1958), 227.


Handwritten manuscript, SRP, Box 22, Folder 2.


Bob Blumenthal, “The Bridge: Sonny Rollins Is a Tenor for All Times,” Rolling Stone, July 12, 1979, 56–62, at 62.


George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 370–88.


Quoted in Rascher, “A Double Welcome,” 17 (ellipsis in original).


Simon, “A Horn Silenced for Discipline,” C6.


Gershon, “Saxophone Colossus,” 11.


Coss, “Return of Sonny Rollins,” 13.


For a concise summary of the prevailing, post-enlightenment conception of freedom in mid-twentieth-century US culture, see Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 74–75.


Ira Gitler, “Sonny Rollins Tells His Story at the IAJE Conference,” Down Beat, April 2006, 13–14, at 14.


Nisenson, Open Sky, 37.


By contrast, no such gulf is evinced by the private manuscripts of a performer such as the guitarist Derek Bailey, who, as the author of a well-known book on musical improvisation, did not at all share Rollins’s public reticence. See Dominic Lash, “Derek Bailey’s Practice/Practise,” Perspectives of New Music 49 (2011): 143–71; and Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Ashbourne: Moorland, 1980).


David Hajdu, “The Largeness of Sonny Rollins,” New Republic, June 18, 2011,


Rollins has described himself as “a very private person.” See Marc Myers, “Home in the Key of E,” Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2013,


Monson contends that “the only ethical point of departure for work in jazz studies and ethnomusicology remains the documentation and interpretation of vernacular perspectives, contemporary or historical.” Ingrid Monson, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 6; see also Porter, What Is This Thing Called Jazz?, xvii.


Jackson, “New Bottle, Old Wine,” 35.


Discussed in Tom Perchard, “The Vocalized Tone,” in The Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies, ed. Nicholas Gebhardt, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, and Tony Whyton (New York: Routledge, 2019), 197–207, at 202. For a general discussion of the ethnographic complexities of interviews with musicians, see Nicole Beaudry, “The Challenges of Human Relations in Ethnographic Enquiry: Examples from Arctic and Subarctic Fieldwork,” in Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, 2nd ed., ed. Gregory Barz and Timothy J. Cooley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 224–45, at 236–45.


Christopher Coady, John Lewis and the Challenge of “Real” Black Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 6.


Such a position is asserted in Josiah Boornazian, “Mary Lou Williams and the Role of Gender in Jazz: How Can Jazz Culture Respect Women’s Voices and Break Down Barriers for Women in Jazz While Simultaneously Acknowledging Uncomfortable Histories?,” Jazz Education in Research and Practice 3 (2022): 27–47, at 38.


Walser, “Deep Jazz,” 276.


Monson observes that “a long tradition of interviews with musicians in jazz periodicals has established the interview as something of a secondary performance genre for musicians” (Saying Something, 20). Musical improvisers may even conceal their true views regarding performance-related matters from their fellow players. See Ritwik Banerji, “Phenomenologies of Egalitarianism in Free Improvisation: A Virtual Performer Meets Its Critics” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2018), 282.


Len Lyons, “Billy Taylor,” in The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), 177–84, at 182–83; quoted in Tom Arnold-Foster, “Dr. Billy Taylor, ‘America’s Classical Music,’ and the Role of the Jazz Ambassador,” Journal of American Studies 51 (2017): 117–39, at 134–35.


Elijah Anderson, Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 52.


Ornette Coleman (as told to Gary Kramer), liner notes to Change of the Century (Atlantic SD 1327, 1960); quoted in Monson, Freedom Sounds, 285.


Louis Armstrong, letter to Chris Clufetos, February 6, 1954,; quoted in John F. Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon, 1997), vii.


Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones], Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed from It (New York: William Morrow, 1963), 220. Moten explains: “The history of Afro-diasporic art, especially music, is…the history of the keeping of this secret even in the midst of its intensely public and highly commodified dissemination.” Charles Henry Rowell and Fred Moten, “‘Words Don’t Go There’: An Interview with Fred Moten,” Callaloo 27 (2004): 954–66, at 960; quoted in Daphne A. Brooks, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2021), 39–40.


“Agree ’em to death and destruction,” advises the protagonist’s grandfather in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952; New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 16; quoted in Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 133.