At this juncture of his career, you'd think Walter "Sonny" Rollins has nothing to prove anymore.
At 77, with 60-plus years of recording behind him, his legacy as one of the world's great tenor saxophonists is in cement. He has a vast resume of collaborations with a who's who of his peers -- Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Tommy Flanagan, Jack DeJohnette, McCoy Tyner and the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet, to name a few -- as well as his own groundbreaking solo work. He also has a sessions list that runs the jazz gamut and even includes the Rolling Stones.
He's won a pair of Grammy trophy as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the latter in 2004. And proving that he's still a potent talent, last year Rollins was named the Artist of the Year and Best Tenor Saxphonist by the Jazz Journalists Association and in the Down Beat magazine critics poll. Earlier this year he received the prestigious Polar Music Prize in Sweden.
So Rollins could comfortably sit at home in upstate New York, doing yoga and taking it easy.
"I'm not a guy that's sitting down, patting myself on the back, feeling great when somebody gives me a prize," says Rollins, who was born in Harlem and was introduced to jazz by his uncle, who was also a professional saxophonist. He began playing professionally in the 1940s and debuted as a leader himself in 1951.
He's earned enough accolades since to lose track, but he quietly shrugs them off. "I appreciate it," Rollins explains. "It's gratifying to know people have recognized me and gotten somethign out of my music, maybe, and it's helped them through their life. Therefore I'm sort of useful down here on this planet.
"But beyond that...so what? What can I do with it? I can't rest on my laurels. I'm still practicing every day. I'm trying to improve myself."
Rollins laments that he can no longer practice for 15 hours a day, as he did when he was younger; nowadays he has to settle for two hours. But he's still trying to get the most out of that, even when he's working on "rudimentary" skills such as scale patterns and harmonic changes.
"It's the obvious stuff," Rollins notes, "but it's more complicated than we might think. You might be doing the obvious, then you find out, 'Wait, here's another layer to the obvious. I thought I knew this, and now I see that I don't really know it.'
"Music is like that; that's what makes it an art as well as a skill -- things that are unexplainable. It's always a mystery, but there's always something new to discover. That's the beautiful part; I always hear something new I didn't hear yesterday."
Rollins' latest endeavor is on his art's business side. After the 2004 death of his wife and manager Lucille, Rollins decided he wanted to exert more control over his musical product and launched Doxy Records, named after a song he composed with Miles Davis. Its first release was "Sonny, Please," his first studio album in five years. He also plans to use the imprint to release a series of archival recordings, as well as a document of a trio concert last month at New York's Carnegie Hall that marked the 50th anniversary of his first performance at that venue.
"I've been doing this all, along, anyway," Rollins says, noting that his previous labels "gave me a lot of freedom to handle the output in any way I wanted to. So I'm just continuing that with Doxy."
And, Rollins says, he plans to continue on --probably until he drops.
"I'd definitely like to," he says. "If that's God's well, I definitely want to do that. As we said, there's so much to study, so much to learn. I'd like to try to get as much as I can into this life.
"So,yeah, I'd like to keep playing as long as I can physically do that. I've gotten this far, haven't I?"
Sonny Rollins performs at 8 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 13) at the Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $47, $37 and $27. Call (313) 887-8501 or visit www.musicahall.org.
Send your thoughts and comments to