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Life Advice from Jazz Genius Sonny Rollins

Close-up of American jazz musician Sonny Rollins playing the tenor saxophone mid 1950s. (Photo by Bob Parent/Getty Images)

At age 89, after 70 years as a jazz saxophonist who played with John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker (to name just a few), Sonny Rollins quietly gave up playing in 2014 due to pulmonary fibrosis. At The New York Times Magazine, David Marchese talks to Rollins about why he decided not to publish his ideas on saxophone technique and harmony, and his distinct lack of nostalgia for jazz days gone by.

When I had to stop playing it was quite traumatic. But I realized that instead of lamenting and crying, I should be grateful for the fact that I was able to do music all of my life. So I had that realization, plus my spiritual beliefs, which I’ve been cultivating for many years. All that work went into my accepting the fact that I couldn’t play my horn.

Does believing in the transience of life mean you’re not nostalgic for jazz’s past? Or your own life in jazz? Wayne Shorter’s still here, but Miles is not here. Max Roach is not here. Trane is not here. Monk is not here. Do I feel nostalgic about that? No. These guys are alive to me. I hear their music. OK, Charlie Parker is not in his body, but everything about Charlie Parker is here to me in spirit. Any time of day, any time of night, I might think of Miles, and the spirit is there. Occasionally I go, Gee, I can’t hang out with Dizzy Gillespie or Clifford Brown after a gig. I think about that, but it’s receding. Those guys — I don’t worry about them not being here in the flesh. I’m not going to be in the flesh, either. You’re not going to be in the flesh, either, David. So what? It’s OK.

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