Mature, precocious, cultured and determined. Aside from a few summers in Maryland, Rollins spent his childhood in Harlem, a cultural epicenter that would shape him into a jazz icon who would steer the trajectory of the genre and the concept of improvisation writ large. As Rollins looks back, the chapters of his life often slice into neat little halves — separate realities where he toggled between success and struggle, renown and solitude. He apprenticed with the bop gods (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis) while battling the dark forces of addiction. At his highest levels of acclaim, he took mysterious sabbaticals that felt like vanishing acts. Today, Rollins says he gets through “this world full of problems” by reaching for higher spiritual plateaus that he “can almost touch,” but never quite does.
Rollins describes the mysteries of improvisation plainly: “You make what might seem like a breakthrough. And then . . . you have to take a step back. You take a step forward. Then you have to take a step or two to the side. The idea that, ‘Oh, gee, now I’ve got it, I’m right on the track’ — that never really materializes.”
He remains hypercritical of his own work, but says he knew at a young age that he was destined to be “prominent.” Born in Harlem on Sept. 7, 1930, Walter Theodore Rollins was the son of a working mom and a Navy dad, both born in the Virgin Islands. His grandmother often looked after him as a child, but in many ways, he was raised by the city. As a jazz-obsessed teen, he would hound saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and persuade Thelonious Monk to sneak him into bars.
“I think I was just born at the right time and the right place because everything around me was music,” Rollins says. As a young child, he listened to the blues records of his uncle’s girlfriend. He watched his older siblings practice violin and piano. He’d walk past the Cotton Club on the way to school. He took up saxophone at 13 and a few years later was playing alongside future jazz great Jackie McLean. His family remained skeptical.
“They didn’t think much of jazz,” Rollins says. “Later, when I began smoking pot and all this stuff, it really confirmed their views that music was really nothing and I wasn’t going anyplace.”
By 1953, he was proving them wrong and right. He had already served jail time for an armed robbery in 1950, but his star was rising as Monk’s prize sideman — all while nursing a heroin addiction that he managed to kick for good in 1955. “Saxophone Colossus” came the following year, the album that would cement his eminence in jazz. [Read More]