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Sonny Rollins at the Kennedy Center

Dec 06, 2011 12:05 am

USA Today reports that Germantown's free jazz legend, Sonny Rollins was honored alongside Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, Neil Diamond, and Barbara Cook at the Kennedy Center Sunday, December 4. President Barack Obama introduced each honoree, and this is what he had to say about Sonny Rollins:
"When Sonny Rollins was growing up, he and his friends would sneak into jazz clubs by drawing mustaches on themselves -- (laughter) -- with an eyebrow pencil -- (laughter) -- to try to look older. Did that work, Sonny? (Laughter.) We don't know if it fooled anybody, but they did get into the clubs.

"Harlem in the 1930s was a hotbed of jazz, and for a young musician with a big horn and bigger dreams, it was heaven. Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins lived around the corner. Sonny learned melody and harmony from Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis was a regular playing partner.

"It wasn't long before Sonny earned the nickname 'the Saxophone Colossus,' and became known as one of the greatest improvisers in the history of jazz. Today, he often plays hour-long solos without any repetition, leaving audiences speechless. People sometimes wonder how he can play for so long, but in Sonny's words, 'It just means there's something out there, and I know I have to find it.'

"Sonny also loves to roam the crowd during a performance. One story goes that he was halfway through a solo one night when he jumped off the stage and disappeared. (Laughter.) Just when the band was about to go looking for him, the solo started back up. Sonny had broken his foot and was lying on the floor, but he finished the set with so much energy and passion, the audience didn't notice.

"To hear Sonny tell it, he's just keeping things pure. 'The worst thing in the world to me is to play by rote,' he says. 'You have to play from the inside; that's real jazz.'"
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