Sonny Rollins's Lost Brothers

by David Hajdu | September 10, 2010

Sonny Rollins, who for more then 50 years has been known by the name of his 1956 album, Saxophone Colossus, turned 80 on September 7, and his plans for celebration include a birthday concert at the Beacon Theater in New York on September 10. Rollins has deserved the title given him by Bob Altshuler, the promotion director at Prestige Records. As an improviser, Rollins is a figure of monumental standing. His solos are teachable models of thematic and motific development, through-composed works spontaneously produced. His tone is titanic, as well, though he has for years now denied his audiences opportunities to hear it well. (He has tended to do spectacle events in big halls, with a microphone clamped to the bell of his horn, instead of playing acoustically in small theaters or clubs, and no one can deny him the privilege or the paydays.)

To celebrate an artist still active at 80 is to mourn the many creative lives not so privileged. Rollins himself was thinking of a deceased jazz musician, the trumpeter Freddie Webster, when he recorded Saxophone Colossus. Webster, a deeply lyrical player who was a key early influence on Miles Davis, had died at the age of 30 in Chicago's Strode Hotel, and Rollins memorialized him with the composition "Strode Rode" on Saxophone Colossus. I have never seen film footage of Webster and would love to hear from anyone who knows of any.

In the spirit of "Strode Rode," I would like to honor a couple of other colossi of jazz who were not blessed with Rollins' longevity, starting with Booker Little, the trumpeter, whom Rollins introduced to Max Roach and whom Roach played with regularly until Little's death of kidney failure, at the age of 23, in 1961. Like Webster, Little was a player of precocious sensitivity, as we can see in this rare clip of him performing in 1958 with Roach and saxophonist George Coleman. The picture quality is as poor as the music is rich, but it's all we have of Little on film, that I know of.

Equally rare is the only known footage of one of Little's primary influences, the glorious Clifford Brown, who died at age 25 in a car crash that also killed the bebop pianist Richie Powell, the 24-year-old younger brother of Bud Powell. Here, Brown leaves us a heartbreaking memento of the gorgeous music he could but would never again make: "Oh, Lady Be Good" and "Memories of You," performed on a Detroit-market comedy show hosted by a local jazzhead named Soupy Sales. For doing this, the late Soupy can be forgiven for everything elseā€”even for "The Mouse."

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