Walter Theodore “Sonny” Rollins (born September 7, 1930) is an American jazz tenor saxophonist who is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians.In a seven-decade career, he has recorded over sixty albums as a leader. A number of his compositions, including “St. Thomas“, “Oleo“, “Doxy“, “Pent-Up House”, and “Airegin“, have become jazz standards. Rollins has been called “the greatest living improviser”.
Rollins was born in New York City to parents from the United States Virgin Islands. The youngest of three siblings, he grew up in central Harlem and on Sugar Hill,receiving his first alto saxophone at the age of seven or eight. He attended Edward W. Stitt Junior High School and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. Rollins started as a pianist, changed to alto saxophone, and finally switched to tenor in 1946. During his high school years, he played in a band with other future jazz legends Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor.
In 1957, Rollins pioneered the use of bass and drums, without piano, as accompaniment for his saxophone solos, a texture that came to be known as “strolling.” Two early tenor/bass/drums trio recordings are Way Out West and A Night at the Village Vanguard. Way Out West was so named because it was recorded for California-based Contemporary Records (with Los Angeles drummer Shelly Manne), and because it included country and western songs such as “Wagon Wheels” and “I’m an Old Cowhand“. The Village Vanguard album consists of two sets, a matinee with bassist Donald Bailey and drummer Pete LaRoca and an evening set with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones. Rollins used the trio format intermittently throughout his career, sometimes taking the unusual step of using his sax as a rhythm section instrument during bass and drum solos. Lew Tabackin cited Rollins’s pianoless trio as an inspiration to lead his own. Joe Henderson, David S. Ware, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Redman have also led pianoless sax trios.
While in Los Angeles in 1957, Rollins met alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the two of them practiced together. Coleman, a pioneer of free jazz, stopped using a pianist in his own band two years later.