Sonny Rollins was born on September 7, 1930 in New York City, New York, USA as Theodore Walter Rollins. He is known for his work on Metro (1997), The Switch (2010) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).Rollins parents were 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.
After graduating from high school in 1948, Rollins began performing professionally; he made his first recordings in early 1949 as a sideman with the bebop singer Babs Gonzales (trombonist J. J. Johnson was the arranger of the group). Within the next few months, he began to make a name for himself, recording with Johnson and appearing under the leadership of pianist Bud Powell, alongside trumpeter Fats Navarro and drummer Roy Haynes, on a seminal "hard bop" session.
In early 1950, Rollins was arrested for armed robbery and spent ten months in Rikers Island jail before being released on parole; in 1952, he was re-arrested for violating the terms of his parole by using heroin. Between 1951 and 1953, he recorded with Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. A breakthrough arrived in 1954 when he recorded his famous compositions "Oleo", "Airegin", and "Doxy" with a quintet led by Davis that also featured pianist Horace Silver, these recordings appearing on the album Bags' Groove.
In 1955, Rollins entered the Federal Medical Center, Lexington, at the time the only assistance in the U.S. for drug addicts. While there, he volunteered for then-experimental methadone therapy and was able to break his heroin habit, after which he lived for a time in Chicago, briefly rooming with the trumpeter Booker Little. Rollins initially feared sobriety would impair his musicianship, but then went on to greater success.
Rollins briefly joined the Miles Davis Quintet in the summer of 1955. Later that year, he joined the Clifford Brown–Max Roach quintet; studio albums documenting his time in the band are Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street and Sonny Rollins Plus 4. After the deaths of Brown and the band's pianist, Richie Powell, in a June 1956 automobile accident, Rollins continued playing with Roach and began releasing albums under his own name on Prestige Records, Blue Note, Riverside, and the Los Angeles label Contemporary.
His widely acclaimed album Saxophone Colossus was recorded on June 22, 1956, at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, former Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins, and his favorite drummer, Roach. This was Rollins's sixth recording as a leader and it included his best-known composition "St. Thomas", a Caribbean calypso based on a tune sung to him by his mother in his childhood, as well as the fast bebop number "Strode Rode", and "Moritat" (the Kurt Weill composition also known as "Mack the Knife"). A long blues solo on Saxophone Colossus, "Blue 7", was analyzed in depth by the composer and critic Gunther Schuller in a 1958 article.
Sonny Rollins "St. Thomas" (1956) Improvisation from St. Thomas starting immediately after the melody
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In the solo for "St. Thomas", Rollins uses repetition of a rhythmic pattern, and variations of that pattern, covering only a few tones in a tight range, and employing staccato and semi-detached notes. This is interrupted by a sudden flourish, utilizing a much wider range before returning to the former pattern. In his book The Jazz Style of Sonny Rollins, David N. Baker explains that Rollins "very often uses rhythm for its own sake. He will sometimes improvise on a rhythmic pattern instead of on the melody or changes." Ever since recording "St. Thomas", Rollins's use of calypso rhythms has been one of his signature contributions to jazz; he often performs traditional Caribbean tunes such as "Hold 'Em Joe" and "Don't Stop the Carnival," and he has written many original calypso-influenced compositions, such as "Duke of Iron," "The Everywhere Calypso," and "Global Warming."
In 1957 he married the actress and model Dawn Finney.
In 1956 he also recorded Tenor Madness, using Davis's group – pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The title track is the only recording of Rollins with John Coltrane, who was also a member of Davis's group.
At the end of the year Rollins appeared as a sideman on Thelonious Monk's album Brilliant Corners and also recorded his own first album for Blue Note Records, entitled Sonny Rollins, Volume One, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Gene Ramey on bass, and Roach on drums.