Saxophone Colossus

The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins


By Aidan Levy

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**Winner of the American Book Award (2023)**

​**Longlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award (2023)**

The long-awaited first full biography of legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins 

Sonny Rollins has long been considered an enigma. Known as the “Saxophone Colossus,” he is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz improvisers of all time, winning Grammys, the Austrian Cross of Honor, Sweden’s Polar Music Prize and a National Medal of Arts. A bridge from bebop to the avant-garde, he is a lasting link to the golden age of jazz, pictured in the iconic “Great Day in Harlem” portrait. His seven-decade career has been well documented, but the backstage life of the man once called “the only jazz recluse” has gone largely untold—until now. 

Based on more than 200 interviews with Rollins himself, family members, friends, and collaborators, as well as Rollins’ extensive personal archive, Saxophone Colossus is the comprehensive portrait of this legendary saxophonist and composer, civil rights activist and environmentalist. A child of the Harlem Renaissance, Rollins’ precocious talent landed him on the bandstand and in the recording studio with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, or playing opposite Billie Holiday. An icon in his own right, he recorded Tenor Madness, featuring John Coltrane; Way Out West; Freedom Suite, the first civil rights-themed album of the hard bop era; A Night at the Village Vanguard; and the 1956 classic Saxophone Colossus. 

Yet his meteoric rise to fame was not without its challenges. He served two sentences on Rikers Island and won his battle with heroin addiction. In 1959, Rollins took a two-year sabbatical from recording and performing, practicing up to 16 hours a day on the Williamsburg Bridge. In 1968, he left again to study at an ashram in India. He returned to performing from 1971 until his retirement in 2012.  

The story of Sonny Rollins—innovative, unpredictable, larger than life—is the story of jazz itself, and Sonny’s own narrative is as timeless and timely as the art form he represents. Part jazz oral history told in the musicians’ own words, part chronicle of one man’s quest for social justice and spiritual enlightenment, this is the definitive biography of one of the most enduring and influential artists in jazz and American history.



Chapter 1



The rhythm and the family name go back to Sonny’s grandfather Steadman Rollins—but Sonny Rollins was almost Walter Berkel. Sonny’s musical inheritance is straightforward, but the name—the name is more complicated. “I had something about the name, I guess: Sonny Rollins,” Sonny later said. “It’s just a name that… it sort of has a melody to it in itself, so that when people begin to hear it… I mean, it sounds like somebody already.”1

Sonny never met Steadman Rollins, but he felt his influence. “My father told me that he played clarinet at one time. I never heard him play,” Sonny said, “but other than that I think it’s probably further back. I think my grandfather on my father’s side was a singer. That’s what I was told, and they were from St. Croix. And my sister… had pictures, and she said I resemble him very much.… He was also a lothario, and she gave me these stories about him being chased out of—jumping out of windows when guys would find him.… I’m not like that, but I may have gotten my musical thing from him.”2

Sonny’s story, and the story of how he got his melodious name, begins not on St. Thomas, but on the tiny island of St. Eustatius, a former Dutch colony in the West Indies of only eight square miles. Sonny’s paternal great-grandmother, Martha Bennett, was born on St. Eustatius, or Statia, in 1864, the year after Emancipation in the Dutch West Indies.3 By the time she was fifteen, Martha worked as a teenage cook at Judith’s Fancy, a plantation owned by a prominent Statia family, but traveled to the surrounding islands for seasonal work.4

Martha’s son, Steadman Rollins, or Rawlins, shared a name with a former governor of neighboring St. Kitts, a sugar plantation owner and slave trader who had died in Nova Scotia in 1830. Sonny’s grandfather was born Steadman Warten Berkel on September 12, 1881—a birthday within a week of Sonny’s—to Martha Berkel, née Bennett, in Statia.5 For children born out of wedlock, no father was listed on the birth certificate. In 1885, when Steadman was a young child, Sonny’s great-grandmother Martha gave up her nomadic lifestyle and moved them to St. Croix on a more permanent basis, where they lived in a beachfront property at 31 Strand Street in Southeast Christiansted, a short walk from Fort Frederik and a block from the shore. Rather than seeking employment on one of the Crucian sugar plantations, Martha continued working as a cook, and the two of them attended the Moravian church. By the time he was eight, Steadman was going by Steadman Rawlins. By twenty, Steadman stood five-foot-nine and had become a carpenter in St. Croix, though he frequently traveled to the surrounding islands in the Caribbean for work, most commonly to St. Thomas. Eventually, Sonny’s father, Walter, would follow in Steadman’s peripatetic footsteps, enlisting in the navy; likewise, Sonny would also become a world traveler.6

Before Steadman’s twentieth birthday, on June 27, 1903, Sonny’s father, Walter William Rollins, was born to his carpenter-singer-lothario grandfather and Grace Ann Claxton, a servant from Nevis whom Steadman had met after she arrived alone and unmarried on St. Croix in 1900.7 The relationship was not to last, and Grace returned to Nevis. She still maintained contact, though, eventually visiting Sonny and her other grandchildren several times in New York, but Sonny’s father was raised by Steadman in St. Croix.

In 1908, Steadman married Helena or Helene Lyburt, and in 1911 they welcomed a son, Mathias, Walter’s half brother and Sonny’s uncle.8 That year, Steadman was living in a rented property not far from the area Crucians call Contentment in a building named Perseverance with Helene; Mathias; Sonny’s father, Walter; and Sonny’s grandmother Martha, who at forty-four was still working as a cook. Martha would teach Sonny’s father to cook, and he would eventually take it up as a profession. Medical care on the island was lacking; the first ambulance on St. Croix didn’t arrive until 1917 after the transfer of power to the United States. In 1912, Helene gave birth to a second child, Sonny’s uncle, who was stillborn.9

In St. Croix, music pulsated across the rhythmic topography, and it was not uncommon for a Crucian carpenter like Steadman to learn a trade while performing regularly.10 The music of the Virgin Islands spans different traditions that are all communal and polyrhythmic, require an improviser’s ingenuity, and are inextricably linked to dance. Steadman would have been familiar with quelbe (pronounced “quell-bay”) and the various dances that were popular in the Virgin Islands: the cariso, quadrille, and bamboula. Quelbe, played by scratch bands, was an early calypso form emerging from St. Croix with a Taino influence that incorporated melodic improvisation, syncopated rhythm, and a storytelling thrust. Much of the repertoire has only three chords, but its nuances reside in the group interaction and the joyful mix of harmony, rhythm, melodic phrasing, and sexual innuendo.11 As the music developed in the twentieth century, the flute was increasingly replaced by the saxophone. Scratch bands performed quelbe at masquerades, dance halls, and “moonlight excursions” at the parade grounds that were planned according to the almanac.12 Quelbe would also be performed at impromptu gatherings on opalescent beaches or under the indigenous tamarind and baobab trees, the latter of which could live to be hundreds of years old and are often referred to as the “tree of life.” This is the tradition Sonny inherited.

Forming a band required a resourcefulness born out of financial hardship.13 If instruments were beyond their means, they fashioned them from whatever they could find: sardine tins, whittled mahogany, or fishing line, which gave a dual purpose to carpentry skills. It is a collaged art form, created out of disparate parts and pieces of the islands just as the musicians created themselves, not unlike the jazz tradition.

In addition to scratch bands, Steadman would have also been familiar with the Crucian tradition of cariso, a subversive West African musical form. It was sung in Virgin Islands Creole by all-female “Cariso Queens” in a code the slavers could not understand, accompanied by one or two goatskin barrel drums in a call-and-response with the singer never quite on the beat, a fugitive voice in rhythmic counterpoint to the drum’s inexorable pulse.14 Sonny would later adapt these West Indian forms to the jazz tradition—on the saxophone-conga duet “Jungoso” with Candido on his 1962 album What’s New? and in “Duke of Iron,” “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” “Brownskin Girl,” and, of course, “St. Thomas.”

This inheritance was part of a long-standing tradition of using music as a means of social protest. White plantation owners were wary of slaves using music for organized resistance, so laws were passed to prohibit it.15 Yet in St. Croix, this free music galvanized rebellions nonetheless. In 1848, Moses “Buddhoe” Gottlieb, a twenty-eight-year-old free black who worked as a sugar boiler, led eight thousand slaves in a successful Crucian revolt that began with the ringing of bells and the blowing of conch shells, with cariso melodies and dances performed to the bamboula drum.16 It happened again at the “Fireburn,” a successful 1878 labor revolt on St. Croix orchestrated by David Hamilton Jackson that fought to end de facto slavery on the island. This was the musical tradition Steadman participated in and that would become Sonny’s cultural heritage.17

As Sidney Bechet did before him, Sonny may locate his musical lineage through his grandfather and his peripatetic lifestyle, but he inherited his music at least as much from his mother’s side. Valborg Solomon was born on St. Thomas on December 2, 1904, to Miriam Walcott, who gave birth to her before her twentieth birthday.18 Valborg was a common Danish name, meaning “protector of the battlefield,” a meaning that would be apropos later in life. Sonny’s grandmother Miriam, who stood five-foot-four and projected a sense of inner strength and a canny intelligence, was also born in St. Thomas and worked as a domestic. Valborg’s father and Sonny’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Solomon, lived and worked in Haiti; he did not raise the children.19

In St. Thomas, Sonny’s mother, Valborg, grew up in a full house. In 1911, she was living at 30 Norre Gade in Charlotte Amalie, the cosmopolitan center of the island, in a large multifamily town house, most likely of the colorful nineteenth-century terraced, painted-brick style, with scenic views of the lush countryside. Valborg lived with her stepfather, Adolph Victoria, a thirty-year-old Episcopalian blacksmith; her twenty-three-year-old mother, Miriam, Sonny’s Lutheran grandmother, who worked as a washer; and Reuben Victoria, Valborg’s two-year-old half brother who would become Sonny’s uncle.20 In the apartment next door lived Miriam’s mother and Sonny’s maternal great-grandmother, Eliza Walcott, who was born free in St. Croix in 1854 or 1855. Like Miriam, she was also Lutheran and, at fifty-six, was still working as a nurse on St. Thomas. Elizabeth Walcott, her daughter and Sonny’s great-aunt, was nine years older than Miriam and took care of her own five children, Sonny’s second cousins, aged two to fifteen.21 Sonny’s mother, Valborg, had only an eighth-grade education on St. Thomas, though she would eventually take night classes, and his grandmother Miriam had only a sixth-grade education, but their lack of formal education belied their fierce intelligence.

In 1922, Valborg, then eighteen, met nineteen-year-old naval steward Walter Rollins, who by that time had become “a friendly, polished individual who speaks French, Spanish, Norwegian and Danish,” as he was later described.22 Walter was five-foot-ten, muscular, and dashingly handsome, and he possessed the “dignity of an aristocrat” and “a New England accent.” He was also a hell of a cook. Taking after Steadman’s penchant for travel, Walter had decided to join the navy even sooner than was legally possible. It was common for Crucians to immigrate to the continental United States in search of employment, oftentimes through the military, and Walter enlisted on May 1, 1920.23 To meet the age requirement, it seems Sonny’s father bent the truth and listed his birth date as May 7, 1902, more than a year earlier than was actually the case. Becoming a steward was “sort of the highest a black could aspire to at that point,” Sonny later explained.24 Eventually, Walter would personally serve high-ranking government and military officials, including Admiral Ernest King in Seattle and President Warren G. Harding, one of the most corrupt conservative presidents in US history. Duke Ellington’s father, James Edward Ellington, also worked as a butler for Harding. Walter was professional to a fault and never let his politics interfere with his work—he would vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt three times.25

In 1922, when Walter met Valborg, he was stationed on St. Thomas on shore duty at the governor’s mansion. He was a promising naval steward with a glint in his eye; she was a young music student.26 She must have been impressed that Walter worked on Charlotte Amalie at Kathrineberg, the opulent governor’s mansion. In 1923, their romance culminated in marriage, and they planned to come to the United States and settle in New York to raise a family.

The whole family would not arrive in New York immediately. On April 20, 1924, Sonny’s grandmother Miriam traveled to New York for the first time, arriving with thirty dollars to visit a niece, Emelyn Steven, who lived at 49 La Salle Street in Harlem.27 On November 3, 1925, Valborg and Walter welcomed their first child, Valdemar, Sonny’s older brother, who was born on St. Thomas. In 1926, Valborg took a ship to New York with Valdemar, and they lived at 289 West 142nd Street at the corner of 8th Avenue in Harlem. On August 31, 1928, Valborg gave birth to her second child, Sonny’s sister, Gloria, who was also born in St. Thomas. Nearly a year later, with Walter stationed elsewhere, Valborg, Valdemar, and Gloria made yet another journey to New York from the island.28 “She really wanted more for us, and there was, you know, a limit to what she felt that we could achieve in the islands,” Gloria later recalled, “and so she came in a boat across the ocean and there was a tremendous storm.… They were really pounded by waves.”29

As Sonny explained of the decision to leave the islands, “I would imagine that it probably has to do with economics. Although my mother… was a person that always wanted to introduce us to culture.… So she might have been thinking about a better place to give her kids a chance to do whatever we do in this life—to be exposed.”30

On April 18, 1929, they stepped off the ship Domenica,31 and they made their way to 2773 8th Avenue between 146th and 147th Streets, a brick building in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood. Though they had moved around a lot, it seemed they were getting ready to put down roots in New York and would soon welcome the first and only member of the family to be born in Harlem.

Sonny would never meet the grandfather who passed down the music, though Steadman Rollins would also immigrate to New York City.32 On May 4, 1923, Steadman, now forty-one, and his eleven-year-old son, Mathias, boarded a boat in St. Thomas heading to New York, where they took the five- or six-day journey to meet Helene, who had immigrated a year earlier and was living in Harlem at 265 West 136th Street, two blocks south of Strivers’ Row.33 Steadman was listed on the ship manifest as a shipwright, a carpenter who repairs ships. He arrived at Ellis Island, also with thirty dollars in his pocket and after a rigorous interrogation confirmed he was not a convict, a polygamist, an anarchist, or a “person who believes in or advocates the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States.” He was labeled “Likely Public Charge,” meaning he had no work prospects, then detained at Ellis Island for two days for further inspection due to what immigration inspectors deemed an unspecified “physical defect.”34 Steadman had no intention of becoming a US citizen—it seems he understood what it meant to be free and needed no new encumbrances—but he did intend to stay indefinitely. Steadman would never make it to fifty and would never meet his grandson Sonny, who was born seven years after his arrival.35

What’s curious, though, about Steadman’s immigration story is the multiple names he went by. When Steadman Rollins (or, as he was sometimes known, Stedman Rawlins, Stedmann Rollens, or Steadmann Rollings) arrived in New York in 1923, he was listed on his travel documents as Steadman Berkel, his birth name, married to Helena Berkel, with their son, Sonny’s uncle—Mathias Berkel. So Sonny always would have been Sonny, but he was only a name change away from having been Walter Berkel.

Steadman Rollins and Steadman Berkel—two names, depending on the context—may sound unusual. Yet in the tradition of the West Indies, where the self was improvised, Sonny too would be known by many names—some inherited, some earned, and some taken. Though he only ever had one legal name, Walter Theodore Rollins, he would go by many: Walter Theodore, Theodore Walter, Sonny, Newk, Wally, Roundtree, Brung Biji, the Saxophone Colossus. This is the story of how he got each.


Chapter 2



Walter Theodore Rollins was born on Sunday, September 7, 1930, five blocks up from the Tree of Hope and half a block east of the Boulevard of Dreams. The Boulevard of Dreams—which was 7th Avenue—got its name for the joyful music that reverberated up and down the expansive promenade.1 Every Saturday at midnight, a few blocks from where Sonny was born, at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, the Duke Ellington Orchestra was broadcast nationwide from the segregated Cotton Club, thousands of miles across the color line, where for one hour a week Harlem’s beating heart was also the nation’s.

They called it the Tree of Hope because it stood “right on Seventh Avenue on the island in the middle of the traffic,” Sonny recalled, between the Lafayette Theater and Connie’s Inn, “and people would go there and just rub it for good luck.”2 It was chopped down in 1934.

Sonny was delivered by a midwife. “I was born Sunday morning… between two churches,” he would recount during a 1993 concert at Carnegie Hall. “One on 138th, Abyssinian, and AME [African Methodist Episcopal] Zion, 137th Street.”3

Sonny’s birth was one of his older sister Gloria’s first memories. Walter Sr. could not be there—he had almost no furlough opportunities. “We all lived at 121 West 137th Street,” she said of their first-floor tenement apartment. The modest building has since been demolished, but the photographs that remain depict a five-story brownstone crowned by a cornice, with an arched entryway, fire escapes out front, and large windows; cars parked up and down the block, and people gathered on the front stoop. “I was looking out of the window and I was watching the people going into church, and all of a sudden when my godmother had come into the room and told me there was a new little boy up in the front room, I heard this carillon and… I had that kind of feeling inside me.”4

Despite the preponderance of churches, Sonny would gravitate more toward finding the spiritual in the secular. “Harlem was a very vibrant place at that time. There was a lot of music, a lot of clubs, a lot of speakeasies, after-hours clubs,” Sonny said.5 “It was a perfect environment for someone like me who wanted to be a musician. All my idols lived nearby.” The Harlem Renaissance began to decline during the Great Depression, he recalled, but the renaissance “extended beyond that from the nightclubs that were still in Harlem, which were part of the twenties but lasted through the thirties and were still going strong.”6

Novelist and cultural critic Albert Murray, who lived in Harlem at that time, remembered it as the “golden era of jazz in Harlem”: the Lafayette and Lincoln Theatres, Connie’s Inn, Well’s Place, the Rhythm Club, Smalls Paradise, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Cotton Club were all within walking distance.7

In 1932, illustrator E. Simms Campbell drew a “Night-Club Map of Harlem,” packing as much of Harlem nightlife into two dimensions as he could: Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, Gladys Bentley at the Clam House, Garland Wilson tickling the ivories, Harlan Lattimore crooning at Connie’s Inn, the Cab Calloway–immortalized Reefer Man, the Crab Man, the peanut vendor, conjure women, spiritualists, and Harlem’s national drink, a “shorty of gin.” Yet the rhythmic pulse of ballrooms, cabarets, and speakeasies from the Baby Grand to the Hot-Cha was tempered by the sound of God always within earshot.8

If New York was the Big Apple, Harlem was the stem; 125th Street was even known as the “main stem.”9 Harlem was a self-sustaining city within a city, full of urban strivers, with its own newspaper (the Amsterdam News), libraries (including the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library, where Sonny would go after school), and various labor organizations (such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters).10 Sonny grew up in a bustling neighborhood of rooftop playgrounds, Aaron Douglas murals, and the 7th Avenue Easter parade. Celebrities, day laborers, and numbers runners intermingled. Around the block was the 135th Street Y, known as the “living room of the Harlem Renaissance.”11

During the Depression, central Harlem was not all serendipity, church bells, and the Home of Happy Feet. It was Sugar Hill, where Harlem’s elite residents had an abundance of hope, and the Hollow, where there was little of it.12 Harlem was a world of warring dualities: the church and the cabaret, abject poverty and the fledgling aristocracy of what W. E. B. Du Bois called the Talented Tenth, West Indians who came by boat and southern strivers who came by train during the Great Migration, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Jews.13

The streets were syncopated: calypso, quelbe, African rhythms with Jelly Roll Morton’s Spanish tinge, spirituals, blues, stride piano, Tin Pan Alley, a thousand songs from a thousand places.14 Four blocks downtown from Sonny’s home was 133rd Street, the original Swing Street. This was the sound of Sonny’s childhood.

In 1930, Sonny’s family was living at 2773 8th Avenue. The rent was thirty-three dollars a month, and in addition to the immediate family, Reuben Victoria, his uncle, also lived with them. He worked as a lamp polisher.15 Sonny’s grandmother Miriam worked as a laundress and “had her own place,” Sonny recalled, but she was always at their house if they were not at hers.16 Miriam’s was the apartment at 121 West 137th Street where Sonny was born.17

“They started to call me Sonny because I was the baby, the youngest,” Sonny recalled. The first photo of Sonny shows him at eighteen months, posed on a plush cushion, wearing what appear to be white satin shoes and high white socks, dark shorts, white suspenders, and a stiff white shirt. His hair is well groomed, and he holds a ball nearly the size of his head with both hands. His world-weary eyes belie the rest of the Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit.18

Sonny grew up in a predominantly West Indian community in “Harlem proper,” from the northern tip of Central Park at 110th Street to 145th Street—which he thought of as “the mecca” but sometimes referred to as the “lowlands.”19

Life in Harlem during the Depression was tough. Winters were very cold, and summers were very hot.20 The family spent periods on public assistance.21 “I remember going to the home relief place and getting the boxes of food,” Sonny said. “I think that the wartime was actually good in the sense that people began to practice thrift. There was rationing for everything. We saved tin-foil, along with pork fat, chicken fat—any kind of grease.”22

When he was three, Sonny’s family had to move to a new apartment at 69 West 135th Street. “The piano was left out on the street,” Sonny recalled. “In those days in Harlem you used to see a lot of pianos on the street with the people’s furniture that were being evicted.”23 After replacing the player piano, they could be entertained by an invisible James P. Johnson playing stride harmonies in the living room. “We moved around… for economic reasons,” Sonny said.24 During the Depression, they lived on every street from 135th to 138th.

The family loved animals, but one summer was so hot that Sonny’s pet mouse Pete died of heatstroke.25 The family also had a beloved Persian cat named Beauty. “I remember when Beauty got sick and transitioned my sister was very upset,” Sonny recalled, “and I was, she thought, too anxious to have the cat transition, to put it out of her misery, so to speak.… As I look back on that, I had a not-so-tragic view of life and death.”26

Sonny’s father was rarely home, and meeting him when Sonny was two or three is one of his earliest memories.27 Absence did not mean neglect. Walter Rollins Sr. “was a career Navy,” Sonny said.28 His father called and wrote often and sent frequent care packages—“these big dark red blankets from the United States naval station in Seattle,” for example—but due to Walter’s assignments, Sonny would sometimes not see him for two years.29

Sonny’s stern father was a decorated naval steward known to many as Chief Rollins. He supervised up to 250 men, depending on the size of the ship. In 1935, his assignment was to serve Secretary of War George Dern during the independence negotiations in the Philippines.30 When Walter came home to Harlem on brief furloughs, he supervised the family with the same insistence on military decorum that made his reputation and had little patience for independence. “He gave orders,” Gloria recalled. “It was really tough to go from my mother to having my father in the house. We were all like midshipmen and he was in charge. It was something that I couldn’t get accustomed to, my older brother could not get accustomed to, but Sonny really got accustomed to him, and Sonny became very attached to my father.”31

As Sonny recalled, “My father was strict.… The house had to be spic-and-span.” Meeting his exacting standards wasn’t easy. Furthermore, Walter was embarrassed to discover that the family lived in an area resembling Catfish Row from George Gershwin’s 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess. This was compounded when his close friend Admiral Arthur W. Radford, who would later become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to visit with his wife.32 The neighborhood had “a lot of people running around, or sitting on doorsteps,” Sonny recalled, “certainly something beneath the grandeur of an admiral in the United States Navy. It was a respect which transcended all of the racism which exists in America.”33

As Sonny’s future neighbor Doris Mason recalled, Walter “walked like he was proud, with that uniform on. I never saw the man in any civvies. The girls used to love his father. When he came home, we would swoon. We were like, ‘Oh my god.’ We had a crush on him.”34

Valborg was more lenient than Walter, but just as hardworking. While her older children were at school, she would often take Sonny to jobs on Park Avenue, where he saw inequality firsthand. “She had nobody to take care of me, I was the youngest boy,” Sonny said. “She used to take me down there and I’d have to wait in the closet or someplace while she cleaned the house.”35


  • **Winner of the American Book Award (2023)**

    **Longlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award (2023)**

    **Jazz Journalists Association's Jazz Awards, Biography/Autobiography of the Year (2022)**

    Boston Globe, "Best Books of 2022"

    WBGO, "Jazz Lovers' Gift Guide"
  • “A revealing, comprehensive biography... [and] a brimming and organized compendium, something to keep returning to like Rollins’s records…” —New York Times
  • “Levy paints a vivid picture…Throughout SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS he weds his extensive research to a feel for detail and narrative; the book is certainly long, but it has too much great reporting to be dry.”—Los Angeles Times
  • "[Author Aidan Levy] distills essential truths... and ties strands of Mr. Rollins’s history together in poignant ways.”—Wall Street Journal
  • “Aidan Levy’s indefatigable research and interviewing process has allowed him to fill SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS with a vast chorus of voices.”
     —The Wire
  • "A figure of such heroic stature deserves a monument worthy of him. And until something even larger and more expansive comes along, Aidan Levy’s new biography of Rollins will do nicely… an admiring yet clear-eyed chronicle.”

    The Nation
  • “An incredibly deep, well-researched and thoughtfully written biography.”
  • “[An] exhaustive, definitive biography.”—Air Mail
  • “Read it you must....a remarkable read.”—Marlbank
  • “There’s no doubt that SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS will be a great resource for future jazz scholars.” —Nelson George Mixtape
  • “A long book allows for a luxurious detail....Saxophone Colossus does what the best biographies do: Gives you enough information to pursue your own lines of inquiry.” —Point of Departure
  • "Monumental."—WICN "Inquiry"
  • “A wonderful detailed and insightful journey through the life of an incredible artist and thinker.  It is unlikely anyone will pen anything about Rollins, and maybe any other jazz musician, that will be its equal.” —NYS Music
  • “A memorable work that will become the standard biography of the saxophone giant and should be embraced by all jazz fans and general readers. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal
  • “[Saxophone Colossus is filled with]...precise and ravishing descriptions of Rollins’ music, ‘tireless work ethic,’ inspirations, frustrations with the record industry, social and environmental activism, and surprising collaborations.”

  • "[The] definitive account of a jazz icon."

  • “Moving and meticulously researched.” —Publishers Weekly
  • “Scrupulous and exhaustive... Levy comes as close to the enigma of Rollins as any biographer could.” —Telegraph (UK)
  • “Rollins has never deviated from the obsessive nature of his calling. He’s found a like-minded biographer, who paints pictures with words as adeptly as Rollins did with his saxophone. Subject and author deserve each other.” —iPaper (UK)
  • “Sonny Rollins told stories through his horn.  His ‘telling,’ no matter how intricate or elaborate, was always pure, honest, and vulnerable, while the storyteller himself remained elusive and intangible.  Until now.  In Aidan Levy, Mr. Rollins has found his chronicler, an immensely talented writer whose lyricism, mastery, and dedication to truth matches that of his subject.  The result is an opera, a calypso, a magnificent symphony that captures All of Him: Sonny, Newk, Theodore, Wally, Brung Biji, and the one and only Saxophone Colossus.”—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
  • "When I was a boy, I knew nothing of Sonny Rollins, the man, but his music set me free. Now, forty-some-odd years later, this book has gifted me a profound, almost revelatory, appreciation of all it took for our singularly Great American Improviser to exist, to persist, to survive, to thrive, to comprehend, to transcend, to create, to liberate, to be — at once the towering, omnipotent, immortal Colossus and the humble, gentle, questioning, questing human. Sonny Rollins has always been the master storyteller of the jazz idiom. What an illuminative joy it is to finally read the story of his own life so exhaustively and engagingly told."—Joshua Redman, Grammy-nominated saxophonist, composer, and educator
  • “Sonny Rollins is the most acclaimed and celebrated jazz musician alive. His fearless creativity and willingness to test his limits are the stuff of leg- ends, as are his modesty, discipline and self-criticism. With deep research and meticulous documentation, Levy, with the aid of Rollins, gives us a revelatory and richer picture of the man and his era. A colossus of a book.” —John Szwed, author of Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra and So What: The Life of Miles Davis
  • “In this forensically researched biography of an American hero, the elusive Sonny Rollins stands revealed not only as the great Jazz Maker but a man of profundity and passions. By combining the story of his rise as a Saxophone Colossus with a picture of the Black artist in an age when social progress was not necessarily a given, Levy has produced a memorable book.”—Val Wilmer, author of As Serious As Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957-1977
  • “The life and music of Sonny Rollins as chronicled by acclaimed author Aidan Levy is an insightful view into the daily struggles, achievements and spiritual journey of whom I like to refer to as the ‘Maestro di Maestri,’ Mr. Sonny Rollins. All I can say is:
    You will be enlightened as I am.”
     —Joe Lovano, saxophonist, composer, producer, educator and Grammy winner
  • "Aidan Levy has provided the jazz world and beyond an important documentation of one of the greatest musicians of all time. Sonny Rollins spoke his own language through the saxophone--just check out his solo on 'Alfie'! And Saxophone Colossus provides for us in words a portal to deeper understanding of this legendary jazz giant!"—Terri Lyne Carrington, Grammy-winning drummer, producer, and composer
  • “[The] authoritative book on Rollins . . . among the best-researched books ever devoted to jazz.” —Lewis Porter, Grammy-nominated pianist, composer, educator, and author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music and Playback with Lewis Porter

On Sale
Dec 6, 2022
Page Count
640 pages
Hachette Books

Download Saxophone Colossus Notes and References

Saxophone Colossus

Notes & References

Aidan Levy

About the Author

Aidan Levy is the author of Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed and editor of Patti Smith on Patti Smith: Interviews and Encounters. A former Leon Levy Center for Biography Fellow, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, JazzTimes, and The Nation. 

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