Sonny Rollins Remembers 9.11.01

THIS FROM series of vignettes from 2006 in Jazz Times, reported by Josef Woodard, reposted today online here:

Sonny Rollins

Rollins maintained an apartment in NYC, six blocks from the WTC, for nearly 30 years, in addition to his house in upstate New York. Rollins was in his apartment the morning of 9/11. Later that week, his group performed a concert at Berklee in Boston, and a live recording was released last year —Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert.

I was there in my apartment up on the 40th floor and I heard this plane flying low. I was thinking, `Gee, this plane is flying sort of low.’ The next thing I heard was ‘Pow!’ I soon found out what had happened. I went downstairs and saw the tower on fire. The other tower came down first, and a lot of people—myself included—panicked and started running up the street.

My building was not structurally damaged. However, there was a lot of toxic dust and this kind of thing, in the air conditioning ducts and things like that. We were evacuated the next day and I came upstate, where we had a house. But the other people in the building who didn’t have a secondary home, those are my neighbors, and I felt very guilty about it. I was there the next day and I stupidly tried to practice my horn for a while, until my stomach felt funny. I stopped and later on, I thought, `Gee, what was I doing, gulping in all of that toxic contamination?’ It didn’t occur to me at the time it was happening.

Finally, I gave it up. I gave up a lot of stuff. I had been living there for probably 30 years. I had accumulated a lot of records and music and I had a lot of clothes there, I had my piano there. I had musical instruments there. I had books there. I would say that 98 percent of the stuff I had there I had to get rid of. I thought about trying to get things, but I always felt they were contaminated.

This concert in Boston had been recorded. I hadn’t really heard it, but I knew that it was a significant event and that one day I would probably listen to it or do something with it. I went back and revisited the concert. 9/11 was heavily in the air at the time. Listening to the music, there was an added dimension to that concert due to what had happened. It’s always hard to codify it, but there was something extra there.

I later was thinking back on 9/11 itself, since I was right there, and then on the concert and thinking how everybody was in a different place at that time. I was concerned that I was right in the middle of it, and am grateful to have survived it, and was trying to contemplate lessons about it and everything else. The remarkable thing to me was that, after 9/11, there was a discernible good-naturedness about people. They were respectful to each other and there was a certain gentility that was pronounced. It was like we were all on a plan of working together. I wasn’t imagining this. It was really there. Unfortunately, that feeling faded. So I don’t know if there are any lasting lessons from 9/11. The shitty state of humanity returned.

I’ve come to understand that it’s just like yin and yang. This world is made up of two elements. Where there are peaceful people, there are going to be warlike people. This is just the stage of humanity at this point in time, and so far as we can look back, in this age of human beings. The way I’ve rationalized it all for myself is that it’s about Sonny Rollins being the best person I can be, and for me to deal with all of the shortcomings and the inconsistencies in my own life and personality and work on those. I try to make that better, because that’s the only way you can really affect the macrocosm. I don’t think you can do it any other way.

That’s sort of what I’ve taken out of my whole life experience, actually, capped off by 9/11. That, if anything, just illuminated a lot of things in my own life.

— Photo via JazzTimes