How two legendary Black musicians made their bones

The mid-20th century was a remarkably fertile time for musical innovation, fueled largely by black artists struggling with a country unwilling to abandon its racist power structure. Among the trailblazers were a stalwart Harlem jazz saxophonist whose mastery of harmony and rhythm brought him to the ground floor of what later became known as hard bop, and a wild young man from St. Louis who mixed hillbilly music and rhythm and Blues paving the way for an emerging genre called rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s hard to imagine the last 75 years of music without Sonny Rollins and Chuck Berry. Now they are the subjects of great new biographies – one of them definitely, the other just a lot of fun.

Aidan Levy’s “Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins” is a smash, nearly 800 pages of in-depth research tracing the man known as “Newk” from pre-dinner to his family’s origins on the West Indian island of St. Eustatius to today. (Rollins still sits at 92, especially despite the actuarial charts for Golden Age jazz musicians.) RJ Smith’s “Chuck Berry: An American Life” is about half the length and twice as boisterous as its subject matter deserves. It’s got a rock ‘n’ roll tone, for better or worse, but still manages to keep Berry a sharp focus.

"Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins" and "Chuck Berry: An American Life"

Rollins cut his teeth in Harlem’s famed Sugar Hill neighborhood and soaked up the action at nearby ballrooms, cabarets, speakeasies and churches, which fed his appetite for the sounds and sights of live performance. He got his first saxophone as a boy and practiced for hours every day. He enrolled at Benjamin Franklin High School, which had a progressive reputation but was a music department with no interest in jazz. “It was a waste for me,” Rollins recalls. Smalls Paradise and the Savoy Ballroom were his classrooms.

Aidan Levy, author of "Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins."

Aidan Levy, author of Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins.

(Jahsie Ault)

Levy, whose earlier works include Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed, paints a vivid picture of this milieu, its vibrant nightlife and myriad of temptations waiting behind seemingly every door. In “Saxophone Colossus” he combines his extensive research with a flair for detail and narrative; The book is certainly long, but it has too many great accounts to be dry.

We follow Rollins as he looks up to colleagues Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, both of whom he will emulate, and as he begins to jam and record with the rising stars of his own generation, including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, both of whom are on come to life in these pages. These are the artists whose aggressive improvisation, rhythmic thrust, and fiery solos put hard bop on the map.

We’re also with Rollins as his heroin addiction slowly consumes him — like so many other jazz greats — and culminates in a half-baked 1950 armed robbery that never gets off the ground but still lands him on New York’s Rikers Island for 10 months. (He was carrying the gun.) “Sonny was a twenty-one-year-old black man in a town predisposed to finding him guilty,” Levy writes. The New York police were not happy with the miscegenation of downtown clubs, and jazz musicians were easy targets.

Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge, October 7, 1961.

Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge, October 7, 1961.

(Atsuhiko Kawabata / Courtesy of Hanako Kawabata)

The book’s most energetic passages accompany Rollins’ most formative moments, including the 1956 album that gives the book its name, capped by the calypso-tinged “St. Thomas.” (Levy is excellent on the history of calypso and the late 1950s American enthusiasm for the genre.)

And then there’s the bridge. Done with heroin but still drinking too much, burned out on stage and at studio dates, Rollins disappeared — or so it seemed. In fact, every day he took his horn to the Williamsburg Bridge, a neglected bridge that connects the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn, where he blew and blew in blissful anonymity while gathering his head. As Levy writes, “The Williamsburg Bridge was exactly what Sonny was looking for—a wide-open space where no one else wanted to be.” Rollins’ hideaway inspired one of his greatest albums, 1962’s The Bridge.

While Rollins was pushing jazz to new frontiers in the early ’50s, Berry was performing in the Midwest, including St. Louis and nearby East St. Louis, Illinois, Davis’ hometown. It was around this time that Berry realized he had as many white fans at his shows as Black did, and he learned to care for them. As Smith writes: “He inserted into his lecture what he called ‘fictitious impressions’ of white people. He depressed on certain words and conveyed a country feel: “I emphasized my diction so that it was harder and whiter,” he said.

RJ Smith, author of "Chuck Berry: An American Life."

RJ Smith, author of Chuck Berry: An American Life.

(Madeleine Burman-Smith)

Much has been made of the gold that Col. Tom Parker mined in Elvis Presley, a white man who might sound black. Berry found his success as a black man who could sound white with songs that dealt primarily with two themes – cars and sex – that most young listeners could relate to. No wonder he’s one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll.

He had something else in common with Presley: he was cheated out of a lot of money. When Berry’s “Maybellene” was a big hit in 1955, he noticed that two other men shared the songwriting credit with him. One was Alan Freed, the impresario who helped make the song a hit by endlessly spinning it on the radio. The other was a guy named Russ Fratto. Fratto was a troubled sidekick to Leonard Chess, who, with his brother Phil, ran Chess Records, the label Berry recorded for. Leonard owed Fratto money and seems to have repaid him (and the mob) by giving him a piece of Berry’s hit song. That’s how it often went back then.

Smith, whose previous book subjects include James Brown and photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank, works best in the fields of cultural criticism and history, and Berry, who died in 2017, provides ample material. Sometimes Smith is a little too eager to show his Hep credentials. Here he is about Berry’s bandmate Johnnie Johnson: “After Johnson’s old lady in Chicago broke up with him, he dropped out in East St. Louis in 1950.” Right, man. Despite this, he has a sure grasp of Berry’s meaning and tells the story with a sense of color his subject matter deserves.

Chuck Berry, September 1952.

Chuck Berry, September 1952.

(Collection Harry Davis / Bill Greensmith)

Both Rollins and Berry have since become firmly established in American music history. These books help explain how they got there, what it cost them, and why we should care. They have carved indelible places in culture and helped define two of the century’s most important popular art forms. Learning more about them helps us understand what we hear today in a musical landscape that blurs categories and styles with the ease of a shopper trying on clothes. Of course it wasn’t always that easy. Like all innovators, Rollins and Berry worked and then kept working. Your sweat would become our pleasure.

Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston. How two legendary Black musicians made their bones

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