With a Song in His Heart


By Mary Bolster  |  

Growing up in Harlem in the 1930s, Sonny Rollins and his friends all wanted to be jazz musicians, because, he says, “they were the coolest guys around.”

Unlike most of his buddies, Rollins actually became one of those cool cats.

So great was his talent that by the time he was 26, he had already played with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, and he had become well established as a virtuoso performer and band leader. Life was good, almost too good. “I had gotten to know the pitfalls that musicians get into,” Rollins admits. “I knew life from the lower side.” It was those pitfalls, he says, that inspired him to add a spiritual dimension to his life.

In the 1950s, his yearning for something deeper led him to Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. Then, during a concert tour in 1963 in Japan, Rollins met the Oki Yoga group, which combines yoga and Zen with some principles of martial arts. By 1968, when he traveled to India to explore yoga more deeply, he was ready to put music and fame aside to devote his life to spiritual pursuits. But in the ashram where he wound up, a teacher persuaded him to stick to what he did best. “He told me, ‘Sonny, your karma yoga is to play music,’” Rollins recalls. “I would be bringing joy to people. That was a proper way to live.”

While at the ashram Rollins soaked up all he could about karma and bhakti yoga and other ways to purify his body and soul. “It had a tremendous influence on me,” he says. “I was always trying to find a center, and yoga provided that.” He left with a much clearer understanding of his path, which is about using music as a force for good.

One of his most remarkable concerts was on Saturday, September 15, 2001, four days after he witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. Trapped in his apartment six blocks from the towers, Rollins was evacuated by the National Guard the following evening. “I had to walk down 40 flights of stairs,” says Rollins, who was 71 at the time. “By the time I got to the bottom, my legs were like rubber.” Rollins made his way to Germantown, where his wife was waiting at their main home. He wanted to cancel a concert scheduled for Boston on Saturday, but his wife, who was also his manager, advised against it.

Her advice was right on track: The concert was extremely well received. “The people seemed to need something to anchor themselves,” Rollins says.

These days Rollins, whose wife died in 2004, still practices asana every day, including Halasana (Plow Pose) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). He continues to look forward: “I have a lot to contribute,” he says. “I hope I can use music in an even more spiritual way.” For information about tour dates or CDs, visit www.sonnyrollins.com.