Sonny Rollins on Philosophy, Yoga and Buddhism

Legendary jazz innovator talks to NPR
Sonny Rollins in 1957
From NPR:
There's a track on Road Shows, Vol. 3 called "Patanjali," and that's the name of the great Hindu philosopher of yoga. You studied Indian philosophy and yoga in India, right?

Yes I did, and I'm still studying Indian philosophy.

I can see how yoga, with its emphasis on breathing, could be useful even on a technical level for a saxophonist. What has yoga brought to your playing?

Well, it's the concentration level. A lot of people think of yoga as the exercises — hatha yoga — which is only one form. There are other forms of yoga, and they are more contemplative, introspective, meditational. The thing is this: When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level. I don't want to overtly think about anything, because you can't think and play at the same time — believe me, I've tried it (laughs). It goes by too fast. So when you're into yoga and when you're into improvisation, you want to reach that other level.

When you went to India — this was in the late '60s — it was at a time when you famously took sort of a sabbatical from playing and recording. What was it that triggered you to reach out in these other directions in that way?

I was into many things. I was into Rosicrucianism, I studied Buddhism, Kabbalah, even — I was really into those philosophies of life, as were some of my compatriots. We were trying to find a way to express life through our improvisations. The music has got to mean something. Jazz improvisation is supposed to be the highest form of communication, and getting that to the people is our job as musicians.

I'm not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I'm just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that's when it's really happening.

It's hard to think of anything that you haven't accomplished, in terms of music. Is there something else out there that you still want to do?

I think there's always something to do. There are things that I've thought about — nature recordings, listening to new people coming up and being able to relate to them. Music is an open sky; it's vast. I wouldn't be so foolish as to ever feel that there isn't more music to be done, because it is out there. And I want to do it. [Read More]

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