When Jazz is Punk: Remembering The Time Sonny Rollins Kept Playing With a Broken Foot

A fall from stage during a 1986 performance didn't stop the saxophone legend from being a boss.

by Tim Scott; illustrated by Ashley Goodall
02 August 2017, 6:30am

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.

In August 1986, jazz legend Sonny Rollins and his ensemble performed at Opus 40, a spectacular stone monument in an abandoned bluestone quarry outside Saugerties, a town in upstate New York.

Created by pioneering American sculptor, painter and earth artist Harvey Fite, Opus 40 was inspired by Mayan dry-stone construction and scattered rubble was transformed into a series of stone ramps, pedestals and platforms.

Rollins chose the site as the monument not only embodied the 'Saxophone Colossus', his nickname, and the title of his seminal 1956 album, but the stunning and striking visual imagery was a unique backdrop for an open air jazz concert.

But as well as being the world premiere of a new Rollins number titled "G-Man", the concert was remembered for a dramatic incident that involved the jazz great misguiding a mid-solo jump from the rock stage and landing heavily on the stone surface six feet below. After a brief and tense pause Rollins continued to play while lying on is back even though it was later learned that he'd broken his heel in the fall.

Filmmaker Robert Mugge was there filming his documentary Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, and captured the moment Rollins fell. "My initial concern was entirely for Sonny's well-being. That said, I'm a documentary filmmaker, trained to film whatever happens. So, as I ran to see if he was okay, I instructed my four cameramen to keep filming. I should also say that I always try to centre my musical portrait films around special moments in the lives of my artist-subjects. In some cases, those moments are events or activities arranged in advance. But in others, we simply happen to be present with cameras running when something unexpected happens."

The footage of Rollins playing, while lying on his back, in a red sweater, white trousers and Keds, is some of the punkest in jazz, but the moments before were also some of the most tense. "Initially, Sonny simply lay there with his eyes closed, leading us to believe that he could have been seriously hurt in the jump," Mugge told NOISEY via email. "But when he lifted one leg casually overtop of the other and began to play the opening to "Autumn Nocturne" while still lying on his back (a feat of impressive physical strength, in and of itself), all of the previous tension was suddenly released."

Mugge, who had shot footage of Rollins playing in Tokyo earlier that year, and who had also directed documentaries on Al Green, Gil Scott Herron and Sun Ra, later learned that during the Optus 40 performance Rollins was growing frustrated with his newly lacquered saxophone.

"Sonny tried to explain away his behaviour as simply an effort to go out and play directly to the audience, complicated by poor judgement regarding the distance he would have to jump from the stage," explains Mugge. "But his wife Lucille later revealed to me what he had told her, which was that, sometime after the orchestral premiere in Tokyo, he had had his saxophone lacquered.

It's the kind of scene that takes on special resonance because it was neither staged nor expected, and because it exemplifies the risk-taking genius of our greatest living jazz improviser.

"When he was doing the solo improvising that day, it was as if he would try to play a vowel, but out would come a consonant. Over time, he became so upset by this that he essentially had a nervous breakdown onstage - at least, that's how Lucille described it to me. Of course, Sonny is such a brilliant musician that, if his horn plays a "wrong note," he can instantly create a new musical context in which the "mistake" makes fresh musical sense. However, in the film, you can see him beginning to pace back and forth like a caged animal until he finally makes the six-foot leap off of the stage. At the time, it was the only way he could think to end his distress. Sadly, the jump did lead to a personal injury, but it also led to moments of suspense, and then of magic, as he launched into that beautiful ballad, like a sunrise following a dark night. It's the kind of scene that takes on special resonance because it was neither staged nor expected, and because it exemplifies the risk-taking genius of our greatest living jazz improviser."