Sonny Rollins Breaks a Heel and Makes Cinema History at Opus 40

In 1986, Bob Mugge, the foremost documentarian of music giants, decided to make a film about jazz’s greatest living improviser, the “Saxophone Colossus” himself, Sonny Rollins

Prior to tackling the mighty Rollins, Mugge had created acclaimed documentaries profiling Latin pop star/political activist Ruben Blades, proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron, soul/gospel legend Al Green, intergalactic jazz visionary Sun Ra and a bevy of reggae’s biggest stars at 1983’s Sunsplash Festival.

sonny rollins

To capture Rollins, Mugge would first travel to Tokyo for the world premiere of his “Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra” with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony.  The director then sought to contrast the pageantry of the symphony hall by documenting Rollins at what he called a “bread and butter gig,” a typical performance by Sonny and his four-man touring band of the time. 

In search of a suitably dramatic background, Mugge first attempted to get approval to film Rollins and band on a Circle Line Jazz Cruise on the Hudson River in Manhattan.  When this fell through, Mugge lucked into something that proved even more unique. It was a concert already on Rollins’ schedule that would take place upon a rock stage at one of America’s most impressive earthworks, the sculpted rock quarry Opus 40 in Saugerties, New York.

Created by pioneering artist Harvey Fite between 1939 and his death in 1976, Opus 40 is a world-famous sculpture park and museum with 50 acres of meadows, forested paths and bluestone quarries — including 6.5 acres of earthwork sculpture — in the heart of the Hudson Valley in Saugerties, NY.  Called “the Stonehenge of North America,” Opus 40 welcomes more than 20,000 visitors yearly. It has also been the site of scores of concerts by artists like Richie Havens, Pete Seeger and Jimmy Cliff, theater stagings ranging from Macbeth to Hair and numerous films and music videos, including Amanda Palmer’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Mother.”   

sonny rollins

But no event would have the lasting impact of the performance by Rollins on August 16, 1986, one which is cemented forever as the centerpiece of Mugge’s recently re-released and expanded documentary, SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS.

“When it came to planning my next film, I thought what would be more interesting than doing a film on the greatest living jazz improviser,” recalls Mugge.  “Sonny’s wife and manager Lucille also wanted to show that Sonny was still playing great, the best of his career perhaps.  As a nice coincidence, they were then preparing for the world premiere of Rollins’ concerto taking place in Japan, so we filmed that then the Opus 40 show.

“Opus 40 is a sculpture rock quarry made by another lone genius” Mugge continues. “The monument coming out of it (the 9 ton, 14-foot tall bluestone monolith called “Flame”) proved to be the perfect opening image for the film.  It embodied the ‘Saxophone Colossus’ which I knew would be the title of the film, which is also the title of one of Sonny’s most heralded albums.”

sonny rollins

“I can’t remember how we originally booked Sonny, but a week before the concert I got a call from Mugge,” says Tad Richards, a writer, visual artist and Fite’s stepson who has run the Opus 40 non-profit with his wife Pat since 1986. “He said they were making a film and that the Circle Line gig fell through and needed to set something up quickly. He had seen us on Sonny’s itinerary and wondered if they could film it.  I said we’d be honored.

“Neither of us really knew what we were getting into as holding concerts was still relatively new here and we had no idea what filming would entail,” continues Richards. “To say we were pleasantly surprised, that doesn’t do it justice.”

The film kicks off with the jaw-dropping “G-Man,” a 15-minute plus excursion where Rollins proves he is indeed the world’s greatest jazz improviser. 

As the camera pans down from the monolith, we come up from behind to see Sonny Rollins and his band on the rocky stage with a huge audience in the foreground.  After the simple four-bar head is repeated a couple of times, Rollins is galloping off, digging deeper and deeper, with rapid-fire chromatic licks and arpeggios alternating with long held notes and basso growls, often powered by cheeks puffed out from circular breathing.  Every so often, he returns to the head and you think he is winding down, just to go off again for another few minutes of profoundly melodic and deeply emotional improvisation.  With every new chapter and return, Sonny ups the energy and excitement, seeming to spiritually levitate the large and intensely focused crowd seated on Opus 40’s spacious lawn.

“’G-Man’ proved as much as anything else that he was at the peak of his powers,” adds Mugge. “It became the centerpiece of the soundtrack CD and the film.”

The real drama came later, when in the midst of a long solo improvisation in which he prowled the stone stage like a panther, Sonny Rollins decided to leap off it onto another stone outcropping six feet below.

Tad Richards recalls: “I was sitting with Lucille Rollins on the lawn, stage right, when Sonny suddenly disappeared, stage left.  The audience gasped, Lucille especially, and everything stopped.  And then, still out of sight, Sonny started playing again, so powerfully and beautifully that everyone in the place assumed it was part of the show, even the musicians.  You can see them in the movie; first shocked, then laughing as he starts playing again.

“After a few minutes, Sonny is still playing, still out of sight and Lucille says – ‘I’m a little worried, can you go and check on him?’ So I did and I found Sonny lying on his back, playing with the cameraman standing over him.  We waited until he finished his solo and then helped him to his feet.

“Sonny asked how long we wanted him to play and I said I would stop the concert right then, if he needed medical attention. ‘No man,’ he growled, “I’m going to finish the gig’ which he did standing, propped up on one foot.   Afterwards, two of our volunteers who were EMTs took him over to Northern Dutchess Hospital where they confirmed he had broken his heel.”

Another witness that day was local saxophonist Gus Mancini.

“What happened was that Sonny was doing one of his long solos, quoting every song there is between these incredible improvised riffs,” remembers Mancini.  “Suddenly, he leaps from the flat stone stage to one below and disappears.  After a slight pause, he starts playing again, for a long time, still out of sight. Everyone kept wondering where he was.  Turns out he broke his heel and was taken off in a golf cart.  I actually saw him the next day on TV in a cast and was amazed at how much longer he played at the concert, with his foot in that condition.”

Mugge concludes: “It was a very surreal moment that became famous in the jazz community even before the film was finished.”

The film soundtrack CD, “G-Man,” includes other remarkable performances from that day at Opus 40. These include lengthy outings on two Rollins’ classics, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Tenor Madness,” but none as fiery as the concert and film opener.

sonny rollins

I have had the pleasure of seeing Rollins a half dozen times over the years. These included shows at NYC’s The Bottom Line, the Village Gate and his legendary 80th birthday show at Carnegie Hall, where he played for the first time on stage with Ornette Coleman.  I also saw the discussed Circle Line Cruise show, a week after his outing at Opus 40.

The Circle Line concert was, with little doubt, one of the three best shows I’ve ever seen.  At it, Rollins played with his casted foot elevated, laying back in a Lazy Boy Lounger!  It was typical of the Sonny shows I saw. He started off with an equally exciting and lengthy version of “G-Man,” building and digging deeper with each passing minute,  without ever being boring or repetitious.  He did an even more amazing and lengthy exploration on Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” the encore of this boat show. I saw him do the same thing on his opening number shortly thereafter at The Bottom Line show. 

After these first numbers, I always asked myself if I should just leave.  What more could he possibly do to impress, entertain, enlighten?  I had certainly gotten my money’s worth. It was always pure musical gladiator stuff – creativity, craft and soulsmanship of the highest order from a lone genius.  A performance checkmate in one move.

Today, 90-year old Sonny Rollins lives the quiet life in Woodstock, N.Y., retired from playing due to respiratory issues linked to his being in downtown NYC on 9/11.  You can enjoy him speaking about his life and craft, and at the height of his improvisational powers with his Opus 40 performance and footage from his never-released concerto with Mugge’s new expanded Blu-Ray version of the documentary.

For more jazz goodness, check out Tad Richards’ Listening to Prestige, a multipart book series and blog that is chronicling all the releases from this great independent jazz label of 50s and 60s (530 and counting to date).  For the past 22 years, Gus Mancini has been performing live every Sunday morning on WDST/Radio Woodstock’s “Woodstock Roundtable with Doug Grunther,” as well as gigging with numerous outfits including his rotating cast of improv warriors, The Sonic Soul Band.  And for another spirited but definitely less awe-inspiring musical chapter from Opus 40 past, catch this writer performing “Divine Nonchalance” with his Spaghetti Eastern Music under the monolith at a show on Labor Day 2018.

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