Theodore Walter Rollins was born on September 7, 1930 in New York City. He grew up in Harlem not far from the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and the doorstep of his idol, Coleman Hawkins. After early discovery of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, he started out on alto saxophone, inspired by Louis Jordan. At the age of sixteen, he switched to tenor, trying to emulate Hawkins. He also fell under the spell of the musical revolution that surrounded him, Bebop.
He began to follow Charlie Parker, and soon came under the wing of Thelonious Monk, who became his musical mentor and guru. Living in Sugar Hill, his neighborhood musical peers included Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor, but it was young Sonny who was first out of the pack, working and recording with Babs Gonzales, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell and Miles Davis before he turned twenty.
“Of course, these people are there to be called on because I think I represent them in a way,” Rollins said recently of his peers and mentors. “They’re not here now so I feel like I’m sort of representing all of them, all of the guys. Remember, I’m one of the last guys left, as I’m constantly being told, so I feel a holy obligation sometimes to evoke these people.”
In the early fifties, he established a reputation first among musicians, then the public, as the most brash and creative young tenor on the scene, through his work with Miles, Monk, and the MJQ.
Miles Davis was an early Sonny Rollins fan and in his autobiography wrote that he “began to hang out with Sonny Rollins and his Sugar Hill Harlem crowd…anyway, Sonny had a big reputation among a lot of the younger musicians in Harlem. People loved Sonny Rollins up in Harlem and everywhere else. He was a legend, almost a god to a lot of the younger musicians. Some thought he was playing the saxophone on the level of Bird. I know one thing–he was close. He was an aggressive, innovative player who always had fresh musical ideas. I loved him back then as a player and he could also write his ass off…”
more at sonnyrollins.com