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No jazz artist has done more to incorporate calypso material into their work than saxophone legend Sonny Rollins. Several of his most famous recordings are based in calypso music and almost all jazz critics mention his use of the calypso in discussing his legacy. Much of the upbeat exuberance of his playing is associated with his calypso numbers, although no one could pigeon hole Sonny Rollins who in dozens of albums has recorded a wide range of jazz standards, pop numbers and original compositions.
Born Theodore Rollins on September 7, 1930 and raised in Harlem, he took up to the tenor saxophone in high school, inspired by Coleman Hawkins and Louis Jordan among others. Both of his parents were from the Virgin Islands and he grew up hearing calypsos along with blues, jazz and pop music. Rollins’s Caribbean heritage did not make growing up easy in Harlem. As he told a reporter for the Jamaica Gleaner in 1969, “The stigma the West Indian had to bear in those days were terrible,” Rollins confided
We were ridiculed for our speech, our dress, everything. This ridicule was not confined to any one class or race, as even the American Negros joined the fun.”
Rollins played Caribbean- tunes for Harlem dances when he was growing up in the late Forties. But it wasn’t until he was already a respected young star in the jazz world that he recorded a calypso number. St Thomas was first recorded on June 22, 1956. Before the Calypso Craze got started the resulting album — Saxophone Colossus — remains for many critics one of the great jazz albums of all time and St Thomas a classic.
Rollins reported to Eric Nisenson that it was one of the first tunes he heard growing up, revealing “St Thomas is a song that my mother used to sing. It’s a traditional tune.” Both the Duke of Iron and the Charmer (Louis Farrakhan) had previously recorded it.
After St Thomas, other calypso material slowly came into his repertoire. The pop calypso Mangoes appeared on his 1957 album The Sound of Sonny recorded only a few months after it had been a hit for Rosemary Clooney. He went on to record both Don’t Stop the Carnival and Brown Skin Gal on What’s New in 1962. Both featured a strong six-person vocal chorus that is not identified which in both cases added a very strong percussion set up with Dennis Charles, Frank Charles and Willie Rodriguez. Dennis and his brother Frank “Hess” Charles were from the Virgin Islands and were no doubt an important force behind the session. Dennis Charles became well known in avant guard jazz circles as a drummer of endless inventiveness. Most of his jazz drumming was far from any calypso roots.
RCA released Rollin’s take on King Radio’s Brown Skin Gal as a single as well as on the album. In the Gleaner interview, Rollins remarked that if his tenor style has been influential.
It must be the Caribbean element in my blood, which gives me that edge the American Negro does not have. When I began realising that I should not be ashamed of my origin, I started recording some calypso tunes, St Thomas, Brown Skin Girl, Don’t Stop the Carnival, and I find that together with Hold Im Joe, Donkey Want Water, they get the biggest applauses when I play. As a result, I find that sometimes I tend to incorporate some calypso in my regular playings.
Don’t Stop the Carnival became one of the best loved pieces of his repertoire. The song reappeared as the title cut for Rollins two record live album recorded in 1978. Pianist Mark Soskin who joined Rollins at that time and played on that session noted that for the next fourteen years that they were together Rollins would play Don’t Stop the Carnival almost ever concert, while he was not doing St Thomas.
In 1972, he released Everywhere Calypso on his Sonny Rollins’ Next Album. This song has become so popular that many jazz artistes and steelbands have recorded it. Since then, Rollins has returned again and again to calypso material with compositions he has written, Coconut Bread in 1982, Duke of Iron in 1987, a tribute to one of the best known calypsonians based in Harlem when he was growing up, and Island Woman in 1998.
Rollins is now 87-years-old and because of health issues has stopped performing in the last few years. This past spring he donated his massive personal archives to the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and researchers will pour over this significant collection for years to come while jazz fans will continue to listen to the numerous recordings of the musician who brought calypso into the jazz mainstream.
In a recent short video interview, Rollins noted that none of his famous contemporaries did calypsos and it was an identifiable part of his style. He said: “These calypsoes, this Caribbean style, is something that I do and nobody else does that. The audience loves it… Calypso, that’s me.”