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Hamptons Life

Sep 3, 2018 2:44 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Hugh Wyatt Explores The Spirituality Of Sonny Rollins

Hugh Wyatt, Ruby Dee and Sonny Rollins. COURTESY HUGH WYATT
Sep 3, 2018 3:11 PM

Jazz legend Sonny Rollins is a master of improvisation. Over a seven-decade career, the tenor saxophonist has recorded more than 60 albums and played with the best musicians of his generation—from Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to members of the fabled Modern Jazz Quartet, including the late bassist Percy Heath (who was a longtime Montauk resident). In March 2011, Mr. Rollins was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House.

Mr. Rollins is 87 now, and while his music has been the defining feature of his long and illustrious career, a new book by Hugh Wyatt, a former resident of Sag Harbor, explores a previously little-known aspect of Mr. Rollins’s life—his deep spirituality.

Mr. Wyatt, a former professional musician, comes to writing from a newspaper background. He worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for the New York Daily News for nearly three decades. He also founded, edited and published The Medical Herald and The Spiritual Herald, two newspapers based in New York City.

His first book, “Phoebe’s Fantasy,” was a biography of jazz impresario Phoebe Jacobs who helped save the careers Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. But with “Sonny Rollins: Meditating on a Riff,” which was released August 15, Mr. Wyatt was able to offer a look at the musician though a more personal lens. That’s because he has known Mr. Rollins since 1965, when the two met in Greenwich Village.

“Sonny played at the Village Vanguard, and I’d go and see him every night. He was my favorite musician,” Mr. Wyatt said in a recent phone interview. “We started talking and, during intermission, we’d sit in a park nearby on Houston Street.

“We’d discuss everything from women—those were my sexist days—to fashions, and a lot of superficial things,” Mr. Wyatt added. “Occasionally, we’d talk about spirituality. At the time, Sonny was very closed and reluctant to talk about his spiritual beliefs. I got some things out of him, and eventually we became close and often yakked on the phone for two hours.”

While much has been written about Mr. Rollins and his musical peers, Mr. Wyatt, whose sources included family members, close friends, anonymous sources and the musician himself, offers a unique angle on the jazz world by exploring an overlooked trend that he explains began in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

It was a period during which many jazz musicians began forging new bonds with primarily white, intellectual audiences through a shared interest in various belief systems. Their explorations of these alternative religions, he notes, took them beyond the tenets of basic Christianity and into modalities and philosophies from the Near and Far East—traditions such as yoga, Buddhism, certain forms of Islam and other philosophies that were further off the grid.

On Saturday, September 8, at noon, Mr. Wyatt will be at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton to share stories of Mr. Rollins’s spiritual life. He will also talk about the influence various Eastern religions and other spiritual traditions had on the development of jazz and popular music.

It’s a fitting venue, given that Mr. Wyatt makes the argument that the spirituality embraced by many jazz musicians also encompassed Native American traditions and beliefs. It’s an influence in Mr. Wyatt’s own heritage as a black Cherokee-Muscogee Indian, and he feels that by calling attention to the mutual interest in spirituality that the Shinnecock share with many in the wider East End population, the two communities can come together to create new opportunities for building bonds through increased interaction.

When asked to expound on how he first became interested in the topic of jazz as it relates to spirituality in general and Sonny Rollins in particular, Mr. Wyatt points to his own experience as a patron of jazz clubs.

“It was always fascinating to me that in the ’60s, jazz audiences were both black and white Bohemians—some would say they were early New-Agers, students, artistic types and intellectuals,” Mr. Wyatt said. “When jazz clubs first started popping up in New York in the 1920s and ’30s during the swing period, they were run by mafia gangsters who only presented these jazz bands for entertainment.”

But, he added, during the late 1930s and early 1940s with the advent of bebop, the musicians themselves became intellectuals and club owners started seeing the evolution of jazz through a clientele that became more white, more educated and more upscale.

“They had an intellectual interest in jazz and the musicians deferred to their audiences,” Mr. Wyatt explained. “It was an equal exchange. They responded to each other and became one in the same.”

Mr. Wyatt said that Mr. Rollins’s own exploration of spirituality began after he quit the jazz scene for a while in 1959. Mr. Rollins spent most of the next three years honing his craft by performing alone on the Williamsburg Bridge.

That, Mr. Wyatt said, is when he also began embracing esoteric forms of yoga, Buddhism, ancient Egyptian magic, certain mystical practices including Sufism and Ahmadiyya—a late 19th century Islamic revival movement that was also explored by John Coltrane and other jazz musicians—as well as obscure religions like Rosicrucianism.

Mr. Rollins’s goal, Mr. Wyatt writes, “was not only to achieve communion with God … but to develop certain powers that would enable him to unlock the secrets of the universe.”

Mr. Wyatt is a Georgia-born Southern Baptist who describes himself as a devout Christian. Nonetheless, he relates to Mr. Rollins’s interest in exploring other forms of spirituality and, like the subject of his book, has come to believe that practices like yoga and Buddhism are valid in building one’s spiritual life.

“Sonny would say there’s only one truth when it comes to virtue and morality,” Mr. Wyatt said.

Mr. Rollins was not the only jazz musician who began exploring alternative faith traditions in the 1950s and 1960s. Fellow saxophonist and composer John Coltrane also followed a spiritual path beginning with his study of Kriya yoga, which became popular during the bebop era. But in Mr. Coltrane, Mr. Wyatt sees a distinct difference in the path he took.

“Coltrane is from North Carolina. He grew up in the AME Zion church,” Mr. Wyatt said. “I grew up as Southern Baptist, but had this thing for the ‘holy roller’ churches. Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin had that Pentecostal feel. Coltrane—and this is just my take—when I hear him, what I hear is the Hindustani ragas and the Pentecostal thing.”

“But Sonny was more into Buddhism and different branches of yoga,” he added. “I believe Sonny’s spirituality came more from an intellectual perspective.”

It’s a spiritual journey that, for Mr. Rollins, continues to this day. Mr. Wyatt maintains that in 2012, Mr. Rollins reportedly saw a vision of heaven or another spiritual world while he was in Marciac, France, not far from Lourdes, where he had traveled to perform at a jazz concert.

While some of the stories from Mr. Rollins’s spiritual journey in “Sonny Rollins: Meditating on a Riff” may seem hard to believe, it’s Mr. Wyatt’s contention that we all have a lot to learn from alternative faith traditions. For that reason, Mr. Wyatt is hopeful that a wide cross-section of people from all over the East End will attend his talk at the Shinnecock Reservation, and ultimately, agree.

“When I first went to the Hamptons, I saw wealth and superficiality,” Mr. Wyatt said. “But there is strong spirituality there. Not everyone is building a monument to Trump. A lot of people see the value in spirituality in food, worship and lifestyle.”

He added, “Today, I’d say the vast majority of jazz lovers are into spirituality. … It’s my view that those interested in spirituality in America don’t have to go to India, Japan or Egypt when it’s right in front of you. The Shinnecock and other Native people are very spiritual. The sad thing is the Shinnecock have not been as welcoming to the outside community as they should be.

“What I hope my talk will make happen is dialogue between both groups,” he said. “It’s imperative for us to have peace and love by embracing spirituality.”

Hugh Wyatt’s talk on “Sonny Rollins: Meditating on a Riff” takes place at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton at noon on Saturday, September 8. The general public is invited and Mr. Wyatt will sign copies of his book. The cost for the event is $25 with a light lunch served of traditional Shinnecock and other Native American food. To reserve a spot for the talk, call 212-983-3525. Tickets also will be sold at the door.

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