Schomburg Unveils Part of the Sonny Rollins Collection

Sep 28, 2017

Just a tiny portion of an archive that spans Sonny Rollins' entire career.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

87-year-old saxophone legend Sonny Rollins donated what’s essentially his life’s work in handwritten papers, documents, video’s and records to the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

“Really what it allows us to do is to continue to get to know him better over the decades whether he’s here with us or not,” said Schola Lynch, curator of the Moving Image and Sound Division at the Schomburg.  Lynch welcomed several dozen members of the public into their new space to view pieces from the Rollins collection.

“What we have are decades and decades of creativity.  What the archive allows us to do, the videos he collected, the audio that he collected from his practice sessions, his journals where he wrote out all of his angst and anger over how to play a certain chord or whiteness and blackness and the politics of the world.  Playing with so and so and why they didn’t play well enough et cetera.  We also get to see his love letters to his wife of decades Lucille.  All of that gives us insight into the creative mind that we don’t often get.  That’s what is spectacular about this collection.”

Getting a firsthand look at the Sonny Rollins papers Lynch points out a few that really humanize the great jazz artist.

“The journals and letters are of him.  They are not self-conscience.  Sometimes people are writing for history.  He’s writing to himself, if you look [this one says] ,' I didn’t do too badly…I was terrible!'  His expectation for what a good performance was, was constantly being refined.  He worked on the mechanics.  Here he is drawing his lungs and talking about breaths and notes.  These were things he was thinking about from the 50’s.  He’s now in his 80’s.”

Rollins collected hundreds of videos. Some were of his favorite recording artists.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

The entire archive will slowly roll out for public viewing.  Andrea Battleground, the audio-visual librarian for the Schomburg Center says that’s at least a year away. 

“As far as what we have in this collection, it’s massive.  I don’t really have a timeline for access, but we want to make it accessible as soon as possible.  I’m already excited about the items that have already been digitized.  As much video as we have, I hope most of it will be digitized.”

Fortunately for fans and historians, the collection will eventually be completely accessible and all you’ll need to see the Sonny Rollins archive is an appointment and a library card.