Book Talk Recap with author Aidan Levy

On Wednesday, the department of ENWL welcomed author Aidan Levy to discuss his new book Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins. Based on over 200 interviews, this quintessential biography follows Levy’s primary research into what compelled Rollins to walk away from fame, money, and prestige in the jazz community to play saxophone on a bridge for 16 hours a day. This “sabbatical” which gave rise to the “Legend of the Bridge” is explored as a journey of body, mind, and spirit –highlighting the intricacies of documentation and methodologies in Rollin’s search for the “Lost Chord.”

I’ll be honest reader, this talk was not one I had been particularly excited about because I was thinking “what does some unheard of saxophone player have to do with anything I’m interested in?” But I should know better by now than to be dismissive of something just because it doesn’t relate to my specific interests because this presentation was fantastic—Levy offers a masterclass in the power of biographical work, bringing passion to Rollins’ story and exploring the depth of humanity that can be found in persistently engaging with unconventional, even radical acts.

With the task of writing a thesis looming on the horizon, I’ve been increasingly aware of the methods researchers, writers, and artists employ in their work and gained some insights from both Levy’s work and Rollin’s life. The work of both creators show how to engage with and shape the narrative of a legend –and even how to become one. Levy parsed the construct of Rollins’ “sabbatical” into components of mind, body, and soul –highlighting the efforts Rollins’ made in developing each of these with Levy adding historical and contextual ties, from anecdotes of interactions to pages from Rollins’ many journals. This structure allowed the breadth and depth of Rollins’ actions to shimmer into a web of influences surrounding Rollins. These divides of subject allowed Levy to showcase his archival and ethnographic research, interweaving them to capture Rollins’ experience as a whole—both paying homage to Rollins’ legacy with great detail while establishing the lasting impact of his time spent on the bridge. As an extension of honoring Rollins’ legacy, Levy and others from the Sonny Rollins Bridge Project have started a petition to rename the iconic bridge that Rollins played on.

In short, I was enticed by snacks to this talk and left with unexpected insights into the dedicated and methodical expansion of mind, body, and soul Rollins undertook to become a “master of unstructured time” as documented in Levy’s work, as well as a gentle reminder to myself to quite literally not judge a book by its cover.

Check out Levy’s book and other works here on his website and follow this link to sign a petition to rename the Williamsburg Bridge as a tribute Sonny Rollins. Rollins was a prolific composer and performer, so there is a plethora of music for you to dive into or you can start your listening journey with him here as he performs a tribute to Billie Holiday.

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