I've just started reading Adin Levy's biography Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins (2022), and I immediately thought of some other biographies on black men I've read over the years. In particular, I recalled scenes from Arnold Rampersad's Ralph Ellison: A Biography (2007), David Blight's Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018), and Les Payne's The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (2020).
I realized that one benefit in the early parts of these biographies is that you get the chance to consider childhoods of this folks who went on to live these extraordinary lives. I've been thinking and writing about the intellectual lives of black men for quite some time, and these biographies give me opportunities to think about he cognitive development of black boys. I saw that with Douglass, Ellison, and Malcolm. And now Rollins.
Oh, I thought about some of that too with Lewis Porter's fantastic biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (1998). In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle (2008), Ta-Nehisi Coates devotes most of this one chapter to discussing his dad's upbringing, and so that comes to mind too.
Levy takes us to Rollins' childhood, growing up in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s. The family has some struggles. There's all kind of obstacles. And Rollins is a typical little black boy hanging around, playing with friends, and being an average or so student in school.
Ok, but then, there's the music. Look. Listen.
Rollins is surrounded by it. He has this rich musical heritage with parents from the Caribbean. Then, he's in the right neighborhoods in Harlem getting to see folks like Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington and others. He's taking music lessons, as an early teen, with experienced musicians. By 13, he's starting to play with groups.
He's watching performances at the Apollo. He figures out ways to sneak into jazz clubs downtown. He's interacting with all these other future jazz musicians.
I want to eventually think through and say more about the educational lives of black boys -- those who became famous and also just in general.
For now, it's exciting to consider the environment that nurtured Sonny Rollins.