Sonny’s Lesson

Highly tuned and sensitive players learn different lessons from everyone they play with. But there are those who are both masters, and master teachers. Playing under their tutelage can literally change your playing, and your life. One such master is Sonny Rollins.

Tommy explains:

Sonny Rollins taught me how to listen. Because of him I now know half of playing is listening. When I started playing with Sonny, I played the first concert, the second concert… the fifth concert. For a year he never said anything about my playing, good, bad, or ugly. All he’d say was, ‘just keep playing.’ I kept going back to him asking how it sounded. Nothin’. This went on for the better part of a year.

One concert it dawned on me that we had stopped playing this particular song. I had no idea why. As a fairly young player, I was so hungry for feedback. Then Sonny starts playin this musical quote on the horn, ‘you’re playin’ too slow’. Then, ‘don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.’ I realized these were musical instructions, like melodic text messages. It opened my ears.  In that moment, I realized all I had to do was listen to the music. He was literally talkin’ through the music. He would play a Max Roach quote on his horn to tell us to play this bit like max. He’d touch in on ‘Goin’ to Chicago and I can’t take you…’ That meant we better be in the lobby at 8:00 or you ain’t goin’. Once you learn to listen, you don’t have to work that hard. And you get all the feedback you need from those around you.

Sonny Rollins and Tommy Campbell in Philly

Sonny Rollins and Tommy Campbell in Philly

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