Sonny Rollins is one of those rarified artists that even people who “don’t like jazz” could probably identify — as a saxophone player, a hero of Bill Clinton’s, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and one of the longest-living legends of jazz’s true heyday, from the ’50s through the ’70s. But his story couldn’t truly be told without Portlander Carl Smith.
While Smith’s name doesn’t appear until page 699 in Aidan Levy’s brand-new “Saxophone Colossus,” a biography named for Rollins’ iconic 1957 album, “the truth is that he’s really present throughout the book,” says Levy, “because Carl amassed the world’s largest collection of Sonny Rollins live tapes.”
“I came to Portland to listen on his sound system to many of these [Rollins] recordings and I was just blown away,” Levy said. “Carl’s archive is really what allowed me and the readers to get a much deeper sense of what Sonny was doing live, going all the way back to 1950.”
Smith knows a little something about audio fidelity, having founded Saco’s Transparent Audio, a high-end stereo company, with two partners in 1980. He was a lifelong jazz fan, too, though not a huge admirer of Rollins until seeing him in concert in 2000.
“What I discovered as an older guy,” Smith said, “is that I couldn’t believe how good he was. Whereas the studio recordings were brilliant, like great pieces of classical music, in live performance he would just cut loose. There was a legendary performance where he fell off the stage and broke his ankle and lay on the ground continuing to play. That was the Sonny that I fell in love with.”
So Smith decided to make it his passion project to surreptitiously record Rollins. The artist was famous for being dissatisfied with his performances and did not allow any kind of recording and so had few live performances fans could consume. With a sophisticated setup, including some code that allowed him to get second-row, center-cut seats for gigs and friends who would only pretend to clap on either side of him so as not to ruin the recording, Smith began capturing bootlegs, including one of Rollins’ famous 9/11 concert, just days after Rollins being trapped and rescued in the neighborhood of the Towers.
Initially, Rollins’ wife Lucille was adamant that Smith was a profiteer, and even made it clear to Smith she wanted him dead. (Smith merely collected the recordings but did not sell them.) But Smith persevered and after Lucille’s death in 2004, he was able to earn Rollins’ trust and Smith’s recordings became the beginning of Rollins’ “Road Show” series of live recordings, which included that iconic 9/11 show. But Smith also became Rollins’ friend and advisor, helping him to come into the contemporary world with a website and his own record label and a bit of business sense.
Levy calls the entrepreneurial Smith “unique in the world of archivists and audiophiles” because of that business sense and credits him with helping to unlock Rollins for so many fans.
Rollins, Smith says, “was always very good, but there were moments where he was transcendent.”
What Smith’s recordings prove, Levy says, is that “regardless of whether there were dips in the studio collections, [Rollins] was always capable of reaching those transcendent moments.”
Aidan Levy, author of “Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins,” will be in conversation with Carl Smith at Print, in Portland, March 10, at 7 p.m.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected]. Hear his extended interview with Aidan Levy and Carl Smith here.