merica is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.
He was 27 when he wrote that. To the public, it seemed, he then put down the pen and spoke only through the universal language of music. In private, though, Sonny was prolific as both a tunesmith and a wordsmith — writing essays, letters, j
ournal entries, jottings and marginalia, even material for a planned book on jazz and life writ large. To anyone familiar with his erudite interviews, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the greatest living improviser, now 92, is also eloquent on the page. What is surprising is that over the course of more than six decades of near-constant touring and recording, he maintained another disciplined practice — as a secret writer.
If jazz is an art form of the moment, a spontaneous medium, writing is deliberate — emotion recollected in tranquility. The Saxophone Colossus, famously described by the composer and thinker Gunther Schuller as a “thematic improviser,” articulated his musical ideas with a coherence and cohesion that defines him as one of the most writerly soloists in jazz history. When Sonny played he was really saying something, but as his own worst critic, he always insisted he would say it better the next time.
Writing offered a form of expression possibly more conducive to a perfectionist mindset. Writing is rewriting, and Sonny revised his work obsessively until he arrived at le mot juste. Such was the case with the lapidary prose of Freedom