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Sonny Rollins on jazz, sax and The Simpsons

Andrea Warner

Jazz legend Sonny Rollins has been a presence on The Simpsons over its 20-plus-year run, but this Sunday marks his first appearance on the Emmy Award-winning pop culture institution.

The acclaimed tenor saxophonist is slated to figure into a storyline involving young jazz fan Lisa Simpson (also a saxophonist), who takes offense at the hologram "resurrection" of her beloved mentor, the now-deceased Bleeding Gums Murphy, a character who was something of a tribute to Rollins.

Rollins spoke with CBC Music about his Simpsons experience, the similarities he shares with Lisa and the role the show's played in helping jazz reach younger audiences.

You are 82 years old — is this the first time you’ve been animated?

[Laughs] I believe so!

Are you excited to continue taking on new opportunities after so many years in the business?

Yeah, well, that was an interesting development and in a sense [The Simpsons] immortalized me many years ago, from back in the 1950s, when I took a sabbatical and was practising on the bridge in New York City, a much-fabled story. They immortalized me in their skit in some kind of way, so for many years when I would go places, people would know me from the fact that I was this character from The Simpsons.

Have you been a fan of The Simpsons?

I’m not a big aficionado, I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I like The Simpsons. I think they were revolutionary. I think they have a very positive message. So I would say I’m definitely a fan of The Simpsons. Yes, I could say that quite legitimately.

How did they talk you into signing on for this role?

[Laughs] Well, I think that the character I was on the show has died years and years ago, so I think it comes — you know, I’m not sure what’s happening. I’m not sure about the whole story, but when I finally see it, it will be sent to me some time, I’ll look at it and then I’ll find out exactly how I’m portrayed. But it’s really quite an honour to be used in our society in any sort of way like this, to commemorate your life — I certainly appreciate it. I’m very humbled by it, really [laughs].

Can you walk me through what the recording process was like?

Well, the recording process was done in the studio in New York. We got there and I went into the room and I was being coached by actors in California. I had a script in front of me and I was coached into what they wanted me to say and how they wanted me to say it and all of this kind of stuff. I’m somewhat of a ham, you know. I’m a big ham! [Laughs] So after I did it, they said, "Gee, this is really great." They loved it.

One of the most interesting things to me about The Simpsons is that, by making Lisa Simpson such a jazz fan, they really brought the music to a lot of young people.

Right. And that’s great, because as you know, jazz is the music of the 21st century and it’s definitely the music of the 20th century. It doesn’t get a lot of attention from the media, yet it goes on and all over the world people love jazz. But it makes it a little hard for us performers because we don’t have the big-time careers and all this stuff that people in other genres did. But, it will always survive because it’s a wonderful form of music, it’s a wonderful spirit. Jazz is the spirit of the populace, of joy and freedom, it’s just a wonderful thing. And there are so many forms of jazz that people can listen to and there are so many great jazz musicians. I’m really happy that The Simpsons give it some kind of attention.

And it’s really exciting to see Lisa, a nine-year-old girl, obsessed with the saxophone.

[Laughs] I started my saxophone at seven, and I was obsessed with it and listened to this rhythm and blues guy named Louis Jordan and he was really my favourite. We had some of his records and then he was touring and he had a nightclub right across the street from my elementary school. I finally convinced my mother to get me my saxophone at seven years old. It’s been a wonderful life. Lisa’s a smart kid.

It’s extraordinary to me how The Simpsons have come across so many generations. They’re never afraid to do something or salute somebody even if they’re not super popular at the moment. 

I think it’s remarkable and very unusual, unfortunately, in the music and entertainment field.... Usually these successful showbiz enterprises are very careful and they don’t care too much about integrity or anything except making money. So, what The Simpsons do I think is really commendable.

My last question for you, sir: did they convince you to play as well as act?

[Laughs] Well, they didn’t convince me to play, but the acting part is, I understand, very unusual. I’m going to hold people in suspense until they see it.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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