Achilles Horn: Robert Mugge on the making of “Saxophone Colossus” featuring Sonny Rollins

By on August 18, 2017

Filmmaker Robert Mugge gave Night Flight this exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of his 1986 film Saxophone Colossus, and legendary tenor sax man Sonny Rollins. Watch it now as part of our collection of Robert Mugge music documentaries over on Night Flight Plus.

In early 1986, while screening my newly completed Rubén Blades portrait at a series of festivals, as well as over Britain’s Channel Four Television which had funded it, I found myself in need of a new project. And with Andy Park, my primary funder of the past few years, having left Channel Four, I assumed I would need a new backer as well.

It was then that my good friend Francis Davis, a prominent jazz critic, told me about his recent experience interviewing tenor saxophone legend Sonny Rollins. He had found both Sonny and his wife Lucille to be warm and welcoming, which was surprising in the case of Lucille, who had developed a reputation as a tough gatekeeper where Sonny’s press and new projects were concerned.

Then again, Francis knew that anyone who is especially protective of a top artist, keeping inquiring journalists at bay, is soon branded as “difficult.” And no one is more protective of male artists than wives who also serve as their husband’s full- time managers, engendering, in the process, a knee-jerk gender bias.

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Sonny and Lucille Rollins

The most exciting news Francis relayed to me was that Sonny was composing a new “Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra” which he would premiere, that coming May, with an orchestra in Tokyo, Japan.

Instantly, I thought how wonderful it would have been if someone had filmed the first performance of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” or of Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige.” Here was an artist of similar stature preparing an ambitious work of his own, and though no one could predict either its quality or its reception, for me, the opportunity seemed well worth any risk.

Francis offered to inquire as to Sonny’s and Lucille’s willingness to have the event filmed, but he warned against undue optimism. The simple fact that they had permitted a long interview did not ensure a similar openness with new media projects. But to Francis’s further surprise, Lucille told him she would consider my proposal.

When I phoned Lucille myself, she said she felt that Sonny was playing the best he ever had, and she wanted to document that fact. She therefore gave me all the details about the Tokyo premiere and invited me to mount a production. Of course, with Andy having left Channel

Four and no replacement having been selected, it was difficult to imagine who would be willing to fund such a project, and on relatively short notice.

Happily, even though Channel Four had not yet hired a new Commissioning Editor for Music, they had recently placed an acquisitions executive named Michael Phillips in charge of all jazz-related programming. When I approached him about the Sonny Rollins idea, he was instantly on board, but with the caveat that he could only provide just over a third of my anticipated budget.

Encouraged by that quick success, yet frantic to find the rest, I was suddenly approached by David Mazor, the owner of a small theatrical distribution company who was looking for low-budget projects in which to invest. After hearing my plans, David offered another third of what I needed, and suddenly, the project was looking real.

I actually never raised the final third of what I needed, though I did secure small advances from Sony Video Software, for a North American home video release, and from Fantasy Records, whose Milestone label liked the idea of a Sonny Rollins soundtrack album.

Fortunately, with the premiere nearly upon us, Michael and David okayed my using a smaller budget than desired, and I figured out how to make that work.

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Milestone’s G-Man album, the soundtrack for Robert Mugge’s 1986 film Saxophone Colossus

In the end, I could only afford to take cameramen Larry McConkey and Erich Roland, sound man Bill Barth, and their respective camera and audio equipment with me for the shoot in Japan. But newspaper giant Yomiuri Shimbun, owner of the orchestra that had commissioned Sonny’s piece and the concert hall where it would be performed, provided crucial assistance during our week-long stay.

First, they gave us access to the concert hall during rehearsals and performances; second, they allowed us to film their own television crew which was documenting the first of the two concerts; and third, they had their Japanese radio station, which was broadcasting the second performance, give Bill a feed of their live stereo mix as we shot the same performance.

They even hired an outside consultant, Kazunori Oki, to troubleshoot for us, including getting us and our equipment quickly through Customs, and providing an office where Channel Four could fax me an agreement and wire my initial payment, barely in time for us to pay our bills there.

I also hired Katsunori Fusegi, a young Japanese musician who had recently returned to Tokyo after living in New York for a time. He would serve as interpreter, driver, guide, and production manager during our stay in Japan. And in that position, he was a lifesaver, transporting us wherever we needed to go, solving any unforeseen problems, securing additional local crew members, and seeing that we were all well fed.

Every night we were in Tokyo, he took us for an amazing meal somewhere, including the best sushi and shabu shabu we had ever eaten. Of course, our most memorable meal involved a tabletop pyramid of assorted shellfish, all of it ready for plucking by our chopsticks, but topped off by an upside- down lobster whose meat had been conveniently cubed for the taking, even as its legs struggled to get away. From that night on, we joked about Japanese food being “fresh.”

Sonny had written his concerto for a one-hundred-person orchestra. The Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra was not that large, but it was big enough. Add to that our need to focus on Sonny, who would solo and improvise throughout the performance, and on Heikki Sarmanto, a Finnish composer who had orchestrated the piece and would serve as its conductor – add also our need to change film magazines every ten or eleven minutes – and we knew that filming all this with just two 16mm cameras would be a challenge.

Typically, a director might use a half-dozen cameras or more to film an orchestral performance in a large hall, and in 2006, Martin Scorsese would use eighteen to shoot the Rolling Stones in a small theater (which is why, in the resulting film Shine A Light, the cameras wound up shooting each other as much as they did the band). Ironically, abundant technical resources can make a filmmaker less uncreative, while more meager ones can spark innovation.

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Steadicam operator Larry McConkey and assistant Erich Roland shooting Japanese orchestra rehearsal

Larry had brought along his Steadicam, and that would prove useful for filming elsewhere around Tokyo, with Erich serving as his assistant. But during the concert, the Steadicam would be too distracting, and we needed Erich manning a camera of his own.

Yes, I could only afford to bring two cameramen to Japan. But when they are as gifted as these two, and when the three of us have shot so much musical performance together, I never once considered it a problem.

Actually, I had a plan, and that plan was to place Larry and Erich in key, complementary positions, with me directing them over headphones, and with them simply filming highlights of the performance, knowing we would not have to rely on concert footage alone to tell the story.

The concerto was made up of seven movements, and I intended to edit each of them with a different visual theme, combining shots of the performance with additional scenes filmed elsewhere.

With this in mind, prior to the concert, we shot concertgoers arriving for the two shows; during the first performance, we shot the Japanese crews at work; and in the days to follow, we cast a wide cinematic net around the city.

As to the composition itself, prior to last-minute rehearsals in Tokyo, none of us had any sense of what to expect. That was true even of Sonny and Heikki because, although each of them had spent months laboring over what was to come (Sonny over the melodies and structure, and Heikki over the orchestration), only now would flesh attach to the bones of all they had imagined. And it was that lack of knowing that, for all of us, made the air heavy with excitement.

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Sonny Rollins performing with Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra

At various points in the history of jazz, major artists had risked the ire of purists by bringing their vagabond art into the concert hall and combining its traditions with those of classical music or even opera. Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Miles Davis with Gil Evan – these were just a few of the composers and bandleaders who sought bigger stages, wider respect, and a broader musical experience.

Even such giants as Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday added strings to their work, a move every bit as controversial as producer Billy Sherrill’s cotton candy arrangements for country crooner George Jones. And now, one of the greatest improvisers in jazz history would, for the first time ever, seek to ply what composer Günther Schuller dubbed his prodigious gift for “thematic improvisation” within the context of a symphony orchestra.

While deeply respecting diverse musical traditions, I have long been drawn to artists creating synthesis in their work, and therefore have as little use for orthodoxy in music as I do in cinema.

For that reason, I was as likely as anyone to love Sonny’s new creation, which I very much did. Even hearing the piece for the first time while shooting it, I was enthralled by its sweet melodies, rich orchestral textures, and Sonny’s swooping, soaring solos, often extended by eye-popping circular breathing.

Like Sonny, I would leave it to others to assess his achievement because, for me, what mattered most was that the concerto had a strong inner narrative which I could interpret visually, and a resonance I could strive to enhance.

My assumption was that, even if viewers resisted the appeal of the composition itself (which I certainly hoped they would not), perhaps they at least would be taken with the combination of Sonny’s music and the pictures I chose to embellish it.

Sonny himself seemed happy as the concert drew to a close, and relieved by the vocal response of the audience. But I later learned from Lucille that he felt two of the movements – numbers two and six – needed more work. So, I readily agreed to omit those from the film.

Truth be told, I already feared that plopping a long orchestral piece into the middle of a documentary would make the film’s structure unwieldy, and therefore, focusing only on the five strongest movements seemed a wise choice.

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As for Sonny, he would still be free to rework the piece in any way he liked before cutting a definitive studio recording or doing additional public performances. At the time, I saw my job as capturing how the piece came to be, and providing glimpses of it’s premiere performance. Little did I know that, due to Sonny’s later ambivalence, this would wind up being its only record.

The week in Japan sped by for all of us, but at least we accomplished all we had planned. Afterwards, I sent Larry, Erich, and Bill home via New York City, while I flew to Seattle instead.

By a nice coincidence, festivals in Seattle and Vancouver had invited me to screen my latest films, and their schedules not only overlapped one another, but also coincided with my return.

The screenings in Seattle went great, and I assumed my time in Vancouver would be equally well-spent. However, when I arrived in Canada, I found myself staying in an isolated cottage with my whole first day to myself. I therefore decided to explore Expo 86, that year’s World’s Fair, which I did entirely on foot.

Apparently, I placed more strain on my legs than I knew because, during my return to the cottage, a lurch of the bus caused me to tear ligaments in my knee. By the time someone picked me up for that night’s screening, it had grown increasingly swollen and painful. I therefore informed my driver that, once I had I introduced the film, I would need to see a doctor, and then make plans for an early return home.

The morning flight to Seattle went well. But a so-called “mechanical” caused a four-hour delay of my subsequent flight to Chicago. That, in turn, caused me to miss my connection to Philadelphia, which meant my spending an agonizing night at an airport hotel, with no access to pain medication.

The following afternoon, I finally made it back to Philly, was picked up at the airport by my flight attendant fiancée, and realized I only had a few days to get my knee checked by a sports doctor, get married on crutches in the D.C. suburbs, have arthroscopic surgery on the knee, and then leave for a three week honeymoon in Australia, during which I was set to screen three films at the Sydney Film Festival and four at the Melbourne Film Festival.

Somehow, though, all of that did get done, and I soon found myself crossing the Pacific once again.

In spite of the fact that June marks the start of winter in Australia, that I was on crutches the whole time there, that my wife caught the flu (which led to bronchitis and then pneumonia), and that it took us twenty-six grueling hours to make it home again (thanks, in part, to our plane “eating” some birds in New York City, which forced it out of service), we did have a great time. I even got to meet folk-blues legend Dave Von Ronk at a radio station where he and I were both being interviewed, and I managed to do some one-legged snorkeling around the Great Barrier Reef.

The latter was during a week spent in Cairns, Australia, which is in the country’s tropical north, and which was still fairly rustic in those days, aside from our newly constructed resort hotel.

Still, I also spent much of that three weeks itching to be home again so that I could review our Japan footage and plan remaining shoots.

Although Sonny Rollins grew up in Harlem, his parents had immigrated there from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and some of his most popular songs have island themes, including “St. Thomas” and “Don’t Stop the Carnival.”

As he likes to point out, Japan, too, is an island, which could be a reason for his appeal there. Yet Sonny’s “island connections” are not merely geographical, in that, as a musician, he is highly disciplined, focused, and spiritual, and therefore something of an island himself.

With that in mind, I planned, from the beginning, to have an island theme running through the film. For instance, I asked Daijiro Ban, a young Japanese artist living in New York City, to design film titles suggesting both islands and Japanese culture.

In addition, when Lucille told me Sonny had agreed to perform on a boat sailing around Manhattan, I saw a chance to show New York as an island as well. But when I spoke to the promoters, I learned the concert would happen at night, and the boat could not provide power for our lights or recorders. I could have proposed other options – a generator, for instance – but it was clear we were not welcome.

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Opus 40 in Saugerties, NY

When I reported this to Lucille, she told me of another outdoor show, this one taking place near the home she and Sonny shared in upstate New York (they alternated living in a historic old house in Germantown, NY and in an apartment in the city).

On August 24, Sonny and his band were set to perform at Opus 40, a 6 1/2-acre stone-sculpture park in Saugerties, NY, built by the late sculptor and educator Harvey Fite and now overseen by his stepson Tad Richards.

At Lucille’s suggestion, I contacted Tad, and he was happy to work with us. So, I traded the island theme for one about American monuments.

Performing with Sonny would be his longtime bass player Bob Cranshaw, his nephew Clifton Anderson on trombone, pianist Mark Soskin, and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Sonny had sometimes been criticized for not employing top-notch musicians, but his current band was among his best.

My crew that day was first-rate as well. I brought in four cameramen, including three of my favorites: Chris Li, Erich Roland, and Larry McConkey on Steadicam. As director of photography, Larry also had the daunting job of lighting Opus 40’s sculpted stage and grass audience area so that, as the bright August sun went down, there would not be a major change in our overall look.

At his suggestion, we rented powerful HMI lights on tall stands and brought enough brawny assistants to erect them and then carefully pull them down again.

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Overseeing music recording was Bill Barth, my audio director for the past decade. And for the actual miking and mixing, I hired Randy Ezratty and a truck full of 24-track recording equipment from his company Effanel Music. Randy had done a solid job recording a Rubén Blades concert for me at S.O.B.’s in Manhattan the year before, so I decided to use him again.

As expected, his audio cables snaked around and over the rock stage area, ending at microphones where each of the musicians would soon be playing. Other mikes on stands were directed at the horde of casually dressed audience members taking their places on blankets and lawn chairs in the humid afternoon air.

Up a sloping ramp behind the band stood a slim rock monument that towered above everything except surrounding trees. Its potential as metaphor for our “saxophone colossus” (the title of one of Sonny’s most revered albums and of our forthcoming film) could not have been more obvious. I therefore had Larry position himself in front of it so that, as the band began to play, he could start his shot on the monument, then slide his Steadicam quickly down the ramp, edge it along one side of the musicians, and finally pull up directly in front of them.

This turned out to be the perfect start because, with little warning, Sonny set off a saxophone assault so potent one might have expected the skies to open in response. And instantly, along came Larry, lyrically tracking from towering rock edifice straight to the bellows-like face of a living and breathing one. In fact, when the camera reached its fire-breathing objective, a connection was made between filmmakers and musicians that never let up for fifteen ferocious minutes.

With his opening charge, Sonny was announcing his presence, his power, and his importance in a way that only the greatest artists can do. Our job was simply to follow his lead.

The piece Sonny introduced that afternoon was called “G-Man,” and its later release, via both film and soundtrack album, convinced wavering music writers and fans that Lucille was right: Sonny was, indeed, playing as well as he ever had.

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In the Village Voice, music editor Robert Christgau gave the album an A Plus and described “riffs jumping and jiving long past their breaking points, notes held so long it’s a wonder Rollins hasn’t passed out.” He later declared it the best album of 1987 and, in 1990, named it the fourth best album of the 1980s.

Jazz critic Gary Giddins called the album “Rollins’ ultimate statement on the middle ground he sought between traditional constraints and free jazz – a disciplined howl of joy that seemed to steady him for the inevitable task of building a post fusion repertory.”

After the opening blast of “G-Man,” the concert shifted moods and styles from song to song, as shown by the three additional tracks included on the soundtrack album: “Kim,” “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” and (on CD only) “Tenor Madness.” However, a turning point came when Sonny switched to solo improvisation.

Suddenly, with his band members watching, Sonny began pacing the front of the stage, playing snatches of familiar melodies, alternated with intermittent squacks and honks, and growing ever more agitated.

After a few minutes, he actually ran to the edge of the stage and stopped abruptly, as if considering jumping six feet to the rock surface below. Then, after pacing and playing a moment more, he returned to the edge, following through this time.

As Sonny’s feet hit the hard ground below, he fell flat onto his back, protecting his instrument above him, but not otherwise moving or making a sound. Everyone in the park – audience members, band members, film crew, and Opus 40 staff – held their collective breaths, awaiting some signal that he was okay.

Then, just as suddenly, Sonny bent his legs, briefly rested his right leg on the left, raised his saxophone to his lips, and began to play the haunting opening of “Autumn Nocturne.” The entire crowd exhaled together, now smiling, laughing, clapping, and hugging one another with relief. His band members responded much the same way, then, one at a time, joined in on the song.

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As Sonny later pointed out, his musicians were so shaken by his fall that they played the wrong chord changes. For that reason, he and Lucille asked me not to include the song in the film. But I did get their permission to use just the beginning because, without my continuing the scene through the start of the song, there would have been no emotional payoff for all that had come before.

After playing “Autumn Nocturne” from his reclining position, Sonny allowed Opus 40 manager Tad Richards to help him to his feet again.

As Tad remembers it, Sonny asked, “How long do you want me to play?” Tad answered, “Sonny, we’ll stop the concert and get you medical help.” But Sonny responded, “No, man. I’m gonna finish the gig.” He then played a couple more songs from a standing position, but did not attempt returning to the higher level where his band was still in place.

Two of Tad’s volunteers were Emergency Medical Technicians. After the performance, they helped to stabilize Sonny’s foot. Then, Tad used a golf cart to transport Sonny and Lucille to their car.

From there, Lucille drove Sonny to Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck, NY, where tests showed him to have broken his heel. Comparisons to Achilles, the legendary warrior from Greek mythology and Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, are unavoidable.

Sonny later told me he had leaped off the stage because he wanted to play his saxophone while walking through the crowd, something he did quite often. He said he liked getting feedback from the people around him and then playing off of that. Privately, though, Lucille informed me that his motivations were more complex.

According to her, back in May, when we filmed Sonny in Japan, he knew his saxophone was losing its luster. Therefore, before we saw him again in August, he had it relacquered. By the time we filmed him at Opus 40, its finish shone like gold, but Sonny found its tone to be erratic.

As he explained to Lucille, it was as if he went to play a vowel, and out came a consonant. That’s why he grew so upset while soloing. Lucille said he was essentially having a nervous breakdown on stage, and the only way he could think to end it was to jump off the ledge.

If anyone needed an example of what a perfectionist he is about his art, or of the kind of stress he’s under while performing, he certainly gave us a great one that evening.

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Having filmed both an orchestral premiere in Tokyo and an ensemble concert in upstate New York, I knew we had more performance footage than I could possibly use. All that was left was to shoot an interview with Sonny and Lucille in New York City, as well as a discussion among several jazz critics, both of which would provide context for the music.

So, after the Opus 40 shoot, Francis Davis helped me reach out to his fellow jazz writers Ira Gitler, Gary Giddins, and Stanley Crouch, all of whom agreed to meet us in a park near Sonny’s and Lucille’s New York apartment. Sonny and Lucille would stop by later, so as not to intrude on the earlier discussion.

The day selected for this final shoot proved to be sunny yet unusually windy. My small crew (mostly cameraman Larry McConkey and sound man Bill Barth) and I got there first so that we could get fully set up before the others arrived. This included figuring out how to protect our mikes from wind noise and the camera from rising and falling light levels.

To my great regret, Stanley Crouch failed to show, but Francis Davis, Gary Giddins, and Ira Gitler came as promised. Each of them was well schooled in the history of jazz and had followed Sonny for decades, in particular Ira Gitler, who is Sonny’s contemporary. So, we had an extremely fruitful discussion.

I had actually hoped for more diversity of opinion, perhaps even a heated disagreement or two. But all three were so much in awe of Sonny and his art that, while providing lots of great background, they were unanimous in their praise.

The unanimity was fine, of course, but increasingly amusing as I kept waiting for someone – anyone – to say something negative about Sonny, whether personally or professionally.

Not long after the jazz critics left, Sonny and Lucille joined us. The two of them arrived on foot, though Sonny walked with an obvious limp and had a cast and protective cover on his right foot. We asked them to sit on the same park bench where the jazz critics had sat, and kept our shots tight enough on one or both of them that the foot would not be seen till we broached the broken heel.

Separately and together, they provided wonderful anecdotes about Sonny’s career, their lives together, and their close working relationship.

I spent the next few months editing everything together, then overseeing the usual music and sound mixes and assorted final lab work. Mike Phillips of Channel Four was thrilled with the completed film and allowed me to arrange a world premiere screening at the London Film Festival prior to his own television premiere. This was set for late November.

Derek Malcolm, esteemed film critic of The Guardian, had taken over running the festival after its longtime director, my good friend Ken Wlaschin, left to do programming for the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Although I had not met Derek before, he was excited enough about our film that he arranged a premiere screening in a large London cinema, followed by his own onstage interview of Sonny and me.

Happily, Sonny and Lucille were able to fly over from New York; I flew in from Philadelphia; my cameraman friend Chris Li flew in from Washington, D.C.; Andy Park (my former Channel Four mentor and benefactor) made the trip from Glasgow, Scotland; and Channel Four’s Michael Phillips and wife Viviane joined us as well.

So, it was quite the event, and celebrating continued late into the night for Andy, Chris, my American producer friend Jesse Beaton, and myself.

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Sadly, Lucille Rollins died in 2004, after suffering a stroke in early 2003. I have dedicated Saxophone Colossus to her memory because, without her belief in the project, it never would have happened.

It is also a great source of pride for me that Lucille, who knew and appreciated Sonny better than anyone, loved our film, just as we loved her.

Over the years, Saxophone Colossus has been screened at film festivals, broadcast, and released on video throughout the world.

Now, to my delight, our newly remastered version is being released on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as via Digital Streaming and Downloading, by MVD Visual, which I hope will keep it available for many years to come.

© 2017 Robert Mugge

Watch Saxophone Colossus, and other Robert Mugge-directed music docs in our collection over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Robert Mugge

Robert Mugge has been making feature-length documentaries and music films for the past four decades. According to France’s Libération, “Mugge is nothing less than the best music filmmaker on the planet." Among the better-known of his 34 films to date are DEEP BLUES, GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, BLACK WAX with Gil Scott-Heron, SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS with Sonny Rollins, ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS with Bob Hope, HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL: THE AFTERLIFE OF ROBERT JOHNSON, THE KINGDOM OF ZYDECO, BLUES DIVAS with Morgan Freeman, and NEW ORLEANS MUSIC IN EXILE. His latest productions are ZYDECO CROSSROADS: A TALE OF TWO CITIES and STEVE BELL STORYTELLER: A NEWSMAN LIVING HISTORY. Since 2005, his production partner has been Diana Zelman, to whom he is now married. For five years, he was an Endowed Chair Professor at Ball State University, and for two years he was Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Many of his films, both old and new, are currently being released on Blu-ray or DVD by MVD Visual. Much more about Mugge's career is available at www.robertmugge.com.