This Lower East Sider Wants to Rename the Williamsburg Bridge for Sonny Rollins

Posted on: April 7th, 2017 at 5:11 am by

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For Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the Williamsburg Bridge was once-upon-a-time sanctuary to master his instrument. Now, one Lower East Sider is pushing the city to commemorate (and celebrate) the artist with a renaming.

Sonny Rollins also lived at 400 Grand Street, now buried beneath a fifteen-story tower for the Essex Crossing development (i.e. Site 5). In his younger days, the horn player would seek refuge on the pedestrian path of the East River span, as “I had no place to practice…my neighbor on Grand Street was the drummer Frankie Dunlop, and his wife was pregnant,” he wrote in the New York Times two years ago. “Nobody was there, and it was beautiful. I went to the bridge to practice just about every day for two years. Playing against the sky really does improve your volume, and your wind capacity.”

The New Yorker penned a piece about the proposal, spearheaded by Norfolk Street resident Jeff Caltabiano.

Last summer, Caltabiano had an epiphany of sorts after seeing an Instagram post by the horn player Ken Vandermark: a photo of the bridge with the caption, “It’s still Sonny Rollins’ bridge to me…” Now Caltabiano is working to convince the city to rename the bridge after Rollins. He would be content, he said, with a commemorative plaque to start—anything to mark what he understands to be a sacred, important place—though he has fantasized about corralling a saxophone choir onto the bridge to pay true homage. He has fantasized about getting Rollins to return.

His proposal is still in its early stages. He wanted to get Rollins’s blessing before making any formal moves, he said—a couple of weeks ago, he mailed a letter to a P.O. box in Germantown, New York, which he was told Rollins (who is eighty-six, and lives near Woodstock) still empties from time to time.

“In deciding to go practice on the bridge for over two years, Sonny Rollins made a very clear choice to race the marathon instead of sprinting to an early burnout, like Charlie Parker or Lester Young,” Caltabiano quipped when reached for comment.  “He made a deliberate and thoughtful decision to step away from the jazz scene for a while, which has helped him (along with his second sabbatical) live as long as he has lived.  For all of his brilliance, resilience, longevity, and humanity, we must honor Sonny Rollins, the Saxophone Colossus.  This project dreams that one day Mr. Rollins will once more step onto his bridge, The Sonny Rollins Bridge, and feel the freedom of the open sky.”

Since Sonny Rollins still walks among the living, it seems this task could prove Herculean. Although, Caltabiano remains optimistic. “There is precedent for renaming of public spaces for living people, which seems to happen more often with sport figures for example,” he tells us.  At this point, we are just trying to get the story out there and get a lot of support behind the idea. The political push to make this happen can come after there’s a groundswell of support.”

In the meantime, Caltabiano is about to begin leading free, jazz-themed walking tours of the Lower East Side. Head here for more.

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