Campaign builds to rename Williamsburg Bridge in Sonny Rollins’ honour


It's been four years since Sonny Rollins, 86, last took to the stage, but the Newk remains as newsworthy as ever. Last month it was announced that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in his birthplace of Harlem, had purchased Rollins' extensive archives, featuring unreleased material from the 1970s and 1980s and reams of reams of notes. A special tribute concert at this year's Monterey Jazz Festival will feature his great peer and sometime collaborator Jimmy Heath, along with Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman.

Earlier this year, New York native Jeff Caltabiano launched a campaign to rename the Williamsburg Bridge, connecting Manhattan's Lower East Side with Brooklyn, in Rollins' honour. The saxophonist famously used the crossing as an impromptu rehearsal space during his three-year sabbatical before his 1962 comeback album called, of course, The Bridge.

The man himself has yet to come out in support of the move, but various boldface names in the contemporary US jazz scene have got behind the campaign, including Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Matt Wilson and Rudresh Mahanthappa. New York already has a Duke Ellington Boulevard and Miles Davis Way, and Caltabiano is confident that he can now add to the city's civic tributes. "I strongly believe it's not a question of if but when. The thousands of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists that cross the bridge each day should know that they're crossing Sonny Rollins' bridge, a sacred space in music history."

Proposals are set to be presented to New York City Council later this year, which will then need to be approved by the mayor, Bill de Blasio, rumoured to be a big Clash and Bob Marley fan, though no word on any jazz leanings.

"The renaming is the highest priority, but ultimately we'd also love to also have a statue of Sonny on the bridge playing to the 'open sky'," says Caltabiano. "It's a long process and a lot of work, but if Sonny Rollins has taught us anything it's that it takes a lot of hard work to get where you want to be."

– Matt Barker