I heard Sonny Rollins play his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge once and only once live one afternoon so many years ago I can’t recall the walkway’s colour back then. Definitely not the pale red of my tongue when I wag it at myself each morning in the mirror, the walkway’s colour today at the intersection of Delancey and Clinton Streets where I enter it by passing through monumental stone portals, then under a framework of steel girders that span the 118-foot width of the bridge and display steel letters announcing its name. Iron fences painted cotton-candy pink guard the walkway’s flanks, and just beyond their shoulder-high rails much taller barriers of heavier-gauge steel chicken wire bolted to sturdy steel posts guard the fences. Steel crossbeams, spaced four yards or so apart, form a kind of serial roof over the walkway, too high by about a foot for me to jump up and touch, even on my best days playing hoop…
That’s an early passage from one of the best things I’ve read in a magazine this year, a short story called “Williamsburg Bridge” by John Edgar Wideman. I don’t always buy Harper’s magazine, but I seldom regret it when I do and the November issue was worth all of the €12.50 it cost at an airport news stand last week just for that piece alone, an extended monologue delivered by a man perched high on the bridge, with his back to the water, having removed all his clothes except his undershorts, preparing to jump off while allowing his mind to run through the thoughts that prefaced that decision.
Wideman, aged 74, is a novelist whose past honours include the PEN/Faulkner award and a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called “genius grant”. The several mentions of Sonny Rollins by the protagonist of “Williamsburg Bridge” take me back to the time I first got interested in jazz, around 1960, when Rollins was on his self-imposed sabbatical, reassessing his own work in the light of innovations of John Coltrane and working it all out en plein air on the iron structure over New York’s East River, where he could sometimes be glimpsed (and heard). It was part of an attempt to change his life, a regime that included giving up smoking, practising yoga and studying Eastern religions.
He re-emerged in 1961. The New Yorker‘s Whitney Balliett went to hear him and famously proclaimed: “Sonny Rollins isn’t merely back; he’s looming.” The following year Rollins marked his comeback with a very fine album called The Bridge, which — despite the obvious reference to his unconventional sabbatical — surprised critics by its conservative approach. He was accompanied by the guitarist Jim Hall, the bassist Bob Cranshaw and the drummer Ben Riley on a programme of standards and originals. At a time when Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman had thrown jazz into a ferment, there was no sign here that Rollins had returned to action with a plan to play them at their own game. (That would come a few months later, when he recruited Don Cherry and Billy Higgins into a quartet that adopted some of Coleman’s freedoms.)
The point of this, however, is to recommend Wideman’s story. The reader is never quite sure whether the protagonist — a writer, we learn — is really up there on the bridge, preparing to jump, or perhaps lying safely in his bed visualising the possibility, or even just writing a story about someone readying himself for the act. But, like one of those stream-of-consciousness improvisations in which Rollins used to specialise, scrolling through his thoughts with absolute confidence and unshakeable internal logic, it takes a grip and doesn’t let go.
* You can read the story here: http://harpers.org/archive/2015/11/williamsburg-bridge/ The photograph of Sonny Rollins is adapted from the cover image of The Bridge, taken by Chuck Stewart.