As a saxophonist he had initially been attracted to the jump and R&B sounds of performers like Louis Jordan, but soon became drawn into the mainstream tenor saxophone tradition. Joachim Berendt has described this tradition as sitting between the two poles of the strong sonority of Coleman Hawkins and the light flexible phrasing of Lester Young, which did so much to inspire the fleet improvisation of bebop in the 1950s.
Rollins began to make a name for himself in 1949 as he recorded with Johnson and Bud Powell what would later be called "hard bop", with Davis in 1951, with the Modern Jazz Quartet and with Monk in 1953, but the breakthrough arrived in 1954 when he recorded his famous compositions "Oleo", "Airegin" and "Doxy" with a quintet led by Davis. Rollins then joined the Miles Davis Quintet in the summer of 1955, but left after a short stay to deal with his drug problems. Rollins was invited later in 1955 to join the Clifford Brown–Max Roach quintet; studio recordings documenting his time in the band are the albums Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street and Sonny Rollins Plus 4. After Brown's death in 1956 Rollins began his subsequent career as a leader; his first long-playing albums were released on Prestige Records. He also recorded during the 1950s for Blue Note, Riverside, and the Los Angeles label Contemporary.
He won his first performance Grammy for This Is What I Do (2000), and his second for 2004’s Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert), in the Best Jazz Instrumental Solo category (for “Why Was I Born”). In addition, Sonny received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004.
In June 2006 Rollins was inducted into the Academy of Achievement – and gave a solo performance – at the International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and attended by world leaders as well as distinguished figures in the arts and sciences.
Rollins was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class, in November 2009. The award is one of Austria’s highest honors, given to leading international figures for distinguished achievements. The only other American artists who have received this recognition are Frank Sinatra and Jessye Norman.
In 2010 on the eve of his 80th birthday, Sonny Rollins is one of 229 leaders in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts, business, and public affairs who have been elected members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A center for independent policy research, the Academy is among the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies and celebrates the 230th anniversary of its founding this year.
In August 2010, Rollins was named the Edward MacDowell Medalist, the first jazz composer to be so honored. The Medal has been awarded annually since 1960 to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field.
John Coltrane's composition "Naima" performed by his friend Sonny Rollins, "Kongresshaus", Zurich, Switzerland, September 6, 1968, featuring Kenny Drew on piano; Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass; the great Albert 'Tootie' Heath, on drums.