Sonny is a troubled soul who deeply loves music, grew up in Harlem, got involved in drugs, and ended up spending time in prison. His responsible older brother, who has become a schoolteacher with a wife and family, doesn't understand Sonny. In fact, he cuts himself off from his brother until his own daughter dies.
The older brother spends a good deal of time wishing that Sonny had lived a different kind of life, one more like his own. He sees Sonny not as a bad person, but as someone who needs to be fixed. As a math teacher with a logical mind, he hasn't paid much attention to his brother's music.
When Sonny comes out of prison and is staying with his brother, he sees him listening to and enjoying music he hears outside the window. This emboldens Sonny to ask his brother if he would like to come and hear him play in the Village. Sonny adds, "if you can stand it," suggesting that he doesn't think his brother has much patience with his music.
The brother agrees, however, and while there, suddenly understands Sonny and the way he has transformed his blues—his pain—into art. Sonny's music touches people's souls. The brother gains a new appreciation and respect for his brother, thinking,
Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others .... Then he began to make it his .... I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
Sonny's brother has an epiphany in which he understands the power of art to heal and transform broken lives. He realizes Sonny is not a loser, but someone with a powerful creative gift to offer the world.