Monday, August 11, 2014


Sonny Rollins, Jazz Master
I enjoy a good joke as much as anyone. I also consider myself open minded in terms of humor. I enjoy a wide spectrum of comedy, from Monty Python to Martin Lawrence, from Jerry Seinfeld to Andrew Dice Clay, from Dave Chappelle to Ellen DeGeneres and everything in between. However, sometimes, the joke just doesn't work. Worse than a joke not working is when it's unclear whether it's a joke or not, or unclear for which audience the joke is intended. Case in point, the recent New Yorker piece, "Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words"   is supposed to be satirical( which is why the editor makes a note of it at the top of the article). The article was actually written by Django Gold, a senior writer for The Onion, which is a fake news magazine that I usually think is hilarious. Unfortunately, Gold was somehow way off on this one; writing as if it's Rollins giving an interview, Gold is more sophomoric and absurd than clever.

Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it.

I released fifty-odd albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and played on God knows how many session dates. Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life.

I can see what Gold was trying to do: make Rollins say something so extremely the opposite of what he would say that it would potentially be hilarious. As if I wrote something like, "Ronald Reagan: In His Own Words," and wrote something like:

That whole thing about "Government isn't the solution, it's the problem," was just kind of a joke. Tip O'Neil came up with it one night while we were having dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill. We had consumed about 2 bottles of vodka between us when he blurted it out, as well as something about "trickle down economics," which was probably more to do with vodka trickling down his shirt. After I gave that silly inaugural address, Republicans took that sound byte and really ran with it. I was just trying to be funny, kind of break the ice a little bit. But everyone was taking it so seriously. I guess I was just too embarrassed to admit that it wasn't true.

Iran-Contra? Of course I knew about it. Truth be told, I went to college with the Ayatolla Khomeini. Back then , he was know as Freddie, Freddie Khomeini. We used to hang out all the time in the late 50's. Now that I think of it, he still owes me 26 dollars. So sure, 1979 rolls around, I called in a favor. Obviously, the Tehran Hostage Crisis makes incumbent president Jimmy Carter look bad, and then, bam, I got to be President for 8 years. Oliver North took the heat, saying I didn't know anything, of course, but  in truth I knew every detail. I masterminded the entire thing from day one. This is all off the record, right? 

Anyway, whether you think that's funny, or even know who Ronald Reagan was, hopefully you see my point. In my example, it's quite clear that it's a joke, and it  references in an attempt to be clever as  well as relevant. Perhaps there are a few key differences. One is the person being lampooned. Ronald Reagan is, sadly, way more famous than Sonny Rollins because he was a major political and historical figure, and people who were politically aware during the 80's would possibly get a chuckle from the specific references( trickle down, Khomeini, Oliver North, etc...). The Rollins piece has some nice references, but the tone is perhaps not consistent enough to make sense. It's so on the absurdist side of things.

The saxophone sounds horrible. Like a scared pig. I never learned the names of most of the other instruments, but they all sound awful, too. Drums are O.K., because sometimes they’ll drown out the other stuff, but it’s all pretty bad.

Now, maybe if this had appeared in The Onion, it would have been fine. I think it's appearance in the New Yorker is just confusing. Maybe also, it's a little bit too close to home because let's face it, the vast majority of people probably think the saxophone sounds horrible. In that sense it would be like a comedian trying to tell Israeli-Palestinian jokes 3 weeks from now: "TOO SOON!"  ( Although my piece may perhaps ring a bit to true for some folks as well....)

As to be expected, after this piece was published, Facebook lit up like midtown Manhattan on Christmas Eve. Jazz musicians were angry. Even Sonny Rollins himself chimed in! Spike Wilner, jazz pianist and proprietor of Small's wrote a letter to The New Yorker:

Not only was it not funny but also vague enough to be construed that it was actually “his own words”.  Mr. Rollins is one of the most beloved figures in jazz, renown for his uncompromising artistic integrity.  Why at age 83 after a lifetime dedicated to the music he loves and champions he needs to be the subject of ridicule in your magazine is beyond me.  Instead, the New Yorker should publish a profile celebrating the life and accomplishments of this great American artist.  Jazz is already a much maligned and misunderstood art form.  An article like this does a great disservice to the music and the musicians who spend their lives playing it and is beneath the stature of your magazine.

I believe Wilner hits it right on the nose. Hey, New Yorker, what other beloved elderly figures are  next on the list to lampoon? Mother Teresa? Benny Golson? Jasper Johns? Mikhail Gorbachev? Hopefully, no one is missing why this article, while not a crime against humanity, was certainly in poor taste.

As to be expected, Nicholas Payton had an understandably harsh and extremely well written view of the article:

Here’s one of the most respected American periodicals posting a picture of a somber-faced Sonny with a piece “in his own words,” rhapsodizing about how he hates music and he’s wasted his life. Where’s the humor in that?

I get that White people and Black people have cultural differences and thus a different sense of humor. Given that to be the case, White people: stick to satirizing those who get your sense of humor. Leave Black people be. You’ve done enough over the past 500 years. Black life in a world of White oppression and supremacy is satirical enough. We don’t need your help adding to it.

And maybe Payton goes off on a tangent a little in this next bit, but it's actually pretty on point:

Meanwhile in Rolling Stone magazine, a real article came out that reads like satire. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga are doing a “Jazz” album. Tony goes on in this piece to say about Gaga, “She’s as good as Ella Fitzgerald…”
Nigga, please?! Lady Gaga ain’t fit to wear Ella’s dirty draws.

 Indeed, if somebody came out and said, " Kenny G's just as good as Charlie Parker," it would be hard not to want to kick their ass. Even if they were elderly. (I think Tony Bennett might be a little foggy on what Ella Fitzgerald actually sounded like...)

Payton's viewpoint brings it all home. Sonny Rollins as an elder statesman of jazz enjoys success which few musicians attain; however, as an African American living through decades of inequality in the United States, Rollins has endured things to which white people just cannot relate. It seems as though the younger generations, becoming farther removed from the Civil Rights Movement, are less aware of the scars of history. Furthermore, the American Idolization of our culture makes people less aware of the origins of American music as well (which is why the top R&B artists these days seem to be all white). To have to hear Tony Bennett say that about Lady Gaga is so outrageous, and yet, it seems as though nonsense is happening all around us and we've all just come to accept it. Big Corporations don't pay any taxes, innocent people die every day, incredibly mediocre actors and musicians become millionaires while ACTUAL TALENT becomes more of a liability than an asset. There's the real joke. 

You would think with all of this mishagos, the writing world would get the message: " Hey, jazz musicians find this offensive, and you are just going to piss people off. Find literally anything else to do a satirical piece on. Leave music and musicians whom are fighting for survival out of it." Well, apparently Justin Moyer didn't get the memo; his piece for The Washington Post, "All That Jazz Isn't All That Great" seems at first like trying to jump on some sort of anti- jazz bandwagon:

Jazz is boring.
Jazz is overrated.
Jazz is washed up.
Unlike a poorly received New Yorker piece purportedly written by jazz great Sonny Rollins, this is not satire.

Though Gold’s piece elicited an angry response from Rollins and outrage under the Twitter hashtag #rollinstruth, it was, as they say, funny because it was true. Jazz has run out of ideas, and yet it’s still getting applause.

I studied jazz while an undergraduate at Wesleyan University and had the privilege of learning from, at varying distances, some of the genre’s great performers and teachers, including Anthony Braxton, Pheeroan akLaff and Jay Hoggard. I appreciated that these generous African American men deigned to share their art at a quite white New England liberal-arts school. But I just didn’t get their aesthetic. Like cirrus clouds or cotton candy, I found jazz generically pleasing, but insubstantial and hard to grasp.

Moyer goes on to write a laundry list of reasons for why jazz, a kind of music which motivated him to pursue a degree,  is so boring. For example:

2. Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The knowledge that great music is improvised makes it more remarkable. But the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great. If it did, Phish and the Grateful Dead would be better than they are.

“Even when they are not soloing, members of a jazz band have to be intimately attuned to the music at all times because they never know what direction it might take,” according to Loren Schoenberg, a conductor and saxophonist writing in conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary “Jazz.” “If you don’t, you may, as John Coltrane once put it, feel as though you stepped into an empty elevator shaft.”

Unfortunately, rather than providing the thrill of standing at a precipice, improvisation by the likes of serviceable, forgettable, uncontroversial players such as guitarist Wes Montgomery is perfect for browsing at Barnes and Noble — or piping into elevators.

Unlike the New Yorker piece, there is a clear statement that " this is not satire" within the first few sentences. You could imagine that this would create even more animosity in the jazz community.

Look, we already know, and have known for a long time, that jazz after 1940 is not universally loved. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be true to our own musical aspirations. My feeling is that these days, jazz musicians are doing it because they love it, because they believe it's important, and they love to play for the small but passionate audiences(mostly in Europe and Asia) who know and love this music and don't find it boring. We aren't doing it to get rich. We do it for what one might say are more noble reasons than many other so called "popular" styles. Indeed, so many "hip hop" artists , in a genre which at one time had an incredible political awareness, now mostly rap about how rich they are or  how rich they wanna be, or just how great they are. Many of today's music stars seem to be pretty faces that are part of a huge "music industry", and yet calling them "musicians" would seem rather ironic.

I realize we are a capitalist nation, but there is still a difference between being a professional artist on one side and being a sell-out on the other side. Why won't we read articles lampooning Katy Perry, or Kayne West? Why won't we read overly intellectual opinion pieces in The Washington Post about how today's country sucks, or about how today's pop music mostly sounds like a bunch of morons shouting over a car alarm? I really can't say. All I can say is, if you don't like jazz, DON'T LISTEN TO IT! But we are already down. STOP KICKING US!

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