Tenor sax image (manipulated) from Shutterstock.com

The Sonny Rollins / ‘New Yorker’ Controversy and Jazz’s Image Problem

Why do jazz folks always sound so defensive about the music they love? Why can’t they take a pie in the face from Django Gold?

When you pass 40 or so, it’s no longer so easy to kick it with young people in bars and music clubs, right? You were cool once, but now your khakis look more appropriate than jeans — and what middle-aged guy hasn’t taken a little ribbing about a pair of Dockers? Do you accept the fact that you’re more suited to Cats or Emmylou Harris than some band no has heard of, yet?

What happens when an art form wears khakis — or seems like it does? Once plainly zesty and overtly part of the culture’s popular front, jazz has grown august, mature. Some might say, boring. Indeed, a recent dust-up in the pages of The New Yorker and then The Washington Post has raised the question about how jazz is seen and misunderstood by the public and worse, even by its own biggest boosters. And the incident puts in relief a dilemma that the jazz culture is trying so hard to ignore.

Here’s the story, and here’s what matters about it.

I’m certain that jazz would do better if it clung less fiercely to its seriousness, to its Rightful Place in the summit of the world’s arts.

On 31 July The New Yorker magazine published “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words” by Django Gold in its “Shouts and Murmurs” online humor blog. “Shouts and Murmurs” is the part of the magazine graced in the past by the likes of Woody Allen, George Saunders, Nora Ephron, and PaulRudnick. High-class yucks, usually.

Jazz isn’t frequently the subject (or target) of satire, in The New Yorker or elsewhere. And, boy-o-boy, was the jazz community unprepared for the barbs of this piece. Reactions among critics and musicians have been pronounced. First, many people did not recognize the article as satire (even though the “Shouts and Murmurs” section has always been satire and humor) and were upset, ultimately, to have been fooled. Or maybe more to the point, they were upset that people would think that Rollins actually said the things attributed to him in that humor section of The New Yorker.

Even taken as satire, many felt that Gold and the magazine were mocking jazz and belittling its art and those who have dedicated their lives to the art. Further, many just thought that the piece wasn’t funny or clever — certainly not up to the typically high standards of The New Yorker, a magazine that published a long (serious) article by Stanley Crouch about Rollins and his art in 2005.

For folks who care about jazz — or for anyone who wonders how about how art forms mature over time (and, yes, rock, I’m talking about you, too) — this “incident” provides a case study. How do you defend and promote a still evolving, still “cool” thing that is taught in academies and seems as up-to-date as a bow tie? How do you laugh off a joke about it without helping to bury it along the way?

I fall into the latter camp: it’s not very funny. I don’t write that as a man scandalized, but as someone who usually likes this kind of satire. It starts with a promising alleged quote from the “saxophone colossus”: “I started playing the saxophone when I was thirteen years old. There were some other kids on my block who had taken it up, and I thought that it might be fun. I later learned that these guys’ parents had forced them into it.” This bit is funny because it smacks of a kind of truth in our culture, at least in the culture of readers of The New Yorker, where jamming your kid’s life with healthy and educational hobbies is a contemporary parent’s duty.

I also liked this bit: “There was this one time, in 1953 or 1954, when a few guys and I had just finished our last set at Club Carousel, and we were about to pack it in when in walked Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. We must have jammed together for five more hours, right through sunrise. That was the worst day of my life.”

That’s funny because, if you’re a jazz fan, you’ve read countless interviews with musicians that read exactly like this, with a legend like Bird or Bud showing up and then they’re playing till morning. It’s funny to imagine that this was not a great impromptu jam session for a guy who just finished playing his own loooong night of music for (I’m imagining) little pay. So never mind that a jazz great came into your life — having to jam with him all night could be such a drag. It’s funny because it’s surprising, because it disrupts a well-known trope of music writing, and because it injects a dose of real life into what is usually presented as a kind of late-night fairy tale.

The rest of the article fails to tickle or even be clever. Here’s the ending, the part that angered folks the most: “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.”

What preceded that, in addition to the two lines I liked, were eight other imagined quotes that generally mock jazz, e.g., “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.” That suggests that jazz musicians think the music is pointless. And, “I really don’t know why I keep doing this.” This questions the art and dedication of Rollins himself. “The saxophone sounds horrible. Like a scared pig.”

“Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words” didn’t make me laugh more than once and, yup, it felt mean to me. It made Rollins, a man who I do revere as an artist and whose life has been no cakewalk, seem silly, angry, foolish, lazy, and ungrateful — qualities that are decidedly absent in all accounts of the man. And its primary “joke” was that jazz is fraud.

Ouch. But was outrage the appropriate reaction? Did the outrage help jazz or hurt it?

The Reaction of the Jazz Community

For a while, on Facebook and other social media, the reaction to “In His Own Words” was rather like, really? But it didn’t take long for folks to notice that this was an attempt at satire. Even then and mostly, it wasn’t appreciated. The most strident reaction from a prominent source was the essay by musician Nicholas Payton on his own website (“On the New Yorker ‘Satirizing’ Sonny“).

Payton sees the “Shouts and Murmur” article as a belittlement of a great art form and, by extension, a way of marginalizing the contributions of black folks to American culture. He writes that Rollins has “given his life to Black music that has been categorically reduced to a little thing called ‘jazz.’ Calling Black music Jazz’ is the oppressor’s way of being able to put on white gloves and sing ‘Mammy’ in blackface, while saying don’t get offended because it’s just ‘satire.’” (Payton has been outspoken in objecting to the term “jazz” — another debate entirely for another column. See “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore“).

Reactions from critics were mostly very negative, as well. Rafi Zabor, the author of the wondrous jazz novel The Bear Comes Home called the article a “turd”, and jazz writer Ted Gioia saw it as “below satire — it’s more like one of those prank April Fool’s stories published by second- or third-class periodicals.”

The most thoughtful critique that I came across was from critic Howard Mandel (see “Most scurrilous, unfunny New Yorker ‘humor’ re jazz“.) Mandel is reasoned in his tone, but explains that “due to the mechanics of search engine optimization, henceforth ‘Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words’ will likely score high in Google searches for Sonny, maybe for jazz.”

It you really want to get the most relevant reaction, that’s simple: Bret Primack videotaped an interview with Rollins himself. Rollins is even more measured than Mandel, or at least he starts off that way. He says, “I had no idea anyone could conceive of it being true. It was sort of like from Mad Magazine, and… I’m a big Mad Magazine fan — I’m a subscriber for many years. So it was great. I thought it was — wow — isn’t this funny. I said, it’s a little bit cutting about jazz. A little bit more than just about me — it seems to be ridiculing jazz music a little too much. But if it’s for Mad Magazine and it’s coming from that… fine.”

But that wasn’t all. Primack asked Newk how he felt about the fact that many folks, particularly musicians, mistook the satire for truth, and that got the saxophonist going. “That these people, young guys practicing, thought that I said something as stupid as that. I mean, that hurt me… I got very upset about it.. They were saying some very insulting, very derogatory things about jazz… I can’t even repeat it and read the article now. I can’t take it.” Rollins continued, saying that that the article suggested “don’t listen to jazz music, that’s silly music. False. People love jazz all over the world. Music schools are filled with young jazz students… Why? Because there’s something about jazz, the feeling, the syncopation. The spirit of it. It makes people feel good.”

Trying to Kill Jazz: An Attack in The Washington Post

The next thing Rollins says in his interview is more interesting. He notes that “from when I started playing jazz and when I started reading jazz magazines, every five or ten years there would be a big article, ‘Jazz is Dead’”… They’ve been trying to kill jazz… But you can’t kill a spirit.”

And sure enough, just a few days after this controversy broke, The Washington Post, published that very article: “All That Jazz Isn’t All That Great” by Justin Moyer, who is both a journalist for The Washington Post and a DC-based musician associated with many “post-punk” bands on Dischord Records. The article began: “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up.”

This article, Moyer quickly makes explicit, isn’t satire, but its intent was the same as the underlying intent of the New Yorker bit: to stick a pin the pretense of so much jazz and to call jazz on the truth of how so many people (secretly?) feel about it: that it’s old, that jazz musicians just (quoting Gold here, not Moyer) “take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps” and that jazz musicians could “run through the same song over and over again to see if anybody noticed”.

Moyer derides jazz on five points. First, he complains that jazz is mostly instrumental, abandoning the lyrics that make songs great. Presumably Mozart is also overrated and boring? He writes that improvisation is too often boring — comparing jazz musicians to the band Phish. Well, improvisation is bad when it’s bad and great when it’s great, like everything else in the world. Bands on Dischord are boring too, when they’re boring.

He adds that jazz “is mushy” (“defined by little more than improvisation, sunglasses and berets”) and “let itself be co-opted” (meaning that “Ellington is a postage stamp”, it is used in ads, and has “retreated to the academy”). Again, however, this carping applies equally to rock (taught in countless academies, used to sell countless products, with Elvis, Buddy Holly, and The Beatles featured on US postage stamps). Okay, Ian MacKaye ain’t on a postage stamp, Justin, but neither is Cecil Taylor.

Indeed, each of Moyer’s points, wrong as they are, coincides with how jazz is seen today by most folks: as a bunch of vague and noodly note-making that a bunch of weird, elite egg-heads think you ought to like, most of it made by old folks or academics, suitable maybe for cocktail parties or car commercials.

His fifth claim about jazz is equally incorrect but worth some additional thought — precisely because it sits at the intersection of the Rollins satire and the jazz community’s super-sensitive reaction. Moyer claims that jazz is “coast[ing] on its history”, that it has stopped evolving and refuses “to embrace the music of a more alien, more controversial 21st-century African American underground.” While this is untrue (and it’s the work of other columns and much of my other writing about jazz to demonstrate how jazz is evolving even though its trajectory of change is now much subtler and more complex than a drive toward to more “freedom”), this is the tone and vibe that “JAZZ” as a cultural force projects.

And that stereotype, a stubborn jazz conservatism that leans back too often on “classic” safety when the music is actually very dynamic, is the problem.

The Real, Tricky Problem with “Jazz” — or at Least How Its Champions Champion It

What the New Yorker satire was truly aimed at was not Rollins or even jazz, the music itself. Gold was sticking a pin in the pretentious balloon of so much jazz writing, in jazz myth-making, in the way that jazz champions itself with a hipper-than-thou, smarter-than-you grandeur. Actual jazz is incredibly varied and interesting. But the usual spokespeople for the music, whether its Wynton Marsalis or just the folks on Facebook who will jump on Gold for his (somewhat lame) jokes or who have jumped on me for celebrating jazz that eschews a walking bass line for more modern rhythms, too often treat the music like it is the Queen herself, and goodness gracious, How dare you suggest that she is not royal?

My point is not to mock the music (traditional or progressive) or to suggest that it the music itself has grown old, slow, uncool, or too stodgy. But I’m certain that jazz would do better if it clung less fiercely to its seriousness, to its Rightful Place in the summit of the world’s arts. Why do jazz folks always sound so defensive about the music they love? Why can’t they take a pie in the face from Django Gold?

The answer, I believe, is that jazz is caught between being respected and being loved by a relative few. Though jazz may be decently represented on certain kinds of soundtracks or in Cadillac commercials, it comprised just three percent of record sales in recent years: ahead of only classical music (by a teensy amount) and dwarfed more than tenfold by “rock”, more than fivefold by “country”, and threefold by Christian/gospel music . If you love jazz, I can tell you, your friends pay lip service to liking it but they don’t listen to it almost ever, and then mostly in a condescending way: “It’s great for studying!” or “I put it on as I’m falling asleep!”

You can hear this trap even in Rollins’ response to the controversy. On the one hand, he said, “People love jazz all over the world,” but he also said: “Jazz musicians live a tough life trying to get accepted where nobody wants to acknowledge the goodness of the music. Jazz is suffering. It’s been suffering since its inception and it’s still on the bottom. Why do you want to kick the dog that’s on the ground?”

Both of those things are true about jazz: it’s globally celebrated and yet it has suffered — at least since the big band era — with a particular kind of neglect, especially here in the US. Seen as a speciality music, it’s perhaps resented as an “intellectual” conceit, a pretentious emblem, a crusty relic or history lesson, a chore that has to be “understood” to be enjoyed. These things may not really be true of the great swath of jazz, but attacks on the music tend to push jazz’s defenders into acting precisely like the blowhards or conservatives that jazz’s critics would claim the music embodies.

Where This Leaves Us

Jazz, of course, deserves its place in the academy, and it needs patrons and artists like Crouch and Marsalis, who remind us of its rich history and its grand tradition. But what jazz needs even more is champions who describe and celebrate its dynamism, its experiments, its youth, and its undying and up-to-the-minute pulse.

The real problem with The New Yorker’s treatment of jazz in this case is not that it let a writer from the Onion goof up by using fake quotes from a legend. The real problem is that the magazine has not had a consistent jazz critic since 2001, when Whitney Balliett stopped contributing. (I loved his writing, but he was born in 1926, three years before my parents were born, and grew up during the Depression: perhaps he was no longer the best interpreter of jazz’s latest developments.) The emblematic magazine for the city that is jazz’s unambiguous capital (outside of New Orleans, of course) essentially ignores the art form.

Jazz champions: relax and wear a smile as you explain the arts riches!

The New Yorker: get a real jazz writer!

Sonny Rollins: don’t change one bit and enjoy your subscription to Mad!