Sunday, August 03, 2014


On July 31, the New Yorker published a piece called "Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words," by Django Gold. It followed the format of articles like Esquire's long-running "What I've Learned" series, in which cultural eminences (Merv GriffinRachel HunterJohn McCainWayne Newton, etc.) share the wisdom they've gathered throughout the course of their lives.

The Rollins "interview" begins: "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." It continues along the bleak path suggested by that introduction, including observations like, "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."

"Rollins" tells stories about other jazz greats, too: "I remember Dexter Gordon was doing a gig at the 3 Deuces, and at one point he leaned into the microphone and said, 'I could sell this suit and this saxophone and get far away from here.' The crowd laughed." and "Once I played the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland, with Miles Davis. I walked in on him smoking cigarettes and staring at his horn for what must have been fifteen minutes, like it was a poisonous snake and he wasn’t sure if it was dead. Finally Miles stood up, turned to his band, and said, 'All right, let’s get through this, and then we’ll go to the airport.' He looked like he was about to cry."

The piece's final paragraph? "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've been listening to jazz since I was 14 or 15 years old—close to 30 years at this point. I have something like two dozen Sonny Rollins albums in my iPod right now. I've seen him in concert multiple times, and interviewed him (twice). And I laughed harder at this piece than I've ever laughed at anything published in the New Yorker. It's a hilarious, biting look at the dark side of the artistic temperament and the dismal fate awaiting most artists in a capitalist society.

Mine seems to be a minority opinion, though, at least if Facebook and Twitter can be believed. Comments like "This piece is listed as humor in The New Yorker, but it doesn't seem all that funny" and "I expect better from The New Yorker. But I won't in the future." and "I hope Rollins sues them for this." and the like are littering social media. A few bloggers have weighed in, too, of course; Philip Booth writes, in part, "[S]ome who casually stumble across the piece online might mistake it for the real thing, and wonder why Rollins is being so wacky" (because, you know, anyone who's not already a Rollins fan must be an imbecile too dumb to spot the "humor" tag at the top of the page), while Howard Mandel thinks it "turns on the seed of punkish resentment sophisticates presumably harbor against the music" (because "sophisticates," whoever they are, resent jazz's...what? Vast commercial success? Public prominence?).

Here's what I find interesting about the whole outcry: It's all coming from old school jazz critics and Rollins' publicist (who I consider a friend and have worked with quite amiably for years). The jazz musicians I know have mostly remained silent. (A notable exception would be Nick Hempton, who tweeted, "I'M SO OUTRAGED AT SOMETHING I READ ON THE INTERNET, I'M THROWING MY COMPUTER OUT THE WINDOW!" with the hashtags #JazzIsSerious #RespectMe.)

Hempton gets it. Why don't these writers?

I suspect it's because they've devoted even more decades than I have to listening to jazz, learning its history, interviewing the players, and writing about it, and they've done so from the perspective common to most jazz critics: that the music they like is great art, much more than mere entertainment, and deserves the highest honors our culture can bestow, all the time. It should certainly never be poked fun at or satirized—that's for performers they think of as lesser, like Miley Cyrus or whichever other pop figure they happen to have somehow heard of. (Your average jazz critic's unfamiliarity with contemporary pop culture would make a normal person weep with baffled laughter. Especially when the jazz critic goes on an intemperate Facebook rant about something pop-related—like, say, the use of Autotune on pop singers—from a position of near-total ignorance regarding modern production methods, technology in general, or what a given audience might actually want from its entertainers.)

Here's what I think: Jazz is entertainment. Now, 99 or so percent of America's (and the world's) population fails to find it entertaining, but that's not because they're stupid, or uncultured. It's because most of the time the music isn't entertaining—it's overly complicated, and presented like homework, like you're a spiritually shriveled asshole if you don't want to hear hookless melodies barely punctuating long passages of squawking, clattering and clanging, all while paying substantially more than you'd pay to hear a rock band that might actually play something you could dance or bang your head to. There are many, many exceptions, bands that swing hard as hell, play tunes that actually sound like something and solos that actually go somewhere. But you've got to know what you're looking for—and looking on the covers of jazz magazines won't help, because it's the critics' darlings who wind up there, and for the most part jazz critics like jazz that makes them feel smarter for liking it.

People who do like jazz aren't smarter than people who don't. But people who think jazz musicians are precious flowers who must be protected from cruel japery because their art form is insufficiently appreciated by the lumpen are fucking idiots.

I remember reading something a long time ago to the effect that you could tell when an ethnic group had successfully begun the process of assimilating into American society when they started to become the subject of jokes in movies. Not hostile, racist, dehumanizing jokes, but jokes poking welcoming fun at these new people and their weird folkways.

Jazz fans should welcome jokes about their music's unlistenability and dismal commercial status. Why? Because it proves people still give enough of a fuck about jazz to make fun of it. Do you think they would have written a satirical interview with Jimmy Sturr, complaining about how awful the accordion sounds and how much he hates polka? Do you think anyone would have read it if they had?

Another important thing to remember is that good satire is about "punching up." Culturally speaking, a shot at jazz is exactly that. It may be dead from a record-sales and gig-attendance standpoint, but on the cultural ladder, jazz is several rungs above rock and pop. It's considered important music. Of course, that's helped doom its sales, because nothing sends albums flying off the shelves like guilting people into listening to something that's supposed to be good for them...but congratulations, jazz critics, you won the battle for prestige. The music you love has been 100% accepted by the elite. It's the soundtrack to arts benefits, awards shows (the Oscars still big-band up the music from the previous year's releases), and any scene in a film or TV show where someone needs to be portrayed as classy...or old.

It's just too bad nobody else gives a shit. But maybe this fit of public foot-stomping will be just the thing that turns jazz's decades-long cultural disappearing act around! Maybe acting like petulant children ("How dare you say something mean about Sonny Rollins! You take that back right now!") will be what leads all those people you think are idiots, too dumb to tell whether an interview is real or fake, to appreciate the awesomeness of his music. (And it is awesome.) Because as noted Twitter philosopher JazzIsTheWorst put it, "People don't enjoy jazz, they 'appreciate' it...and nothing sells records like music people can really 'appreciate.'"


Yitzchak Goodman said...

After all, he's a Saxophone Colossus.

Sigivald said...

And this is why I don't remove blogs from my blogroll just because they go password protected for months...