Is jazz satire possible? Can it possibly be funny or even relevant?
This question is more immediate and pressing that you would normally imagine in the wake of serial controversies in the jazz world.
It all began at the end of July when The New Yorker posted a article in their humour column by Django Gold purporting to be the thoughts of jazz legend Sonny Rollins where he basically says jazz is a waste of time and they his whole life has been in vein. The jazz world exploded as it was not immediately obvious that it was satire. If it had been in The Onion people might have realized it immediately and probably moved on. But enough people misunderstood the purpose that the online outrage was able to build and reach a kind of critical mass. The New Yorker put a disclaimer soon after posting.
Like I said, the jazz world exploded on Twitter and it blogs. Largely because the satire itself wasn’t very funny and that it disrespected one of the towering legends of the art form still alive. And at 83, it seemed cruel to pick on someone so revered at that stage of his career. Not to mention someone so dedicated and sincere in his passion. Rollins himself chimed in via a video interview, expressing a kind of sad resignation about not so much what was said about him but about the attack on jazz in general. To top it off, apparently Gold didn’t write the piece with Rollins in mind and only added his name at the end to give it more punch.
But it didn’t end there. Before too long the Washington Post published an article by Justin Moyer inspired by the Rollins satire basically saying that jazz is useless, bad and a waste of time. The jazz world blew up again on Twitter and in blogs. Not that jazz is or should be immune to criticism, but Moyer seemed more driven by a desire to provoke than any actual knowledge or appreciation for jazz.
To top it off, John Halle published a piece recently on the decline in the political consciousness of the jazz world that hasn’t garnered as much reaction as perhaps it deserved (or Halle expected, hey, the jazz world is just tired now buddy).
So it’s been a weird time in the jazz world.
Personally I love satire. I especially love satire about the things that are near and dear to my heart. The closer the better, I enjoy the uncomfortable laughter because it makes you think about what you love and why. The very existence of this long line of Friday Fun posts surely demonstrates that.
But I don’t think the Rollins satire worked. First of all, it was poorly conceived and executed. It just isn’t funny. The way it uses Rollins is kind of shameful really. Someone so dedicated and sincere, it feels like mean humour that punches down on the undeserving rather than punching up and lampooning the powerful. (My initial thoughts on Twitter, BTW)
Not that the the spirit of the piece is wrong. Just the target and execution. I can easily see something in the same spirit working very well if aimed at a younger, cockier, more controversial figure, especially someone known for their conservative, almost reactionary, view of jazz. Yes, I mean Wynton Marsalis. This kind of “I was wrong I wasted my life what is jazz even good for” could have worked well with someone like Marsalis, in the prime of life, influential, at the peak of his powers.
I don’t think people are saying that jazz can’t have a sense of humour about itself or that it isn’t possible to poke fun at some stereotypes or foibles or whatever. Or to question and provoke about serious issues in jazz’s past, present or future.
But if you’re going to jump into the deep end, expect to face the music and account for your ideas and opinions.
Some General Information About Sonny Rollins
- Sonny Rollins‘ website
- Official Sonny Rollins Facebook page
- Sonny Rollins Wikipedia page
- Sonny Rollins, the Colossus by Mark Jacobson (very nice profile)
- The Colossus by Stanley Crouch (2005 profile in The New Yorker, of all places. Paywalled.)
- Sonny Rollins Speaks, video channel by Bret Primack
- 84th birthday tributes collected at Sonny Rollins’ website
Here’s the story. I’ve bolded the key pieces in the various controversies. As usual, I welcome corrections and additions. Peter Hum, Davy Mooney and Nicholas Payton have reactions worth reading.
The Chronology of the Interconnected Controversies
- 2014.07.31. Sonny Rollins in his own words by Django Gold
- 2014.08.01. Jesting About Sonny in The New Yorker: Funny, or a Wasted Opportunity? by Philip Booth
- 2014.08.01. Most scurrilous, unfunny New Yorker “humor” re jazz by Howard Mandel
- 2014.08.04. The Real Sonny Rollins – In My Own Words by Sonny Rollins (video interview with Bret Primack)
- 2014.08.04. On the New Yorker “satirizing” Sonny by Nicholas Payton
- 2014.08.04. New Yorker Satire Starts Beef with Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins by Evan McMurry
- 2014.08.04. Newk in Real Time: Sonny Talks! by Philip Booth
- 2014.08.04. (The Real) Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words — Live Interview, Tonight by Philip Booth
- 2014.08.04. Sonny Rollins + The New Yorker by Marc Myers
- 2014.08.04. Angry jazz fans didn’t realize this New Yorker piece was a joke by Joe Veix
- 2014.08.04. New Yorker Humor Section Clarifies: Jazz Icon Didn’t Actually Say He Hates Jazz and Has Wasted His Life by Ben Mathis-Lilley
- 2014.08.05. Sonny Rollins Addresses the “Scurrilous” New Yorker Article by Jeff Tamarkin
- 2014.08.05. Poking the Jazz Hive (Metafilter thread)
- 2014.08.05. Sonny Rollins and the New Yorker: Yikes! from Jazz Collector
- 2014.08.05. Sonny Rollins Fans Go Ballistic About New Yorker Article by Sean J. O’Connell
- 2014.08.06. The New Yorker vs Sonny Rollins by Richard Williams
- 2014.08.06. The New Yorker And Sonny Rollins by Tom Reney
- 2014.08.06. Jazz isn’t Funny – Sonny Rollins’ response to the New Yorker article (reddit thread)
- 2014.08.06. Sonny Rollins Fans Go Ballistic About New Yorker Article (another reddit thread)
- 2014.08.06. Django Gold: In His Own Words by Roberta Piket
- 2014.08.06. Sonnygate Redux: The New Yorker, and Rollins’ Own Words by Larry Blumenfeld
- 2014.08.06. If We Can’t Laugh at Jazz Satire, Jazz is More Fragile Than We Thought by Ashley Hamer
- 2014.08.06. The New Yorker’s Obligation by Marc Myers
- 2014.08.07. The New Yorker’s Sonny Rollins Satire: Funny Or Infuriating? by Soundcheck
- 2014.08.08. All that jazz isn’t all that great by Justin Moyer
- 2014.08.08. Do you like jazz? by Jordan Sargent
- 2014.08.09. An Open Letter to Justin Moyer by The Jazz Daddy
- 2014.08.09. Hatin’ on ‘Jazz’ – The New Yorker and The Washington Post… by Justin Schroder
- 2014.08.09. Jazz and The Washington Post by Tony Adamo
- 2014.08.09. The Washington Post Says Jazz is Dead — Again? Really? Seriously? by Philip Booth
- 2014.08.09. Weekend Wax Bits by Marc Myers
- 2014.08.09. Why Jazz Sucks, And Is Stupid, With Video Illustrations by glenn kenney
- 2014.08.09. Wrong From the Top: Me on Justin Moyer on Jazz by DMV Classical
- 2014.08.10. Washington Post opinion: Jazz is terrible by Neutralinoo
- 2014.08.10. WaPo jazz piece: Is it satire? It’s terrible either way by Neutralinoo
- 2014.08.10. An Open Letter to Justin Moyer: Postscript by The Jazz Daddy
- 2014.08.11. Is Jazz Boring? by Kirk McElhearn
- 2014.08.11. Sonny Rollins Ambushed By The New Yorker by Chip Stern
- 2014.08.11. Satire by George Colligan
- 2014.08.11. All what jazz? Or: How to declare something dead without listening to it by Chris Richards
- 2014.08.11. Why Bashing Jazz Is Profitable by Marc Myers
- 2014.08.11. A rebuttal of that new-low, jazz-hating opinion piece in the Washington Post by Peter Hum
- 2014.08.12. Fine, jazz is easy to mock. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter by Davy Mooney
- 2014.08.12. A Cautionary Tale: New Yorker’s Sonny Rollins Satire Strikes the Wrong Chord by Steve Beale
- 2014.08.12. Here’s why the New Yorker’s Sonny Rollins satire isn’t funny by mentalunrest
- 2014.08.13. Washington Post Jazz Article – How it Really Went Down by Pete Thomas
- 2014.08.15. Why a Young Writer Secretly Deleted Her Own BuzzFeed Post by Will Oremus
- 2014.08.18. Notes From the Backlash: New Yorker humorist Django Gold speaks by Django Gold
- 2014.08.18. The Sonny Rollins / ‘New Yorker’ Controversy and Jazz’s Image Problem by Will Layman
- 2014.08.18. Django Gold, Unchained: The Wannabe Humorist Strikes Back by Philip Booth
- 2014.08.19. ‘What’s the Deal With Jazz’ Writer Amy Rose Spiegel, BuzzFeed Staff Delete Thousands of Old Posts (Sonny Rollins Still Not Amused) by Brick Dozer
- 2014.08.xx. A Sick Kind of Humor by Thomas Cunniffe (Undated but probably August)
- 2014.09.04. Artists Celebrate Rollins’ Birthday in Video from Downbeat
- 2014.09.04. Sonny Rollins’ 84th Birthday Tribute by various
- 2014.09.07. Jazz After Politics by John Halle
- 2014.09.07. In response to John Halle by Shuja Haider
- 2014.09.07. Without A Song by Ethan Iverson
- 2014.09.09. When Jazzbros Attack by John Halle
- 2014.09.09. A Message to the Jazz Community from The Pariah by Bret Primack
- 2014.09.10. Without A Song 2: Errata and Transcription by Ethan Iverson
- 2014.09.11. In defence of jazz, jazzbros and other people who approve of jazz by Peter Hum
- 2014.09.11. Jazz Needs A Better Sense of Humor by Jason Gubbels
- 2014.09.16. Jazz World to Fans: Quit Hating on Satirists, from Django Gold’s ‘Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words’ to Pop Culture by Ian Holubiak
I like this Sonny Rollins quote from the Men’s Journal profile:
This made Sonny laugh. When Sonny laughs, you know it. He bends his neck back nearly 45 degrees, casts his eyes skyward, and his mouth becomes a widening circle. Ha-ha-ha, he goes, loudly, like howling at the moon, albeit with perfect breath control.
“Don’t you see, that’s exactly the point,” Sonny chortled as he clamped his skullcap onto to his head. “Those notes you mention, those notes have already been blown.”
Sonny leveled his gaze, suddenly deadly serious. “People say, ‘Sonny, take it easy, lean back. Your place is secure. You’re the great Sonny Rollins; you’ve got it made.’ I hear that and I think, ‘Well, screw Sonny Rollins. Where I want to go is beyond Sonny Rollins. Way beyond.'”
Fuck yeah, Sonny Rollins!