Friday Fun: Comments and chronology on The Great Sonny Rollins Jazz Satire Blowup of 2014

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.

Oh yeah, similarly inspired by a deranged bit of provocation, rock music is also having a rock is dead extended freakout.


Some General Information About Sonny Rollins


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


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!

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