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The New Yorker vs Sonny Rollins

Sonny RollinsI grew up reading Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker, admiring the work of a writer who, with infinite sensitivity and imagination, used words to evoke the sound and humanity of jazz and of the individuals who played it. Balliett died in 2008, aged 80; whenever I open his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, I learn something about how to listen and how to write.

So it was with horror that I read the other day, on the New Yorker‘s website, a spoof interview with Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist. Under the headline “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words”, someone calling himself Django Gold invented an interview in which the musician trashes his own life and work in the most caustically dismissive terms. Here it is.

A lot of people were upset, leading to the insertion of the italic paragraph indicating that the piece was intended to be a work of satire. But damage had been done, and not all of it can be undone by hurried clarifications. On their respective blogs, the trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the critic Howard Mandel expressed their anger with considerable eloquence.

I associate myself with their sentiments. Whether or not Rollins is one of your favourite saxophonists, few have worked with greater dedication to extend a command of both instrumental technique and the idiom’s inner workings. In this connection it’s still worth reading Gunther Schuller’s ground-breaking essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation”, published in the first issue of the short-lived Jazz Review in 1958. Whatever its intention, Django Gold’s piece insults a great and much revered artist.

Rollins, who turns 84 next month and has not been in great health lately, was given the chance to express his feelings in a video interview with Doug Yoel. It’s half an hour long and sometimes repetitive, but stick with it. Looking back over a career that began in the late 1940s, Rollins says he remembers articles proclaiming “Jazz is dead” in magazines every five or 10 years throughout that time. “Jazz has been mocked, minimalised and marginalised throughout its history,” he says. Now Django Gold and the editors of a magazine’s website have done their bit. Jazz is still a part of New York, but evidently no longer an important part of the New Yorker.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. The world is full of idiots and not all of them are politicians.

    August 6, 2014
  2. Simon Caulkin #

    Weird, boring, unfunny, pointless. Don’t get it

    August 6, 2014
  3. The New Yorker article was definitely one of the worst things I have ever read.

    August 6, 2014
  4. John Evans #

    I like satire and I laugh at genuinely funny send-ups of jazz (e.g. by The Fast Show). But this New Yorker piece is just completely pointless — zero plausibility if people were expected to think it was the words of Sonny Rollins and zero humour (even by Onion standards) if it was supposed to be sending up Sonny Rollins. Whitney Balliett would indeed have been appalled by this rubbish.

    August 6, 2014
  5. Very well said Richard – I was lucky enough to see Sonny when he played the Dominion about 15 years ago, and can still remember being overwhelmed by the power and intensity of his playing. He’s a man who’s dedicated his life to music, and I find it sickening that some ignorant fool can mock him in this way, especially considering his age and current health.

    August 7, 2014

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