Dec 28, 2011 News
Did you watch the Kennedy Center Honors last night? It was great to see Sonny Rollins being recognized on national television and in front of the President and the world’s artistic community as one of the most important and influential artists of the past half -century. It was certainly moving and well deserved and, knowing how humble Sonny is, it must have been a tribute that he felt deeply. As I fan, I know I did. I had goose bumps just seeing Sonny up there.
Having said that, I found both the biographical tribute and the musical tribute to be really uninspired and disappointing. This was the one opportunity to explain to the country why, among all of the thousands of jazz musicians in the world, it was Sonny Rollins who was being honored on that stage. Even in just a couple of minutes with the opportunity Bill Cosby had in his introduction and in the video tribute, there was so much that could have been said that wasn’t. Here are some of the things I would have said:
“Jazz is a unique art form in that it enables – in fact, it requires – the artist to perform on the fly, as part of a unit of other musicians and without a safety net, and it demands not only immense technical skill, but a mind that can constantly plumb the depths of creativity to avoid cliché and deliver something new, exciting, clever, unique and, at times, innovative. In the mid-1940s there was a revolution in jazz that came to be known as bebop, led by musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Sonny Rollins came along as a teenager at the tail end of the bebop revolution and he was able to fuse the concepts of this new generation with the ideas and masters of the previous generation, such as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, to bring the art of jazz improvisation to levels that the music has rarely seen, before or since. If you listen to some of the masterful Sonny Rollins albums of the 1950s, such as Worktime or Saxophone Colossus, you will hear an artist who was able to set new standards of improvisation – in creativity, in humor, in conception, in technique – that truly changed the course of jazz history and influenced every single jazz musician who came afterwards. With one or two exceptions, Sonny Rollins was without peer as an improviser, as a genius in creating music that was fresh, bursting with energy and ideas, and always inspiring.
“But Sonny was never content to rest on his laurels and, in fact, was never satisfied with his own work, even though his colleagues and peers came to respect, admire and laud him as one of the true masters of modern jazz. One of the things that makes Sonny Rollins so special among jazz artists has been his true humility and belief that he can always improve, always learn more. This quest led him famously to the Williamsburg Bridge, where he spent two years in self-imposed retirement to practice and improve his skills. This quest to be innovative, to improve, to experiment, to pioneer, has also led Sonny in many other directions, and continues to lead him to this day. Not many people realize it, but the first record album in the United States to use the words “Bossa Nova” was the Sonny Rollins album “What’s New?” Not many people realize that it was Sonny Rollins who composed and performed the music to the original movie Alfie. Not many people realize it, but it is Sonny Rollins who is regarded all around the world – in France and England, in Japan and Russia, in South America – almost everywhere – as one of the true treasures of American jazz and one of the great musicians the world has produced in the past century. It is wonderful, exciting and long overdue that Sonny Rollins is finally receiving this same recognition in the United States.”
What I wrote off the top of my head just now attempts to put Sonny’s place in history in perspective, which the tribute last night did not. If I wanted to take more time, I’m sure I could do better, but you get the point. As far as the musical tribute, it was just a bunch of guys up there playing a bunch of songs and doing a bunch of improvisations that also lacked perspective and, in my opinion, missed an opportunity to connect with a national audience. There could have been something to either explain the music or to connect the music to Sonny, but instead it was just a bunch of guys playing. To me it was a missed opportunity and, frankly, pretty boring. There was a later tribute to Yo-Yo Ma that was much more compelling, exciting and interesting. Sonny deserved more, but he also deserved what he received – the honor from the Kennedy Center and a place among the world’s most important and inspirational performing artists of the past half-century. Congratulations once again to one of our true jazz heroes.