Sonny Rollins and The New Yorker: YIKES!

I’m back from vacation and what am I greeted with — a real-life and genuine, if fully trumped up, jazz controversy. I am referring to the fervor being generated over a column several days ago in The New Yorker titled: Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words. The article appeared in the “Shouts & Murmurs” section, which is a longtime humor column in The New Yorker. In the article a writer under the pseudonym Django Gold attributes a number of ridiculous statements to Sonny. Samples: “The saxophone sounds horrible. Like a scared pig.” And: “Jazz may be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with.”

When I first saw the article, my immediate reaction was: “Why would Sonny lend his name to something so stupid.” Turns out he didn’t. The New Yorker figured it would be funnier to attach the quotes to the world’s greatest living jazz musician without his consent and just let it sit out there for the public to absorb.

Well, the public has absorbed and the short answer is pretty simple: NOT FUNNY!

The longer answer is a broad scathing reaction to the piece, including an interview with Sonny himself reacting to the article. In Sonny’s response, which is definitely worth the price of admission, we learn that Sonny is a fan, supporter and even subscriber of Mad Magazine. Do a Google search if you have time — you will see massive public reaction and broad displeasure/anger/agita. The New Yorker has tried to backtrack by putting the following caveat on this article: “Editor’s note: This article, which is part of our Shouts & Murmurs humor blog, is a work of satire.” Too little, too late.

I’m not one to take things too seriously in general, but I do have to agree that the piece simply wasn’t funny and was made worse by attaching the unfunny and silly comments to a musician of great import in our history. I found it quite disrespectful, in fact. What about you? You have to question: Would they have done the same thing to someone like Leonard Bernstein or Bob Dylan or Stephen Sondheim, to name just a few white musical giants of our time?

17 comments

  • Really? This is a controversy? If it was posted in a column that is regularly a HUMOUR section,what’s the concern? Does a piece that is “satire” have to be labeled as such even when it’s as over the top as this? Most likely,the majority of people moaning over this were sent the article OUT OF CONTEXT(removing it’s placement in a HUMOUR column). As a kid I loved MAD magazine too(and still cherish the early issues with Bob and Ray and Ernie Kovacs),but I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I wasn’t reading NEWSWEEK. As for parody,does the following lp title mean anything to folks?
    Morris Grants Presents J.U.N.K.
    I rest my case(all others,look it up). Incidentally,Bob Dylan has been a target of satire as well as an acclaimed musician almost for as long as he’s been performing. He’s done pretty well,as has Sonny.
    Anyone who is familiar with Sonny Rollins can read the piece in the spirit that it was intended. If it was published on April Fools Day,nobody would bat an eye. It wasn’t,therefore, requiring the reader to,um,think. Just my two cents. Time to put on “Newk’s Time” and cleanse my spirit. Fortunately,one doesn’t need to read anything to affirm Rollins greatness-just your ears.

  • To be honest, I thought it was pretty uncool. I’ve got a pretty thick skin and have been told I have a pretty cutting wit as well, but the NYer piece was jive even if it was supposed to be a joke.

  • The piece was so very unfunny and cruel.
    I agree with Ceedee it was out of context being removed from the original humour column but it contained very little humour to be frank. I believe somethings and some people have earned so many stripes they are indeed untouchable, Sonny for me falls into this category! The inclusion of his image just to smash home the illusion was also too far.
    NOT FUNNY. Simple.

  • Gregory the Fish

    I happened to read this before the disclaimer went up and before the furor, purely by coincidence. I am not usually a New Yorker reader with any regularity, but a friend e-mailed it to me and said “You have to see this; it’s hilarious”.”

    While generally in agreement with most of this community on jazz-related issues, i have to starkly disagree with your assessment, Al.

    The subtle assertions of racism you’ve made are absurdly baseless. The New Yorker has a long and proud history of standing for social justice. They chose Sonny because he plays jazz, not because he’s black. I think the real brilliance of the piece comes from the fact that many of the statements made, such as that jazz “falls apart” into meaningless improvisation and that saxophones sound like noisy animals, are often criticisms leveled by those who don’t understand the music or can’t really see it for what it is. This does not apply to the music of Bob Dylan, etc. To juxtapose this with such a well-known figure, who obviously loves what he does is quite clever in my opinion.

    I think the fact that the piece was a joke was obvious if you know Sonny or the history of jazz well, and this is something I could see running in the Onion pretty successfully. Sonny himself admitted that he was fine with it until he realized it wasn’t in Mad Magazine, and then suddenly seems to be of the opinion that all of the “hurtful” things said in the piece were meant to be serious! Weird.

    But of course, this is just my opinion.

  • Rooted in deep and abiding ignorance, redolent with the stale onion stench of sweat and fear embedded in hooded robes, this “satire” is in fact an assassination of culture and character — one best appreciated at the level of intent as the moral equivalent of the assassinations, metaphorical and literal, of Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, and John Lennon.

    Almost as bad: It’s third-rate satire from the magazine that gave us the likes of Dorothy Parker (she left her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and S. J. Perelman (” … the comic writer is a cat on a hot tin roof. His invitation to perform is liable to wear out at any moment; he must quickly and constantly amuse in a short span, and the first smothered yawn is a signal to get lost.”)

    What’s next … a knee-slappin’ take on “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (“I am in Birmingham because the bitches is here.”)?

    Yawn.

    This primitivism must be exposed as such and, for its subtext, excoriated — and simultaneously its creation and publication must be defended without equivocation by all of us for whom freedom of expression is an absolute.

  • To quote Seinfeld:

    “Jerry: …I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism just for the jokes.

    Father: And this offends you as a Jewish person.

    Jerry: No, it offends me as a comedian.”

    To me the piece just isn’t funny.

  • Gregory the Fish

    charrles: i only own one thesaurus and two dictionaries, and i didn’t study rhetoric or literary theory to PhD levels so i didn’t understand your argument very well, but it looks passionate and well-informed. care to dumb it down a bit for me?

  • I thought there were funny moments, but I thought the piece was above all confusing, especially the fact that it claimed to be written by “Django Gold” but then was in Sonny Rollins’ own words?? But the way the article portrayed Rollins as someone who “realized that jazz is terrible” was very strange to me, and I have to say that I agree with Al that the article promotes ignorant sterotypes of jazz in a way that encourages the reader to think the author belives the stereotypes are true to some extent. And why couldn’t it just have been from the point of view of a listener or an obscure musician? It’s hard to explain but I can’t help but think that by picking such an important figure that there is some subtle degree of literalism regarding the opinions being expressed in the article.

  • GTF, I think what Charles is saying it that it is racist crap that is beneath the New Yorker, and should be called out as such, but that at the same time, we have and should celebrate free speech.

  • How could you tell the New York cop at the Crucifixion?

    “Okay … c’mon, let’s go, show’s over.”

  • Agreed,Mr.Drago. Upon second reading,Al’s reference to a “fully trumped up”controversy probabaly got it right.

  • john,

    i can get behind most of that, but i still feel like the assertion that it is racist is rather silly.

    though i’m a straight white male so i’m not sure i really know, do it?

  • ALSO,

    i have a grandfather who always talks about how much he loves stan kenton, chet baker, stan getz, etc. etc. and there is a pattern there.

    the fact that his top jazz players are all white is very telling. they chose sonny because he is one of the greatest alive, and i can think of few white players or even other players at all, that are alive and of that caliber. writing about jazz in general and focusing on a white player would be truly racist, in my opinion.

  • GST’s post above nails it. The reason nobody could tell it was a parody is that it was perhaps the most unfunny piece of writing I’ve ever read. And, I agree with others here that there were racist undertones, making it sound like national treasure musicians such as Dexter (sadly departed of course) and Sonny were ignorant, surly, and didn’t play “real” music (and worse, that they somehow didn’t want to be doing what they devoted their lives to doing, with heart and soul). It simply didn’t make sense and, again, where was the humor? Show me one funny line in there. What the hell were the author and the New Yorker thinking? Stupid and downright confusing, and that is why there is a furor. Claiming that the furor is due to jazz musicians and fans not having a sense of humor is simply adding insult to injury – blaming the victims – a royal cop out. Ah well the New Yorker has been circling the drain for years now; this just brings the rag one step closer to flushville.

  • Sonny was not the target. Sonny was the weapon…or rather his colossal (word chosen with considerable intent) stature was. If one is going to put together a parody of trite comments on jazz, what better voice to cast it in than that of jazz’s greatest living exponent?

    I found it very funny and very much on target…unlike a pointless bit that a “comic” artist (note the scare quotes) produced by singing the Oscar Mayer weenie song in the voice of Billie Holiday. I found it totally offensive, unfunny, demeaning of a musical hero, and wrote the asshole who did it off my list forever.

    I’m good with “Django Gold,” but I’m dismayed that Sonny Rollins felt personal hurt. I don’t read any such intent in Gold’s piece

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