If We Can’t Laugh at Jazz Satire, Jazz is More Fragile Than We Thought
Update: I appeared on WNYC’s Soundcheck to debate this topic with 30-year jazz critic Howard Mandel. It’s on the August 7th episode. Go listen!
This past weekend, the internet exploded (as it is wont to do). The New Yorker published an article in its Shouts and Murmurs column, which is reserved for humor and satire, entitled “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.”
From the fictional point of view of jazz legend Sonny Rollins, the article described how he and other jazz greats actually hated music and just couldn’t figure out a way to get out of it.
The jazz community went bananas. Though the article’s author (Django Gold, a contributor to The Onion) was clearly mentioned and the URL began “newyorker.com/humor…”, many didn’t understand it was satire at first:
@newyorker pranks Sonny Rollins? I'm glad I dropped my subscription this year. If I hadn't, I would now. #slander #misquotedtherestofhislife
— claire daly (@cdbjazz) August 2, 2014
But once its nature was clear, the judgments came out:
I’ll tell you what I thought. I thought it was funny. It’s not every day a work of prose can make me laugh out loud, and this one did that for me several times.
Some particular favorite points reframed legendary moments in jazz history:
There was this one time, in 1953 or 1954, when a few guys and I had just finished our last set at Club Carousel, and we were about to pack it in when in walked Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. We must have jammed together for five more hours, right through sunrise. That was the worst day of my life.
Once I played the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland, with Miles Davis. I walked in on him smoking cigarettes and staring at his horn for what must have been fifteen minutes, like it was a poisonous snake and he wasn’t sure if it was dead. Finally Miles stood up, turned to his band, and said, “All right, let’s get through this, and then we’ll go to the airport.” He looked like he was about to cry.
Explaining a joke tends to take the joke out of it, but I’ll hazard that risk: the article placed me in an absurd universe where it turned out that, instead of playing music because they loved it, Rollins, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and other greats were desperately trying to quit. The fact that they couldn’t is what led to their long and storied careers. It’s ridiculous: Rollins, for one, would practice for up to 20 hours a day under the Williamsburg Bridge to perfect his craft. When a young Charlie Parker learned there was more than one key after an embarrassing jam session, he went home and re-learned everything he knew in all 12 keys. Miles Davis indeed once referred to music as a “curse,” but it was because he couldn’t stop thinking about it during his waking hours.
The sheer impossibility of this alternate reality is what makes it so funny. As a few people on Twitter pointed out, you could switch out the main characters with someone more universal (and perhaps less deified?): Imagine Albert Einstein admitting he hated math and was just forced into it, or Neil Armstrong saying the moon landing was “the worst day of my life.” It puts history in this bizarre alternate context that’s new and surprising.
There are a few reasons that this article touched a nerve in the jazz community. For one, jazz musicians and the fans who love them are generally not at the top of the music popularity totem pole. At least weekly, a jazz musician friend of mine will start a discussion about how to make more people come out to hear live jazz. This is an art form that once packed clubs full of drinkers and dancers. Its popularity has waned, and people are left asking why.
There’s also the fact that Sonny Rollins is one of the music’s few remaining gods. He played with virtually every monumental figure in jazz history, recording with the likes of Miles Davis and J.J. Johnson before he was even out of his teens, and is credited as one of the pioneers of hard bop. But he’s in his 80s now, and it seems that if someone is perceived as berating his legacy, the jazz community needs to pull together and protect him.
Which is all well and good. If someone really were attacking his good name, I’d be there with sword drawn. But Django Gold is not doing that. It’s clear from the historic events he names in the article and his public message to Rollins (and, I wonder, a few pieces about jazz in The Onion?) that he is a lover of jazz, through and through. He didn’t do this as an outsider, like so many are saying. He did it as an insider, as someone intimate with the music and what it means to people. That’s why it succeeded, to me.
What’s failing utterly is the jazz community as a whole. If you can’t take a little humor, the music is doomed to the stuffy, white-collar league of fancy wine and Patagonia jackets. Isn’t that what we don’t want? Many people critiqued the article by saying that someone who didn’t know jazz who happened upon the article accidentally would be misinformed about what the music is all about. But what about someone who stumbles upon this conversation? What the dissenters just proved is that jazz is very serious music that you may not joke about, lest the real fans descend upon you with all of the vitriol they can muster. And that is very unhip.
“Many people critiqued the article by saying that someone who didn’t know jazz who happened upon the article accidentally would be misinformed about what the music is all about.”
I finally read the New Yorker piece and I actually didn’t laugh, but mostly because I didn’t get the references. (Although I do know vaguely who Sonny Rollins is and why the idea that he hated the music is absurd.) What I also didn’t do was take it too seriously because the fact that it’s in the humor section tipped me off that maybe I wasn’t meant to take it seriously.
I understand why jazz fans would take offense- the most devoted musicians basically gave their lives to the process.. John Coltrane is one example. It was no joke to them. So I think they can be forgiven for lacking humour about something they took to be a matter of life and death.