Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Jazz Needs A Better Sense of Humor

What can it mean for jazz as a living art when the most hotly debated genre event of 2014 was a satirical post on a humor blog? Only Charlie Haden's death earlier that month can rival the New Yorker's awkward July 31 unveiling of writer Django Gold's "Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words," a 480-word goof later appended with a "work of satire" tag after bewildered readers fell for the gag. A gloss on Esquire's "What I've Learned" series, the piece offered reflections alongside a mournful portrait of the saxophone colossus, all of which deflated, mocked, and undercut the usual self-help mantras. "The saxophone sounds horrible," this ersatz Sonny groused, adding that "Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with." His conclusion: "I wasted my life."


As satire, the piece bombed due to a lack of specificity: Really, who constructs a Sonny Rollins satire without referencing the man's Williamsburg Bridge retreat, the most legendary self-imposed artistic exile in jazz history? Even the piece's lone jazz in-joke, a play on Thelonious Monk's 1947 Bud Powell tribute "In Walked Bud," was mere window-dressing; the song has no real Rollins connection. In a follow-up interview for JazzTimes, Gold noted that the piece wasn't tailored for anyone in particular: "I dropped Sonny's name into the title and didn't think much more of it."

Others thought plenty about it, though. The piece started trending hard on Twitter and Facebook, often passed along with words of outrage and dismay, fans worrying about Sonny's state of mind and health. Rollins himself seemed relatively unperturbed, firing off a good-natured Tweet to concerned followers before attending a video chat bedecked all in splendid red (except for the shades), offering a shout-out to Mad magazine (he's a subscriber) and wondering how anybody could mistake the piece for something real. Insofar as the satire was "hurtful," Sonny redirected concerns towards younger musicians who might stumble across the piece and find their own worst fears of artistic exhaustion reflected. It was the graceful, good-humored, above-the-fray response one might expect from someone who's always been the smartest guy in the room.

But such magnanimity could not stand, not among certain of the jazz faithful, who took to columns and blogs with infuriated force. Blogger Richard Williams read the spoof "with horror." Howard Mandel was "aghast" at the "rip-off," all of jazz having been mocked "in the guise of 'humor'" amid "society's bigoted and snooty dismissal." Trumpeter Nicholas Payton, whose blog entries rival his solos, opened a scathing rebuttal with an ominous "Charlie Parker died to play this music" before decrying "oppressors" who "besmirch" Sonny's "character."

Perhaps the most bizarre retort came courtesy of Marc Myers, who claimed Rollins was "defenseless," charging "one finds it hard to imagine the magazine's editors playing the same cruel word game with Jay Z, Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, or any superstar with a powerful legal team." Calls for legal redress popped up everywhere, including the comments section of Mandel's blog: "Demand a retraction and deletion from the website, under threat of lawsuit" … "defamatory bilge" … "a smart attorney has a strong libel case here" and so on.

Look, my fellow jazzbos, I've got bad news for you: The Rollins satire was pretty mild. It's not like you have to dig deep to uncover memes and gags ridiculing the ways jazz has replaced classical music as the dreaded incarnation of eat-your-broccoli art. Let's ignore BuzzFeed's ridiculous "What's The Deal With Jazz?" provocation (so awful the author herself eventually deleted it); or the preeningly stupid Washington Post "All That Jazz Isn't All That Great" essay, in which jazz artists were lectured for remaining subservient to a "genre" now "defined by little more than improvisation, sunglasses, and berets"; or even that notorious ersatz-jive Pitchfork review of John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard ("Shit, cat").

Instead, let's consider truly funny stuff, like the Twitter feed @JazzIsTheWorst, or Joe Hundertmark's oft-copied-never-equalled video feature "Jazz Robots," or the Parks & Recreation skit in which a radio station overlays Miles Davis with Benny Goodman for a cacophonic feature entitled "Jazz + Jazz = Jazz." ("Research shows that our listeners ... love jazz.") Or even that time on the American version of The Office when Dwight comforts Angela by promising, "You're not stupid. Jazz is stupid." The relief in Angela's voice is palpable: "Jazz is stupid! I mean, just play the right notes!"

These gags are funny because they highlight the enormous gap between jazz lovers and the apathetic general public, an apathy hardly unique to the current pop landscape. (Surprisingly, jazzy horns are all over the Top 40 charts lately, with Macklemore, Jason Derulo, and Ariana Grande riding sax riffs into the sunset.) Any jazz fan can bore you with sad tales—back in the late '90s, a fellow student perusing my reissue of Sonny's own 1956 album Rollins Plays for Bird asked if it was a Rollins Band thing. You either learn to accept these kinds of very mild indignities as part of the universe's grand plan, or you eventually find yourself posting demands on somebody's blog for legal investigations into satirical interviews.


What's amusing is when smart writers like Marc Myers convince themselves of jazz's helpless cowering before the face of pop gone triumphant. Anti-jazz pieces scan like mere drops of dissent amid the deluge of hyperbole and snark soaking Nicki Minaj or Miley Cyrus on any given day. (To say nothing of the year-long media flagellation of congenial lightweight Robin Thicke.) Unlike jazz, pop music eats controversy and disdain for breakfast, with Taylor Swift and Kanye West talking smack to their haters from the very top of the charts. Yet no matter how hard cultural gatekeepers and elitist scolds try and marginalize pop/country/hip-hop as frothy, filthy, inane nonsense, its marketplace dominance ensures grudging respect. Beyoncé aside, pop doesn't demand your respect anyway.

Jazz already has an unfair reputation for being unapproachable, difficult, and humorless: See Keith Jarrett cursing out festival attendees for snapping photos, or Gary Peacock shooing Elvis Costello offstage in disgust. But if jazz has a humor problem, it's mostly afflicting fans and critics, not practitioners: Fats Waller, Spike Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and any number of '70s fusion acts never shied away from playing the clown(s). It's just that the jazz faithful have largely preferred Miles Davis in Prince of Darkness mode to his later showboating incarnations—1985's "One Phone Call/Street Scenes" remains deliriously silly, but jazzbos hate it. More to the point, too many jazz fans have preferred the solemnity of John Coltrane over the wit and ribald swagger of Sonny Rollins himself.

So as a pop critic who adores jazz, allow me to assure skeptics that we really aren't all that prickly. We may rise to outrage-game frenzy as easily as anybody (jazz's dirty secret is that it's always been a sucker for hype, just like pop), but a New Yorker satire and its aftereffects hardly defines jazz in 2014. I'd rather talk about Allen Lowe's magisterial Mulatto Radio: A Jew at Large in the Minstrel Diaspora, veteran drummer Billy Hart's One Is the Other, James Brandon Lewis's incorporeal Divine Travels, Paul Shapiro's Shofarot Verses, guitarist Marc Ribot's skronky Live at the Village Vanguard, or Pharoah Sanders's triumphant Spiral Mercury (all released in the last few months). Rather than waste more breath on blog posts skewering satirists, I'd rather recommend the insightful criticism of Nate Chinen, Ethan Iverson, Ron Wynn, Hank Shteamer, Greg Tate, or the indefatigable Tom Hull.


And while we could all undoubtedly stand to lighten up a bit, let's not forget that jazz is not and never will be America's Classical Music, with all the pomp and acceptance such an honorific suggests. Cluck your tongues at academic safe-havens and grant prizes all you want, but the music continues to be created on small labels with shit distribution, and inside tiny clubs where for $15 you can see William Parker and Hamid Drake converse with the spheres. Self-congratulatory rhetoric aside, society hasn't moved much past the days when a racist cop could beat the shit out of Miles Davis for smoking a cigarette outside the club he was headlining. Nor have we evolved beyond the wisdom of the Pulitzer Prize jury's unanimous 1965 decision that 67-year-old Duke Ellington was unworthy of a citation for his life's work. Just recently, Adam Gopnik (in the New Yorker! again with the New Yorker!) suggested Duke played "no better than O.K. piano."

So with a jokey line like "I wasted my life" rolling around in your brain, how about we consider something the real Sonny Rollins actually did say, as highlighted by Nicholas Payton himself: "I was born black. That means in this world I'm going to have problems." No doubt Sonny Rollins could care less about legal redress or official apologies. One lame-ass satire and a gaggle of humorless gatekeepers remain the very least of this great man's concerns.


Jason Gubbels is the Pop + World Editor at Rhapsody. His favorite Sonny Rollins performance is "Blue 7." He's on Twitter.


Image by Sam Woolley.

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