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The New Yorker's Sonny Rollins Satire: Funny Or Infuriating?

Our guests debate a jazz-world spoof in a Soundcheck Smackdown.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins responds to the New Yorker's recent satirical piece about his career. Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins responds to the New Yorker's recent satirical piece about his career. (Youtube)

Last week, the New Yorker's web site published a piece called “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” in which this legendary 83-year-old saxophonist -- one of the most legendary living figures in jazz -- supposedly vented about how much he hates jazz:

Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it.

You might be thinking: Sonny Rollins wrote that? Well, he didn’t. The essay appeared in the Daily Shout, part of magazine’s online humor column Shouts & Murmurs, and it was written by Django Gold, who also contributes to the satirical newspaper The Onion. But many jazz fans were not amused by the piece, which made a joke about jazz at the expense of a beloved figure. Others thought the piece was funny, poking fun at a genre that might take itself too seriously.

Howard Mandel, a longtime jazz writer, roasted the New Yorker in a piece for the site ArtsJournal. And Ashley Hamer, a jazz saxophonist who loved the piece, tweeted “This weekend, the New Yorker found out jazz fans don't have a sense of humor. Understanding bebop clearly doesn't help you understand satire.”

To help get to the bottom of the New Yorker’s Sonny Rollins satire, Mandel and Hamer join Soundcheck host John Schaefer to square off in a Soundcheck Smackdown

Watch Sonny Rollins respond to the New Yorker article in a live video chat held on Monday night.

Guests:

Ashley Hamer and Howard Mandel

Comments [25]

Laurie Cahn from San Francisco CA

Coming in the context of the New Yorker's shrinking coverage of jazz, this is just another step in the wrong musical direction.
For months I've watched as the New Yorker's Night Life column on jazz has continued to shrink. Classical music gets a huge headline and a whole page. Dance? No problem. Pop/Rock columns of it. Meanwhile jazz, which is being performed all over the city if New York--and yes, outside of Manhattan-- gets a column, or less--as if there is nowhere in New York where you can go to hear this extraordinary music in all of it's glorious permutations.
Disgusting.

Nov. 05 2014 01:20 PM
G,Ross from Sicklerville,NJ

For an example of some very good jazz satire,look up the New Yorker of 5/19/73. Under the title "What--Another Legend?",Marshall Brickman brilliantly profiles the career of the great "Pootie" LeFluer.It's truly funny,and not misleading in the way that Gold's piece may be.

Oct. 05 2014 04:05 PM
Icketyboom from Brooklyn, NY

I guess Sonny Rollins got singled out because he is the only one of the great jazz masters who is still living. My chief complaint about the piece was that it wasn't funny. How about a satire dealing with the fact that jazz musicians make no money, get no respect and live lives of desperation with one foot in the gutter and the other on a banana peel.That'd be a laff riot.

Aug. 14 2014 07:05 AM
Kevin from Albany

It is not the author that I blame. It is the Editor of the New Yorker and the magazine itself. I have lost all respect for the magazine. I hope there is a law suit.

Aug. 12 2014 09:00 PM
homeboy from NYC

Wait, did John Schaefer just say the Sonny Rollins changed the "tenor" of the conversation ? Now that was funny !

Aug. 12 2014 06:47 AM
Cervantes

yes .... the piece is stupid,and jazz takes itself much too seriously[while the rest of the MS/American world ignores Jazz] all of these are true.

Aug. 11 2014 11:04 AM
Russ Carmel from NYC

Gold's presumption is appalling and deeply offensive. His work suffers from a dreadful lack of research, integrity, or truth.
Fortunately, time will sort this out: no one will remember this ridiculous piece of trash-but we'll savor Sonny Rollins' inspiring creativity for generations to come!
Hopefully Django Gold will change: not only his nickname, which does dishonor to his namesake, but also his pretension of being a satirist....

Aug. 08 2014 05:59 PM
Alayna from nyc, ny

Somebody thought this was ironic and funny. It wasn't. Sonny Rollins has forgotten more irony in jazz than the writer of this piece ever knew.

Aug. 08 2014 05:13 PM
Adrian DeVore from Newark, NJ

I read the New Yorker satire on Sonny Rollins and failed to find any humor in ridiculing an esteemed Jazz musician. I am glad that Mr. Rollins responded quickly to this unfunny article. It is a sad era when magazines, such as The New Yorker,resort to denigrating others to boost increased sales. Mr. Rollins should peruse available legal actions and consider filing a defamation suit against The New Yorker!

Aug. 08 2014 03:31 PM
Jorge from Brooklyn

What irks me is that the people that found it funny doesn't seem to get the other side's point, and brushes off anyone that has protested this piece as "not having a sense of humor". I believe a piece like this in the right context would have been pretty funny to me. For example, had it been published in "The Onion" I think this would be a different story.

I'm told that the "Shouts and Murmurs" section of the New Yorker is always satire. Well, first, I'm not an avid New Yorker reader, and I - along with many others - should not be expected to know that. And just like Mr. Mandel, I found this on facebook. Second, unlike The Onion, the New Yorker has some serious and thought-provoking pieces of journalism, and usually very high standards. The title "Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words" is, at best, a really unfortunate header. And this, for me is the core of the problem. Not whether it was or wasn't funny, that is beside the point to me. But because the lack of clarity of the context, it was believed to be his words. And before they could fix it, the damage was done (They pointed out that it was a work of satire four days later).

I share the thought that in satire, no issue should be taboo. And I see great comedians/satirists successfully breaking the boundaries of what's acceptable in humor, and I applaud that when it's done in a masterful way. It is so much about context, and in the proper context, I feel one can get away with almost anything. But this was not the case. The context was wrong. It lacked clarity, because it was a link to an online article, that you may or may not know it's satire beforehand.

"Jazz" is a fragile art form. There is a lot of abstraction in it, which leads to a lot of questioning and self checking. We are actively trying to fight off the BS. It's not an easy task. To me, someone that grew up in a culture that didn't have jazz available at all, jazz is about commitment. There has to be a lot of focus both from the performer and the listener. If one is not completely there, the point is lost. Therefore a lot of people don't get into it, and in the public eye it has an image of a self-serving, boring, and dated music style. And pieces like this promote that line of thinking. I can see some people reading this and thinking: "Yeah, that's right, jazz sucks" and feel that their shallow opinion of jazz has been validated by a major publication.

Whether it was the writer or the New Yorker's fault not to point out that this was satire, I don't know. But no one has taken responsibility for it. And Sonny was hurt when he saw his image tarnished by this piece. How else would he feel? He is part of the people that built the ground us younger musicians stand in, and he was hurt by a guy that so far shows no remorse for his actions. And because no one is apologizing, this has switched from unfortunate misunderstanding to what feels to me like bullying. It might not have been intentional at the beginning, but it sure feels low.

Aug. 08 2014 12:57 PM
Jordan from Austin, TX

It just wasn't funny. The piece was very self-satisfied in its consistent effort to play on the irony of one of our greatest living jazz performers ranting against the music and culture, but the writing was lazy and uninspired. Gold threw out jazz names to give the piece some authenticity, but there was nothing clever about it; he could easily have said Stan Getz instead of Dexter Gordon or Clifford Brown instead of Miles Davis and it would not have changed the tenor of this lame attempt at humor. Jazz musicians are some of the funnier people around. Dizzy Gillespie was an absolute clown. But for Django Gold's supporters, the ultimate goal of this article was to rankle the jazz world by making its adherents seem humorless. They are more interested in getting a rise out of someone than producing something risible.

Aug. 08 2014 12:36 PM
dstoler from New Jersey

The feeble attempt at humor by the author of that article was not only dumb but also stupid, to say nothing of ignorant. Who at the New Yorker left the backdoor open and let that in?

Aug. 08 2014 11:11 AM
Guenther from Germany

"and once they run out of ideas and have to stop"

Man, i would be so glad it this was true, because for me the problem are musicians, that actually DON´T stop when they run out ideas. Instead they go on and on and on and on ...

It´s annoying for the audience and annoying for me as a drummer, who is considered as a living play-along-track by this kind of improvisers ...

Aug. 08 2014 10:19 AM
Judy RANKIN

Thanks Jane, I agree with you and have also voted with my feet - canceled , and after decades of subscribing. This is just the last straw in a long series of WTF weird ideas of humor at the expense of truly great and sincere people. Try that dialogue on Nelson Mandela for example - just sick and weird. I am disappointed.

Aug. 08 2014 09:31 AM
Trixie from New Jersey

Now if they had him ranting about that which is called "smooth jazz" and a certain curly haired horn blower whose name shall not be mentioned, I could believe that! LOL!!!

Aug. 08 2014 09:27 AM
Charles Drago from Providence, RI

sat·ire noun \ˈsa-ˌtī(-ə)r\

1: a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn
2: trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly

The political and cultural subtexts of the New Yorker "satire" must be addressed.

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 pseudo-satire from the magazine that gave us the likes of Dorothy Parker ...

“Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
a medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
and I am Marie of Romania.”

... 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 from the New Yorker … a knee-slappin’ take on “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (“I am in Birmingham because the fine ladies is here.”)?

I mention in passing that the aforementioned Ms. Parker left her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

See the definition of "satire" as offered above. Then recall Ms. Hamer's acknowledgment that, to paraphrase her, no vice or folly is being ridiculed, scorned, or discredited in the New Yorker piece.

So what are we left with?

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.

Aug. 08 2014 08:25 AM
Josh C from Peoria

The Onion is funny a lot of the time. It pokes fun at the obvious things everyone ignores, probes for a deeper truth that shows our ridiculous pomposity. Without that gleam of truth, it's just stupid. The writer of this piece didn't get that... it shows a distinct lack of penetration and knowledge about jazz or the icons of jazz (of which Sonny certainly is--a true colossus in every sense of the word). While jazz can be seen as arcane, snooty, out-of-step with the times, etc etc, it is really none of those things. However, it does have a lot of competition these days. Not just music, either. The history of jazz is the history of black America, and much of the time nobody seems to care at all. Perhaps the intent of this very unfunny article was to draw jazz back into the spotlight, to begin the discussion again of what this art form is, and what it means to us. That Sonny Rollins, a man of tremendous dignity and flawless credentials, was used as a subject (instead of the equally great but much more obscure Jimmy Cobb, or the more familiar icons of Miles or Monk) raises a defensive hackle in many a jazz fan, intensifying the argument. I am happy to see jazz being discussed, and in this discussion--as in jazz--if you look beneath the noises,you might find a deeper truth. Hope so, anyway.

Aug. 08 2014 06:44 AM

My mother, who was in business years ago, said, "Never talk about your competitors - it's only giving them free publicity." But there are times when I can't go with that!

Aug. 08 2014 02:50 AM
Rob from Arizona

As I see it, there are three things fueling the emotional response.

1) Mr. Rollins said that he didn't find Gold's work to be funny. Satire isn't necessarily humor, so it doesn't have to be funny to be effective. Given the blowback, it was most certainly effective.

2) Mr. Rollins is a living legend. No one will dispute that. So, there is a disconnect between him and a virtual unknown that wrote the satirical essay. Unknown Gold is no more, of course.

3) Mr. Rollins said that he worried about young musicians reading it and thinking that jazz is not for them. That response alone implies what we already know about the art form -- that it's always struggling for attention and needs someone to play defense. However, the same young musicians that he's citing are likely smart enough to understand that it's satire anyway. If that's the case, their takeaway now may be that Mr. Rollins is simply an old man that's out of touch with current culture. Even if that's off-base, all that matters is the perception.

For a man that's traveled the world and been critiqued in the public forum ad nauseam, I'm surprised that Mr. Rollins allowed this to escalate. The proper reaction would have been to ignore it.

Meanwhile, no matter how much you dislike the author and/or his smug retort and/or personality on Twitter, he's done his job exceptionally well in the context. That it missed its mark with his subject is irrelevant. In a world of zero attention spans and an endless array of static, clutter and crap, it's a home run.

Aug. 07 2014 10:47 PM
Stevie Nicks Nixon from Sydney Australia

As humor, for me the piece was a miserable failure. It didn't make me smile, much
less laugh. But, within a few paragraphs, I recognised that it was an attempt at humor. The privilege we all have to look at the world humorously comes with the rider on it that the humor will sometimes be ill-concieved and even hurtful, but it is nonetheless a very precious thing. The best response to a bad joke is a forced smile that tells the comedian, "Oh, I see, you were trying to make a joke!"

Aug. 07 2014 10:41 PM
Matt from Long Beach, California

It's not that I don't "get" that it was supposed to be a satire. It simply wasn't good.

Aug. 07 2014 10:15 PM
Dennis Klainberg from Manhasset, NY

Just not funny. Period. Not even Mad Magazine level of satire despite King Sonny's magnanimous attempt to give the writer some sort of pass.
Neither on par nor even close to Mel Brooks' brand of satire, or that of Allen Sherman, Mark Twain, Christopher Guest,Joseph Heller ,or Oscar Wilde.
I love all things jazz and trying real hard to be congenial like Sonny and find some decent comparison, but this piece doesn't cut it. It's not satire it's not funny. Sorry.

Aug. 07 2014 09:52 PM
Shelly Stevens from Paramus, New Jersey

I was glad to see that Sonny responded so quickly.

Aug. 07 2014 09:40 PM
jane hall from new york

I am Jim Hall’s widow. I knew and know Sonny Rollins very well. There is no finer gentleman. His sense of humor is exquisite. It comes thru in his music and in person. His influence is unparalleled. But most of all, he is the most caring person I have met. We speak on the phone regularly. The world is a better place because of him. Jim adored him and so do I. I am surprised at Django Gold who bears the name of Django Reinhardt and my dog Django. His attempt at satire is pitiful and I am canceling my subscription to the New Yorker because of it’s poor taste. Jazz is america’s finest art form.
jane hall
janehallpsychotherapy.net

Aug. 07 2014 09:29 PM
fred from brooklyn

To paraphrase Sonny, had it appeared in Mad Magazine the satire would be evident. The biggest problem is the context in which it was presented, which was confusing ... and not particularly funny.

Aug. 07 2014 03:36 PM

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