Sonnygate Redux: The New Yorker, and Rollins' Own Words

I’ll admit to some ambivalence about turning our attention to this matter, especially since it’s no longer breaking news. Yet here goes:
By now you may be aware of a “Daily Shouts” column at The New Yorker magazine’s website, posted last Thursday under the title “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” and bylined to Django Gold, who is a senior writer at the news-satire outlet, The Onion.
In 11 brief paragraphs, the celebrated 83-year-old tenor saxophonist made confessions such as these:

I really don’t know why I keep doing this. Inertia, I guess. Once you get stuck in a rut, it’s difficult to pull yourself out, even if you hate every minute of it. Maybe I’m just a coward.
I released fifty-odd albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and played on God knows how many session dates. Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life.

Only these weren’t Rollins’ words. They were Gold’s.
New Yorker readers might not have known this, since the website made no mention of the fact that Gold made the stuff up in a now-apparent effort to by funny. I happened to be in Maine, with little access to the internet or even cell service when I caught wind of all this. At the time, I’d read only the first three paragraphs on my phone, which ended like this:

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.

I’d considered the idea that this really was Rollins, and that once I had a chance to read on, the text would pay off. After all, Rollins has a playful sense of humor; his statements sometimes do begin with a dodge, followed by a weave, only to make his point stronger (same is true of some of his wondrous extended tenor-saxophone solos).
But once I read the whole column, nothing like that happened. No dodge, no weave, no payoff. Just more of the same: flat, foolish, and obviously not Rollins.
I knew so, but many who were drawn to the New Yorker site by this promotional Twitter feed from the magazine might not have been so clear.
A wave of online confusion followed. Facebook posts, tweets, and online posts wondered: Was this Rollins speaking? Was he misquoted and taken wildly out of context? Who is Django Gold, and did he ever actually meet Rollins? If it was a gag, was Rollins in on it? What did Rollins think?According to Terri Hinte, Rollins’ longtime publicist, Rollins didn’t pay much attention to the column until the swirl of online concern grew. Though he was reluctant at first to reply, by Friday night Rollins had posted a comment stating:
“Folks, it’s just some guy’s idea of a joke!”
According to Hinte, after Rollins’ attorney spoke with a New Yorker representative, a line appeared at the bottom of the column online, at first with a typo: “This is a work a satire,” and then as “This is a work of satire.” Soon after, the disclaimer was moved to the top of the piece, where it remains, now stating: “Editor’s note: This article, which is part of our Shouts & Murmurs humor blog, is a work of satire.”
By Aug. 4, The New Yorker’s Culture Desk Twitter feed issued this: Dear Readers: The ‪@sonnyrollins “interview” was satire published on our humor blog. Our apologies to anyone who thought it was real.
That evening, Rollins spoke in live webcast in response to the New Yorker piece and its aftermath, as interviewed by Bret Primack (also known online as Jazz Video Guy, who has long collaborated with Rollins). You can find that video here.
Yet by then a wave of online indignance had been let loose. Marc Myers wrote a long and emphatic post at his Jazzwax site, in which he compared the breach of “custodial issues relating to their editorial content and the public trust” to what happens “when executives at chemical plants fail to inspect their facilities, standards grow lax, things crack and toxic substances wind up leaking into rivers and polluting the water supply.”
Indeed, Myers was far from the only online commentator to note that these quotes, under Rollins’ name “is now in the Internet’s blood stream, which means that somewhere down the line someone is going to assume that Sonny actually said one or more of them.” Years from now, a term paper or magazine article may quote Rollins as faked by Gold.
At Howard Mandel’s “Jazz Beyond Jazz” blog, it’s worth scrolling through both Mandel’s impressions and the many comments that followed, including one from Gold himself, who implied that his name is not a pseudonym, and who stated:

As has been correctly speculated, Sonny Rollins was chosen more-or-less at random as the “subject” of this piece. I believe the other top candidates were Ornette Coleman and Jim Hall, but I figured Rollins had the name recognition. What I wrote has nothing to do with Rollins personally; it is clearly more about the popular conception of jazz and its history. Given the feedback I have read thus far, I suppose “clearly” may not be the right word to use here.
For what it’s worth, I am a huge fan of both Sonny Rollins’ work and jazz in general. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. The music he made and is making has enriched my life over the years, and for that I am grateful. If Sonny was offended by what I wrote, I sincerely apologize to him for that; given all the joy his music has produced for me, this would be a hell of a way to repay him. No apologies for anyone else, though—all this humorlessness and tedious moral posturing only reinforces the worst stereotypes about jazz fans.

That last part touches upon one of the constellation of problems presented by Gold’s piece—the idea that jazz is alien or out-of-touch enough to make such satire rewarding in the first place, and that the offense taken by Rollins’ fans signals a humorless and defensive sense of heightened seriousness within the jazz community—that jazz fans ought better to “lighten up” and take a joke.
Here’s the thing, or things:
1) What Rollins does as well or better than any other living person—improvising for a living based on songs and on a long musical legacy—is a bit of a high-wire act. If it didn’t work, it would fall flat with an ugly thud.
Humor, and maybe especially satire, is much like that. Had Gold demonstrated the talent and craftsmanship to pull of what he intended—to be funny—the discussion that folllowed might have taken a different course. But the “funny” here seemed more like imitating the walk of old woman crossing the street, and working on the assumption that we all think it’s humorous, right? Or like laughing out loud when an opera star sings because we all can agree that such vocalizing is utterly ridiculous, no?
You might say that comes down to simply immaturity and, yes, that’s part of it. But really it comes down to what makes for humor. To me, Gold’s piece was more of an insult to the tradition of The New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” than to Rollins or to jazz. (One recent example of that New Yorker tradition is Simon Rich’s “Guy Walks Into a Bar,” from the Nov. 18, 2013 issue.)
Lots of people can pick up a tenor saxophone and wail. To do so with purpose and meaning is far harder.
Nearly anyone can make you look by posting made-up quotes from a famous guy in an attempt to poke easy fun. Actual humor, let alone real satire, is a good deal more difficult.
2) If there is any special senstivity within jazz’s ranks, it may be in lament of the fact that although The New Yorker, under the editorship of David Remnick, has achieved a tone and substance that is inarguably wise, current and compelling, it has also largely abandoned the focus given in past to jazz, most notably through Whitney Balliett’s writing. (Somewhat ironically, one of the magazine’s longest pieces on jazz in the past decade was Stanley Crouch’s 2005 profile of Sonny Rollins. Also, some jazz-attuned New Yorker readers may also still be smarting a bit from Adam Gopnik’s assertion in a piece last year, based on his reading of Terry Teachout’s Duke Ellington biography:

Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings.

(Sadly, that statement wasn’t meant as satire.)
3) Lastly, there’s this awful sense—I suspect you share it—that websites, even ones hosted by esteemed newspapers and magazines, are stepchildren built on speed and fueled by little more than attracting eyeballs; that despite the brand-name banner the reduced pay scale, fast schedules, and tendency toward snark and away from careful editing and fact-checking are at odds with the very values and processes that exalted publications like The New Yorker in the first place. I don’t know who did or did not edit and approve of Gold’s piece, and what the logic behind those decisions was. Yet I do know from my own experience as both writer and reader that websites thrive on stirring up controversy above all else. Some of us felt The New Yorker and Rollins, sliding down that slippery slope into something less than elegance and ethics.
No one and no thing—not Sonny Rollins nor jazz—exists beyond the reach of satire. Funny is funny.
Yet simply “making me look” is never enough to make me laugh. And it often makes me angry that I looked in the first place.
That a bunch of us were disappointed, maybe even upset, isn’t so much about protecting Rollins or his art form as sacred. Rollins is still very much able to express him himself through his music and his words. (There’s a wealth of Rollins really in his own words posted online by Primack; and here’s a 2010 Village Voice piece for which Rollins shared with me his thoughts about the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.)
What struck the deepest chord of disapproval was, I think, based on a sense of of allegiance to The New Yorker (whose readers are well-represented, I’d guess, among Rollins’ fans)—what the magazine demands and upholds. In its pages, it aspires to and so often achieves something not far from what Rollins does with his horn: lengthy, thoughtful expressions graceful enough to conceal the tediousness of craftsmanship required; urgent or timely expressions based in historical research and of lasting value; stuff that comes off as utterly original and, yes, sometimes, deeply funny.
With this online column, Django Gold and the The New Yorker hit a sour and weak note that missed its mark. They also broke one rule Rollins never does in his playing: they came off as dishonest.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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