By Dan Jonas
Unless you’ve been locked in a practice room shedding “26-2” for the last week, you’ve probably heard about the recent New Yorker satire piece “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.” The original article and various reactions to it (including Sonny’s reaction) has all blown up countless Facebook and Twitter feeds, but just in case you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to the original article and a link to Sonny’s response.
Now, a lot has been said about the satire piece in all corners of the jazz world, and I’m not going to rehash all of it here. The real tragedy of this story is that many people read the original article and assumed it was truthfully written by Sonny Rollins (although the author was known as a writer for the Onion, the disclaimer now on the New Yorker article was apparently not added until after the post had been up for several days). I’ll admit that I started this journey somewhat backwards. I saw posts on Facebook about the original article (“Sonny Rollins hates jazz? What?”) and didn’t even bother reading it because it seemed sensationalized or completely false. Then I started to read reaction pieces, watched Sonny’s YouTube video, and only now have I sat down and read the original piece.
Trolling is as old as the internet – I still remember logging in to newsgroups in the 1990’s to see people spewing vitriol about whatever the topic of the day was. I’ll never understand what it is about the internet that causes people to actively want to annoy others for their own gratification. Certainly the jazz community has mocked itself – think of those jazz robot videos that were all the rage a few years ago – but this is probably the first time I’ve seen such a large portion of my peers collectively trolled. The immediate reaction (“jazz is serious art!”) is predictable and justified, as is the expected counter-reaction (“jazz needs to learn to take a joke!”).
Sonny, for his part, doesn’t seem to take the article so much personally as he does professionally, preferring to stand up for jazz itself as the injured party. His response extols all of us to think of the musicians struggling to hone their craft whose pride and belief in the music has been injured to the point where they might quit. My reaction is that no serious jazz musician hasn’t faced all of the thinly veiled criticisms in the New Yorker article. Anyone who has tried to play jazz for a living has dealt with these criticisms – that the instruments sound awful, that improvisation sounds pointless and confusing, that the difference between listening to someone who “knows what they’re doing” vs. someone who is faking is generally not perceptible to the average listener.
The real problem revealed here is not that jazz musicians can’t take a joke, but that the article hits so close to home for many of us. Ultimately, people didn’t read this article and believe it simply because it was on the internet (I hope most people have developed a healthy skepticism of truth on the internet by now), but that some segment of the jazz population WANTED it to be true. They WANTED to see their own struggles with jazz reflected in the words of this great jazz master. They might never admit it, but a part of them that they battle with daily whispers those same things to them (“jazz sucks, you suck, what are you doing with your life, get a real job”) every time they pick up their horn. And this article suddenly gives those fears full voice for all the world to see, and they react the same way anyone does when their fears are exposed – with anger.
Jazz is not perfect, and it has it’s fair share of problems. I think many people would agree that although the music is stronger than ever and that jazz education is flourishing, the public at large has lost interest with the music. This article only shines a spotlight on that problem. And until the jazz community tries to deal with THAT, they’ll get trolled every time.