The New Yorker and Sonny Rollins: From Whitney Balliett to Caveat Emptor As A Chronicler of Jazz
[Ed. note: This post was originally published on August 6, 2014]
By now you’ve probably heard about the silly web post that The New Yorker ran last week purportedly quoting Sonny Rollins (In His Own Words) on his career in jazz. I was alerted to it by readers wondering if I knew how Sonny’s health was, and by a couple of friends concerned that the bitter tone of the comments may have been a symptom of early dementia. All agreed that the sardonic remarks bore no resemblance to anything we’d ever heard Rollins profess. The New Yorker later amended the web feature with a caveat that it was “satire;” the author was identified as a staff writer with The Onion. Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of it until I read Howard Mandel’s blog on Sunday. Mandel’s post was followed by a comment from Sonny’s public relations consultant Terri Hinte, who confirmed that Rollins had had nothing to do with the piece; Hinte said it “blindsided” him. (Read Mandel’s screed and scores of other comments here.)
I posted my own comment on the Mandel blog right away, noting that while Rollins is an odd choice for satire, and that this work was colossally unfunny, the effort nonetheless smacks of the desperate grab publications and media outlets are making to attract younger readers to their websites. An effort like this suggests they’re on a fool’s errand. At JazzWax, Marc Myers said it was further proof that we’re “living in a jackass culture, where the people who do inappropriate, outrageous things in public get the most laughs.” In the case of The New Yorker, it also reflects a decline in its coverage of jazz. Besides this bizarre “satire” of Rollins, the most recent writing I recall on the music was Adam Gopnik’s review of Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington. Somewhat in keeping with the tone of the bio, Gopnik took potshots galore at Ellington, at one point describing him as “just an O.K. pianist,” as though that’s a standard measure of any jazz artist’s worth, and saying his recordings were “tinny.” (Full disclosure: I queried the magazine a decade ago to propose an article about the literary critic Harold Bloom’s interest in jazz. I got a very respectful rejection letter in reply.)
I’ve been a New Yorker reader my whole life. The magazine’s cartoons and bottom of the page oddities (Block That Metaphor; There’ll Always Be an England) elicited laughter from my parents as they passed the weekly back and forth to each other, and nothing felt more respectful of our budding sophistication than when they passed it to us as kids. New Yorker humor was a generation-bridging element in our household. My father’s land surveying office had blow-ups of Charles Addams and George Price cartoons in the blueprint room, and I attributed the fact that I got every line of Annie Hall to having been a regular reader of the magazine. In addition to the humor, I was a dedicated reader of its lengthy profiles, short fiction, and its coverage of books, movies, and baseball. I read New Yorker-related memoirs by James Thurber and Brendan Gill, and I’ll never forget Robert Coles’s profile of Walker Percy, which I read between pitches of the Red Sox-Yankees playoff game in October 1978. And what made for better beach reading than a New Yorker three-parter?
I came to love the magazine most for Whitney Balliett’s writings on jazz musicians and singers. Balliett’s lyrical prose and incisive portraits of jazz men and women of every stripe made the music come alive on the page like it did on record. I scoured every issue for his name, which under the editorship of William Shawn appeared fairly often. Shawn took obvious pride in publishing the writer whom he praised as a “genius for saying in words how a particular musician or musicians sound.” I continually go back to him, and there’s a lot to choose from; Balliett’s anthologized works occupy nearly two feet of my bookshelf. In addition to the compendium of profiles, American Musicians II, Balliett’s Collected Works, A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, is the single-most essential chronicle of the music’s second half-century.
Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote about Rollins in 1991: “His  attack was clipped, even abrupt—more percussive than melodic. He placed his notes just so, between beats, or ahead of the beat. His phrasing suggested a boy crossing a stream on jumping stones…He had become [in 1972] a whirlwind. His runs soared, and there were jarring staccato passages and furious double-time spurts. He seemed to be shouting and gesticulating on his horn, as if he were waving his audience into battle…[In 1990] Rollins played two bars of melody, dropped into a quick inside run, a double-time lunge, and a sotto-voce turnaround, stated the melody for two or three more bars, improvised again, offered more melody, and so forth. This kind of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t melodic improvisation makes the listener, constantly teased, work twice as hard.”
Shawn hired Balliett in 1951; he stayed on board until 2001. But during the 14-year stretch following Shawn’s retirement in 1987, his successors published fewer and fewer pieces by Balliett. Near the end, his contributions were often little more than glorified captions that went with photos of Barbra Streisand, Barbara Cook, and other singers. Teachout made it plain when he wrote, “He was treated cruelly and shabbily by Shawn’s successors [Tina Brown and David Remnick], who had no understanding of the significance of his work.” Balliett’s widow, the painter Nancy Balliett, told me that he came to feel sadly undervalued by the magazine and spent his last years wondering if his writings would continue to be read at all.
I viewed Balliett’s banishment and the increasing absence of jazz in The New Yorker as evidence of a general devaluation of the music in society at large. It was inevitable that writers in thrall to rock would eventually come to dominate the media landscape, not to mention academia. A hopeful sign like the elevation of jazz to constituent status at Lincoln Center seems to have been driven largely by the charismatic force of Wynton Marsalis, and it remains to be seen how it fares in the long run. The radar blip caused by Ken Burns’s 2001 documentary on jazz did little to support the fact that the music is still a dynamic and captivating art form. Rollins got good press for the music when he was honored with the Presidential Medal of the Arts by Barack Obama, and in 2011 by the Kennedy Center. Otherwise, most of what gets written in the mainstream press about jazz has to do with its supposed shrinking fan base, but the music remains in great shape on the bandstand, nowhere more so than in its traditional capital of New York.
Nonetheless, The New Yorker’s jazz listings have shrunk considerably in recent years despite the presence of numerous venues in the city. And you’d hardly know from reading its pages that an impressive number of jazz musicians keep moving to the city, somehow managing to defy the exorbitant cost of living that drives almost everyone but bankers and trust-funders away. (Rollins himself was driven out by the Word Trade Center attacks; he was evacuated from his Tribeca penthouse on 9-11, but not before his respiratory system was affected by the fallout.) Balliett, a Cornell grad, came from a patrician, Upper East Side background, but he displayed a genuine feel for the vicissitudes of the jazz life and conveyed it to readers for nearly 50 years. Since his departure in 2001, I can’t recall much writing about the music save for Gopnik’s 50th anniversary feature on the Bill Evans Trio’s appearance at the Village Vanguard in 1961; Stanley Crouch’s 2005 profile of Rollins; and Alec Wilkinson’s profile of Jason Moran last year.
It’s been David Remnick who’s presided over this decline in the chronicling of jazz, and in the case of the Rollins matter at least, its decline in standards. (As further example of the latter, I would cite Remnick’s own 2012 profile of Bruce Springsteen, which fairly gushed with awe.) Balliett died in 2007. Gopnik wrote the magazine’s respectful tribute, but failed to mention the unceremonious way he’d been shown the door six years earlier. That was left to Nat Hentoff, the longtime Village Voice columnist and jazz writer who was also a New Yorker contributor for many years. Hentoff’s eulogy for Balliett (they collaborated on the legendary television production The Sound of Jazz) was written for The Wall Street Journal and for most of its length extolled the “instant clarity” of Balliett’s writing. But he ended with the disclosure that, “puzzled by [Balliett’s] absence…I wrote to David Remnick, asking how he could deprive so many his readers…of Whitney’s further guidance. There was no answer.”
Hentoff concluded on a note of pure irony, pointing out that it was Remnick who wrote the laudatory obituary of Balliett for Newsday, acknowledging him for “prose as fluid and joyful as the subject he wrote about.” That, sad to say, is rarely the case with how The New Yorker writes about the music Balliett famously described as ”the sound of surprise.” By surprise, Balliett meant the glories experienced through the art of improvisation, not the confusion that Sonny Rollins and his admirers experienced on July 31.
The 83-year-old Rollins addressed the contretemps in the following video cast on Monday. One reader calls it “profoundly moving.” Others mentioned his “great NYC accent,” and “the soothing, healing wisdom” of his words. What impresses me most is Sonny’s concern for how claptrap like this may demoralize young, would-be masters hard at work on careers that may never bring much recognition. Long live the Saxophone Colossus.