The New Yorker‘s “Shouts & Murmurs” column, which is satirical and runs every week in the magazine, is usually pretty funny. The online version? Not so much.
Last week saw an entry called “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.” But it was not written by Rollins, it was written by Onion scribe Django Gold. It was satire, but nobody got it, and there was a shitstorm.
That’s because: A) It wasn’t funny and B) Jazz fans are generally kind of humorless.
Rollins, of course, is one of the biggest names in the genre. His career stretches back to the late 1940s and includes stage time with virtually every major jazz musician.
He wrote the music to the film Alfie and made a cameo on the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend.” Now 83, Rollins still tops jazz polls and record charts. He’s known for an extreme dedication to his art and a sly sense of humor.
The New Yorker piece, on the other hand, was not nuanced. Framed as a list of 11 regrets, it’s patently absurd.
“Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with,” “Rollins” writes. “I really don’t know why I keep doing this.”
He continues: “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.”
The jokes fell flat. A lot of people believed it was actually written by Rollins (perhaps because the New Yorker used to have a good reputation for jazz coverage), and hyperventilating Twitterers used terms like “scandalous” and “libelous” between threats to cancel their subscriptions.
Meanwhile, jazz bloggers spent their weekend writing incensed posts. Marc Myers, a Wall Street Journal contributor, wondered, “Why would the New Yorker…wade in the jackass morass?”
Trumpeter and blogger Nicholas Payton made it more personal: “Black life in a world of White oppression and supremacy is satirical enough. We don’t need your help adding it to it.”
Perhaps because of all this, it quickly became one of the most popular posts on the magazine’s blog. But at some point, the New Yorker made the unusual decision to add a note at the top:
“Editor’s note: This article, which is part of our Shouts & Murmurs humor blog, is a work of satire.”
Then the piece inspired a response from Rollins himself!
Monday night, the saxophone colossus put on a pair of headphones and appeared on a webcast (above) from his home in Woodstock.
He touched on a number of topics (turns out he’s still a MAD magazine subscriber) but ultimately got to his disappointment in the story:
“The people that wrote this article are trying to kill jazz, but you can’t kill a spirit…. Do I have a sense of humor? Do jazz people have a sense of humor? Yes, of course…. We’re just trying to protect our little space where people are trying to stop the music….
“Are we protective of it? Yes, of course we are. This is something real and important in this world. It doesn’t hurt anybody. It helps people. It makes people feel better. It gives people something to strive for.”
The problem with the New Yorker riff isn’t so much that jazz is off-limits. In fact, seeing how stacked its ranks are is with sanctimonious denizens, it’s more ripe for satire than just about any other genre.
The problem is that the piece isn’t funny. In the end, humor conquers all. Even for jazz fans.
Now that’s something the New Yorker can strive for.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 6, 2014