Sonny Rollins: Don’t Stop The Carnival

10 Jan


Jazz made an appearance last month on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. You can blame (or credit) the writer Ishmael Reed for this rare foray into the intellectual high-rent district.

Reed opined on jazz and cool and President Obama, and how the latter has it, and how the musicians both Reed and Obama watched at a 2013 event at the San Francisco Jazz Center had it, too.

The op-ed is unabashedly partisan: after all, JFK pardoned pianist Hampton Hawes, Jimmy Carter had Dizzy Gillespie over to the White House to sing Salt Peanuts and Obama honored Sonny Rollins.

Republicans and jazz? Well, Louis Armstrong, who famously said, “I don’t get involved in politics, I just blow my horn,” made one exception. He called Dwight Eisenhower “two-faced” and said Eisenhower had “no guts.” Less than a week later, the commander of World War II sent troops to Little Rock, Ark. Reed said Armstrong wasn’t cool until he was hot. Then he was cool.

Politics aside, Reed paid tribute in the piece to Rollins, now 83 and who made the Willamsburg Bridge famous.

“Like the president, cool musicians carried themselves with a regal bearing,” wrote Reed. “Some members of the generation before them had to engage in minstrel-like antics to make a living. Cool musicians demanded respect, and when attacked didn’t blow up, but, like the president, responded stoically. One of (Obama’s) favorite words is ‘persistence,’ the attitude of his hero, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the greatest surviving bebopper.”

In 2011, as Reed noted, Obama awarded Rollins the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, along with Quincy Jones and James Taylor. But among even those, Obama cited Rollins as an “inspiration.” That was cool.

“I speak personally here,” Obama said “because there are people here whose works shaped me. I’ve got these thumbworn editions of these works of arts, and these old records from when they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital, that helped inspire me, or get me through a tough day, or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken, and I think what’s true for me is true for everyone here and true for our country.”

Reed is the poet laureate of the San Francisco Jazz Center, and his poem, When I Die I Will Go To Jazz is on one of the building’s walls.

The residents of Jazz are
Bopping in the aisles
As Diz and Bird swap
Fours with Miles
And spare me the sounds
Of celestial harmonics

I prefer something like
Jazz at the Philharmonic
Jumping with my boy Sid
In the city

That’s cool, too.

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