On July 31, 2014, The New Yorker’s online edition ran a short attempt at humor that played mostly as tragedy in the jazz world. Titled “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” and featuring a photo of Rollins, who is still going strong at 83, it painted a bitter picture of a life “wasted” on jazz, and it came off about as funny as gangrene. Though no one at all familiar with Rollins would confuse this comedic whimper with reality, even before an editor’s note was added to indicate it was “a work of satire,” it will likely strike most readers that it was published with his knowledge and approval, which, it turns out, is not the case—Rollins knew nothing about it, according to jazz writer Howard Mandel’s blog. Credited to an Onion writer who goes by the name of Django Gold, the piece was vilified every which way in the online jazz universe, but, interestingly, it was rarely branded as outright racism. Mandel’s blog attack on the piece, for instance, doesn’t go anywhere near the race issue. Django Gold, judging by the haggard photo on his Twitter and Facebook pages, is a young White guy, as might be expected of an Onion writer; he even tweeted, about a week before the Rollins piece appeared, “so embarrassing when I take my shirt off and I’m the most racially pure guy at the beach,” which, in light of the Rollins fiasco, assumes its own curious racist implications.
Outspoken “Black American Music” bandleader and activist Nicholas Payton, however, took the bull by the horns on his blog: without using the word “racist,” Payton makes it clear that The New Yorker piece is just that. “Blacks have been satirized in the media as Niggers for years,” he notes. “I get that White people and Black people have cultural differences and thus a different sense of humor. Given that to be the case, White people: stick to satirizing those who get your sense of humor. Leave Black people be.” In other words, Mr. Django, Lady Gaga is more your speed.
On the night of August 4, Rollins himself made The New Yorker blunder into a media event on his website with a live interview that opened with his startling admission that he subscribes to MAD magazine. Who knew there was still a MAD and it had a senior readership? He ceremoniously dumped all over The New Yorker for what he perceives as its attack on jazz, as if they’re kicking it when it’s down, and interviewer Bret Primack, aka Jazz Video Guy, led him on by asking if the piece was a symptom of the corporate elite’s attack on free expression. Rollins appeared to agree, equating jazz with freedom, and he and Primack more or less agreed that both were endangered. But Rollins went on to insist that jazz was above politics and economics, as if art and activism were perhaps incompatible. When asked what an individual can do to effect change, he suggested we practice our instruments. Solidarity and collective action did not seem to be the order of the day.
But Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were name-dropped as “truth tellers” when Rollins was asked what he reads, suddenly introducing the Far Left into the proceedings. Rollins’ environmental activism and his Global Warming album of the ’90s were also mentioned. (Personal reminiscence: I saw Rollins in concert at the Planting Fields in Oyster Bay, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, at the time of Global Warming, and he introduced the title tune by quite seriously telling the audience, “You’ve got to get rid of your SUVs!” Maybe two people clapped.) Somewhere in the course of the interview Rollins’ Freedom Suite was mentioned, when Primack confused it with Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. Rollins’ parting words, however, were “It’s all good”—this was largely an acknowledgment of the transcendent qualities of art, and while it may not be reasonable to expect Rollins to issue a call to the barricades at this point in his life, the interview seemed a missed opportunity to present something a bit more politically focused in response to The New Yorker‘s provocations. The issue of racism, unsurprisingly, was not broached.
OK, so that’s a bit of Rollins and politics. What does any of this have to do with the Library of Congress (LC)? Well, near the end of The New Yorker piece, quite gratuitously, Mr. Django supplies a perfect federal jazz policy tie-in when he has Rollins say: “Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground.” As inscrutably humorless as this sentiment may be, it raises the question, What has the Library of Congress done for jazz?
Far too much to detail here, though, like the NEA, it could surely do far more, and unlike the NEA, it’s not laughably underfunded. The LC has a staff of about 4,000 and an annual budget of $750 million. As far as the pinnacle of recognition known as the National Recordings Registry goes—this extremely wide-ranging list of American sound recordings, deemed of sufficient historical or aesthetic importance to merit special LC preservation, was established by an act of Congress in 2000—Rollins is included only in Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners, selected in 2003. Among the “modern” jazz records in the Registry, and it is easy to argue that there aren’t enough of them on a list that has reached 400 recordings, with 25 presently added per year: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; John Coltrane’s Giant Steps; Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um; Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come; Dave Brubeck’s Time Out; and Bill Evans’ Complete Village Vanguard Recordings. The inclusion of Herbie Hancock’s 1973 Head Hunters on the basis that it was “his first true fusion recording,” which, though it was “belittled by many jazz purists as ‘pop’ ” has “proved to be influential not only to jazz, but also to funk, soul and hip hop musicians,” is presumably a nod to the LC’s eclectic/populist side—Head Hunters set sales records for a jazz album in its time.
On a more significant historical/aesthetic note, back in 2005, you may recall, the widely publicized Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall tapes from 1957 were found by chance in the LC’s Voice of America collection—a record that has yet to be selected for the National Recording Registry. But recently the LC was in the news on two occasions not for jazz recordings but for jazz archives of another sort, with a distinctly avant-garde and activist bent: the papers of Max Roach and Eric Dolphy. The five boxes of Dolphy’s papers, donated to the LC’s Music Division by composer/flutist James Newton, will surely shed more light on a career cut tragically short in 1964; Dolphy died at 36, “perhaps too young to settle his reputation,” as Ben Ratliff noted in the New York Times.
Roach, on the other hand, died in 2007 at 83, and though he never completed his memoirs, the LC has acquired, from Roach’s family, “400 linear feet of his life” in the form of “scores and lead sheets, photographs, contracts, itineraries, correspondence, reel tapes and cassettes and drafts of an unfinished autobiography, written with the help of Amiri Baraka,” explains Ratliff in the Times. To cite one small example on the activist front, Ratliff, who had some time to examine the archive, notes: “There is also a one-sentence telegram that Roach sent to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller after the Attica uprising in 1971: ‘Does your belief that prisoners are not human justify the loss of 42 lives?’ ” If this recalls Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” well, the Charles Mingus archive is also available to scholars in the Performing Arts Reading Room on Capitol Hill, along with the collections of Billy Taylor, Gerry Mulligan, Alvin Ailey, Dexter Gordon, Louis Bellson, and Shelly Manne, among others. Ratliff notes that Roach was “archivally minded”; so too is the LC, of course, which often makes for one of the more significant aspects of federal jazz policy, such as it is.
In addition to its archival achievements, the LC also likes to hand out honors in the manner of the NEA—but, ironically, sans cash. The LC’s Living Legends award, established during its Bicentennial celebration in 2000, as the Living Legends site notes, is
selected by the Library’s curators and subject specialists to honor artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage. The professional accomplishments of the Living Legends have enabled them to provide examples of personal excellence that have benefited others and enriched the nation in a variety of ways.
If that sounds like a “bipartisan,” as the mainstream media loves to say, celebrity grab bag, it is, and the awards categories are curious, to say the least. Among the political honorees: rabid neocons Madeleine Albright and Jeane Kirkpatrick are Leaders and Statesman, but so is civil rights activist Julian Bond; Colin Powell got his Activists and Reformers award in 2000, before he crashed and burned as part of Dubya’s duplicitous Invasion of Iraq team, and he’s joined by the radical likes of Pete Seeger (a communist!) and Gloria Steinem; the Writers and Artists run the spectrum from (career racist) William F. Buckley to Toni Morrison; and jazzwise, the Musicians and Composers include Dave Brubeck, Benny Carter, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, and Gunther Schuller, all of whom are also NEA Jazz Masters but for Charles. The unfortunately named and bizarrely grouped Athletes and Entertainers category includes Leontyne Price, Merce Cunningham, and Big Bird from Sesame Street—’nuff said. But among the LC’s dubious award precedents, the Ezra Pound-Bollingen Prize for Poetry scandal cannot go unmentioned. As Jed Perl writes in the New Republic:
Pound is nowadays much less admired than he was a generation or two ago, and it is perhaps difficult to grasp the intensity of the controversy that erupted in 1949 when this man who had done radio broadcasts for the fascists during World War II was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress for The Pisan Cantos, published the year before. Arrested by American troops at the end of the war and charged with treason for the broadcasts he did for Radio Rome, Pound never actually stood trial, but was pronounced insane by government psychiatrists and locked up in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where he remained until 1958. That ten of the fourteen Library of Congress Fellows in American Literature voted to give the first Bollingen Prize to a man who had worked for the enemy and was unabashedly anti-Semitic was bound to cause trouble, and the debate raged for some time.
The LC did not continue to host the Bollingen Prize for some time, however; in the face of immense blowback from the media and from Congress, this was its first and last such award, the Bollingen Foundation moving on to the Yale University Library where the prize remains to this day.