Bravo Sonny Rollins! Boo the Paucity of Jazz Honorees!


Time for another PBS feature on Sonny Rollins, this one from the NewsHour.  The occasion is this weekend’s Kennedy Center Honors, where Rollins will be one of five recipients of the annual award. Dare I say that for the 81-year-old jazz giant, it won’t come a minute too soon?  The Saxophone Colossus is more than deserving, and has been for years, but so too are numerous other jazz musicians who’ve been overlooked since the inception of the honor in 1979.  So far, only nine jazz artists have been among its 165 recipients, and given that the Center itself calls jazz “the truly American art form,” I’d say it’s time for an infusion of musical patriotism.  Here’s a list of additional jazz greats, all past age 80, who’d do the honor, as they've done the nation, proud: Clark Terry, Chico Hamilton, Yusef Lateef, Frank Wess, Randy Weston, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Heath, Horace Silver, Lee Konitz, and Benny Golson.  How about it?

Alas, I’d say the prospects are dim.  Even though the Center announced this week that pianist Jason Moran will succeed the late Billy Taylor as its Artistic Advisor for Jazz, only two jazz musicians have been honored by the Kennedy in the past decade.  And given the paucity of jazz players and experts among the nominators, some of the most deserving exemplars of what Dr. Taylor called America’s classical music may pass on before their number is called. 

For now, at least, we can glory in Sonny’s honor and his increasing profile on the American arts scene.  Last summer he became the first jazz musician ever to receive the MacDowell Medal, and this year he’s collected the Presidential Medal of the Arts and now the Kennedy.  In the NewsHour’s feature story, listen for Sonny offering a modest but true "epitaph" of himself.  Over the course of a 60-year-long career in which he’s been cheered by adoring fans and hyperbolic scribes, the intensely self-critical Rollins says, “I knew inside how I was doing, whether I was playing great…or not.” Note that in addition to the broadcast feature, there's a second window with an additional 5:58 of Rollins discussing Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.  In this second segment, I was pleased to hear him mention pianist McCoy Tyner when he said that Coltrane's music (he gives "My Favorite Things" as the example) rose to the level of Bird and Miles.

Sonny's always inspiring, and it's been a real treat of late to hear him on Tavis Smiley and now with Jeffrey Brown talking about his departed colleagues and the music he feels an "obligation" to continue playing and perfecting.

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