Notes From the Backlash

New Yorker humorist Django Gold speaks

In the furor surrounding this humor column, posted in late July on the New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” blog, one party has been mostly silent: the column’s author, Django Gold, a senior writer for The Onion. So we decided to reach out to Gold and commission a guest column on the creation of his piece and the controversy it sparked. EVAN HAGA; EDITOR, JAZZTIMES

Django_gold_small_span3

Django Gold

The idea came to me when I was at my local wash-and-fold a few months back, plugging away at a heap of underwear and shirts recently sprung from the dryer. The laundromat radio was playing some nice bebop, and suddenly I was struck with the memory of a certain type of featurette I’ve often seen whenever PBS or another outlet profiles a jazz musician.

You may have seen one of these mini-documentaries yourself. The footage often consists of a black-and-white shot of the musician playing alone on a stage, lights up. It sometimes will be interspersed with other images that are staples of the jazz-doc playbook: a glowing marquee; framed portraits of various other jazz musicians from the boom days; a pan shot of a musical staff, the camera racing past clusters of eighth notes in time with the tune. And all the while, a voiceover from the subject offers up assorted truisms: “I speak through my music. When I’ve got something to say, I pick up my horn. You can’t overthink it, or you’ll lose the meaning. You’ve got to trust the music.”

As I listened to the radio and matched socks, I idly started thinking up new platitudes that weren’t so sunny—things a bitter musician might spit out after hard decades eking out a living in the jazz world, each one more absurd than the last. And after I brought my fresh laundry home, I started typing.

When the complaints began pouring in about my NewYorker.com piece, “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” they were generally of two types. The first critique was that what I wrote wasn’t funny (a sentiment to which I’m pretty well inured by now). The second was that it wasn’t funny and that I had committed a moral wrong by writing it. That by putting words in Sonny’s mouth that were so critical of “his” music, I had committed a grave injustice against Jazz Music from which the art form would not recover. A controversy was born!

Here’s the thing: I do like jazz. I like it a lot. I’ve worn out the grooves on records from all these guys: Joe Pass, Chico Hamilton, John Coltrane, Jimmy Giuffre, Eric Dolphy. And, of course, Sonny Rollins. But just because I like something doesn’t mean that it’s off-limits for being made fun of. And the overly academic, overly lionizing sentiment that pervades so much of jazz writing and the music’s general presentation is certainly something that is ripe for satire. So when I came up with all those ridiculous quotes, I never once thought of what I was doing as a response to jazz music. It was, rather, a response to that staid PBS narrative I felt could use a tweak.

And, for the record, what I wrote wasn’t even about Sonny Rollins, not really. I only chose him as the “author” of the piece because he’s among the last living legends of the classic jazz era. It just wouldn't have worked with a Branford Marsalis type. So I dropped Sonny’s name into the title and didn’t think much more of it—though, before my essay went live, I had actually fantasized that maybe Sonny himself might somehow come across it and read it. Maybe he’d even respond to it!

Boy, did he ever. It was so very surreal to have a man whose music has given me so much enjoyment come out and accuse me of trying to kill jazz—flattering too, in a sense. I was sorry that he didn’t like what I wrote, and I do apologize if I offended him or ruined his day. That absolutely was not my intent. But I was disappointed that he apparently didn’t see any value in even joking about jazz music in the first place. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from a lot of angry people who only seem to have a sense of humor when it comes to those topics that they personally find acceptable. And they evidently would prefer that the rest of us keep a lid on the others. Pretty square, if you ask me. You’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself or you’ll never get through this thing.

And, despite what some have alleged, I’m dubious that I succeeded in having any impact on Sonny’s legacy, Google Search results be damned. This is Sonny Rollins, OK? As someone pointed out, he’s released 50-odd albums, written hundreds of songs and played on God knows how many session dates. He’s a tower. He’s the Colossus. And I don’t think my silly little jokes can touch that.

Home-page photo of Sonny Rollins by Tim Dickeson.

19 Comments

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 11:33AM Somebody

    "The second was that it wasn’t funny and that I had committed a moral wrong by writing it. That by putting words in Sonny’s mouth that were so critical of “his” music, I had committed a grave injustice against Jazz Music from which the art form would not recover. A controversy was born!"

    A bit of humility wouldn't go amiss, Mr. Gold. By presenting criticism of your article in this way you simultaneously belittle the criticism. Obviously the article wasn't funny, that goes without saying, but your moral mistake was to specify the musician, rather than just writing the article in the abstract. This makes it a personal attack. By the way I admittedly have difficulty imagining how anybody who knows anything about jazz could have taken it seriously, but that doesn't let you off the hook.

    "So I dropped Sonny’s name into the title and didn’t think much more of it"

    You are not a very reflective person, are you? He is a human, with feelings, of a certain age, who never deserved any of this crap.

    "You’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself or you’ll never get through this thing. "

    A truism, but meaningless in this context. Your article was rather cruel, and I don't think cruelty is very funny, but maybe we disagree there.

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 11:57AM shepdave

    In my humble opinion, two things might have made the article funny:

    1. Run the idea by Sonny first. If he doesn't go for it, approach another living jazz legend. There are still several around. Find somebody who would've been into the idea. It might even have been Mr. Rollins himself, if you and the New Yorker hadn't blindsided him.

    2. Publish it somewhere other than the pages of the New Yorker, which has in the past run many other legitimate (non-satirical) "In-my-Words" kinds of things from real jazz artists.

    I agree with Somebody's comment 8/18/14, 11:33 AM (ET): You could really use some humility as a humor writer, Mr. Gold. To suggest that jazz fans are just somehow humorless because they didn't "get" this piece is more than a little conceited. Any honest standup comedian will tell you that if a joke bombs, it's not the audience's fault.

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 12:12PM Frank Federico

    The irony here is that had Mr. Gold run this piece for his main employer, The Onion, we'd all have gotten a good chuckle out of it. True, some people still might not have gotten it, but we could consider the source. Running this in the New Yorker, with all the gravitas that name bestows, just confused a lot of people, including myself.

    If this had been my work, I would have run it under some ridiculously fictitious name like "Two-Fingers Johnson" or "Crazy Legs McGee."

    Or consider this: substitute "Kenny G" for "Sonny Rollins," and re-read...

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 01:42PM JazzFan4206969

    What no one seems to be talking about is that after this cruel New Yorker piece ran, Mr. Gold (if that is his real name) snuck into Sonny's home in Woodstock and punch him in the balls while he was sleeping. #MoralMistake. You gotta leave the man's balls out of it, Django (again... if that is even your real name, you coward).

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 02:02PM Joe Garden

    And if people don't get Jazz, it's the musician's fault, not the listener's.

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 02:03PM statebrand1126

    Why do people think this is an attack? It's not anything more than harmless satire. Let's all move on and stop taking things so seriously. Life is too short.

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 02:33PM labwat

    Regardless of what the sanctimonious, humorless, aged quasi-intelligentsia might say, Mr. Gold, you did a phenomenal job on a very funny piece and you should be proud of the controversy that has emerged. I can only hope that the many aspiring young players (except those alleged masses who genuinely concluded, despite the absence of a byline and the fact that it was patently satirical, that Rollins had written it and was inexplicably telling them to give up on their very hopes and dreams) who found your piece funny and thought-provoking don't become too embittered by the offensively censorious reaction on the part of a bunch of unobservant, out-of-touch dinosaurs and give up completely. We know that this fate has tragically already befallen Justin Moyer, but such is life.

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 04:04PM Jeff Glovsky

    For what it's worth, I thought the original NewYorker.com piece, and most of the jazz community's overwrought response to it -- equally split between defending the genre, and feeling some need to "defend" Sonny Rollins -- were hilarious.

    I agree with commenter Frank Frederico, above: it's all about context. If Sonny Rollins grousing, "I hate jazz", had run in The Onion, nobody would have said a word. Mr. Rollins, in fact, being a self-described longtime fan of Mad magazine ... and otherwise widely read, well-informed, a seeker of truth and a digger of humor ... would have laughed with the rest of us.

    Or, hypothetically, let's say Mr. Gold's piece had been, "Paul McCartney: Behind My Music" ... in which "Paul" admits to being ashamed of The Beatles ... He'd always wanted to be a welder, and felt his life in music was wasted. It was Ringo who wrote "Yesterday", and Paul was in a Wings tribute band, touring each summer with Styx and Kansas, wondering why ...

    Nobody would have cared about that, either. There would have been acceptance of an obvious joke.

    Why did jazz forget to laugh?

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 04:29PM JonA

    So the real target was not Sonny Rollins, but PBS-style Jazz documentaries? Oh well, that's different - clearly a hot-button issue that cried out for your expert skewering, worth any careless collateral damage. But...laundry? Seriously? Are you sure you weren't just wanking?

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 06:10PM statebrand1126

    So you mean to tell me Jazz fans are above any sort of harmless dig at the genre, but they're not above making masturbation jokes, and groin shot humor? Good to know

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 06:10PM statebrand1126

    So you mean to tell me Jazz fans are above any sort of harmless dig at the genre, but they're not above making masturbation jokes, and groin shot humor? Good to know

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 06:10PM statebrand1126

    So you mean to tell me Jazz fans are above any sort of harmless dig at the genre, but they're not above making masturbation jokes, and groin shot humor? Good to know

  • Aug 18, 2014 at 09:03PM pouchak

    This is really easy — People aren’t really mad at the idea of satirizing jazz. They’re mad because the satire wasn’t clear at the outset. Django Gold never actually addressed this, and certainly not in this piece. He's just maintained how wrong people were to not get it.

    Sonny Rollins’s is 83, largely out of the public eye, and hadn’t been heard from in a while. When this came out, people were worried about his health. And since it wasn’t clear that he didn’t write it, people that looked up to him were worried that he was okay. That hurt Sonny, which the author also never addressed.

    Sonny responded that 1) yes, he got the joke, and that 2) the joke had actual implications that ended up hurting. That’s where the outrage comes from, and unfortunately, a not insignificant repercussion of jokes is that they have actual implications outside the joke. The idea that he should have immunity from outrage because he was making a joke is not really valid. The author is disappointed that Sonny wasn’t all in on his joke as if Sonny owes him something. As if Sonny’s reaction to the joke was some performance that the author gets to grade.

    There’s a great twitter account that lots of jazz fans follow called @jazzistheworst. It is brutally satirical and totally spot on. Really, no jazz fans get mad at it. The satire is not the problem. This condescending entitlement, that’s what’s pissing people off.

  • Aug 19, 2014 at 08:52AM Joemick14

    Jango, I read some of the criticism of your New Yorker article, and found it somewhat shocking. That there are so many humorless dolts out there is hard to believe. I always kind of thought that Jazz fans were the laid-back type who could smile at things other people didn't. Boy was I wrong. You mention the that there have been generally two reactions to the piece and you described them well. But I think the real vitriol that has been aimed at you comes from a third type of reaction: people who read the article, didn't realize it was a satire, and thought for a half-minute that their hero, Sonny Rollins, really though that way about his life. When they realized they were stupid for thinking that and felt stupid themselves, they aimed all that deep-seated embarrassment at you. They weren't in on the joke, didn't get it, and that makes them angry. That's the only explanation for such personalized criticism being hurled your way. Screw 'em. I like Jazz. I like Sonny Rollins. And I though your piece was hilarious. I'm not going to comment on my disappointment that he didn't like the joke himself and if that was damaging to his legacy or not.

  • Aug 20, 2014 at 05:13PM Rick Stone

    As a jazz musician, I'm no stranger to some pretty dark and often self-deprecating humor. We're some of the worst when it comes to this stuff and a lot of non-musicians probably don't even "get" half the jokes. The biggest problem with Mr. Gold's article was that it just plain wasn't funny. So unfunny that a lot of folks didn't even get that it was a joke at first (although that's kind of on them since if they'd read his bio down at the bottom and knew he wrote for the Onion, that should've tipped them off). But just like that idiot Alex Hoffman (a great musician, but a total social misfit) after his "F@#k Wayne Shorter" rant, Mr. Gold is receiving a lot of underserved publicity over this. If you want to read some truly dark (but funny!) jazz humor, go check out Bill Anscell's "Careers in Jazz" http://www.billanschell.com/documents/Careers_in_jazz_002.pdf Meanwhile I'd advise Mr. Gold to write about things he actually understands.

  • Aug 21, 2014 at 10:26PM michaelsimmons

    The most obvious hedder for this piece would have been DJANGO GOLD: IN HIS OWN WORDS.

    Also, given Gold's penchant for infinite irony, how do we know he actually wrote this?

  • Aug 22, 2014 at 06:23PM Jason Paul Harman Byrne

    Mr. Gold,

    Your "article" was not funny in any way, shape or form, nor was it entertaining on any level; whether you were satirizing jazz, rock, metal, whatever, it flat-out sucked. I don't believe this is a matter of opinion, but one of fact. On top of that, it was a complete insult to Sonny Rollins, and potentially damaging to his career. What you should have done was create some fictional jazz musician/character and credited these words to him, but even then it would have sadly remained ridiculous and a waste of precious space in The New Yorker, space that could have been devoted to a positive piece on the great value of this music.

    You also chose to put words in Miles Davis' mouth, portraying him as being held captive in a performer's role, having to painfully get through yet another show.

    For the uninitiated, or for the reader who took this at face value, you may have forever changed their opinion of these giants and legends, and their opinion of this great music.

  • Aug 22, 2014 at 07:56PM TritoneSub7

    The New Yorker article was hilarious while still outlining how much time Sonny put into his art. I think people are taking this way too seriously.

    I would love to see a video mockumentary like Django described above. Think we can start a Kickstarter campaign to see that reality?

    Also, after checking out his Twitter feed, that's comedy gold as well.

  • Aug 25, 2014 at 01:53PM ruthprice

    I have presented jazz artists at the Jazz Bakery here in L.A. since 1992. Prior to that, beginning in the late 1950s, I worked steadily as a singer with a lot of the players we now consider legends. Not bragging, just letting you know I have been privy to many conversations among jazz musicians.

    One of the indisputable qualities they share is a finely tuned (pun if you wish) sense of humor that skews frequently to the “inside.” And they most definitely enjoy a laugh at their own expense.

    When they didn’t think your article was funny, it wasn’t necessarily because of a need to defend Sonny Rollins’ unassailable reputation – perhaps it’s because you’re just not an amusing writer. Please go back to folding laundry and try again.

    Ruth Price
    President & Artistic Director, The Jazz Bakery

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!