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Bravo Sonny Rollins, Boo the Kennedy Center

Tom Reney has a beef with the Kennedy Center Honors

Sonny Rollins and President Obama

Was there a single jazz musician in the audience for the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony last month? Besides Sonny Rollins, that is, who was one of the five honorees. From what I saw on the CBS telecast of the ceremony, the only jazz musicians in the house were those hired hands who were on stage playing in Sonny’s honor. Is it possible that no other jazz players were there? It’s more likely that the show’s producers wouldn’t recognize a jazz musician even at close range, so all we got were long shots of the Obamas and movie and pop stars. At least the President and First Lady looked like they’d heard jazz before they got to the Center, and surely they appreciated Bill Cosby’s irony-laced introduction. But how many people in that bejeweled crowd had ever heard a note by the Saxophone Colossus?

Granted, it was great to see Sonny getting the honor, to watch the montage of images from his career and hear the narrative voiced by Cosby. Cos described his own surprise encounters with people in far flung places abroad who in the midst of their daily routines were listening to Rollins, then concluded his remarks by welcoming Sonny “home” to his native land. But notwithstanding the primacy of jazz in American performing arts, the music long ago lost its appeal for the masses, and even the curious may know little about its history and Newk’s place in it. Thus while Cosby’s comments spoke to his personal admiration for Rollins, the occasion called for something more, the kind of critically-grounded statement that a Stanley Crouch or Gary Giddins or Bob Blumenthal could have provided. But a teaching moment like this was squandered, while the most resonant image may have been the sign of Rikers Island displayed among Rollins’s personal landmarks.

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