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Sonny Rollins on Race and Jazz's Future

(photo: sonnyrollins.com)

Jazz legend Sonny Rollins joined us on Wednesday to reflect on his storied career and give us his thoughts on the future of music and a whole lot more. To celebrate his 80th birthday, the hugely influential tenor saxophonist – one of the last jazz immortals, who played with fellow greats like Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, and John Coltrane – is embarking on yet another national tour.

Among many other things, Rollins talked about race and jazz.  One listener asked him about the predominantly white audiences for contemporary jazz, and what it means that younger generations of African Americans have flocked to newer forms of expression such as hip-hop. Here’s what he had to say:

SONNY ROLLINS: This is a huge, huge country, and I think America is an experiment. So, there’s still factions. You know, I remember a lot of the jazz clubs we used to play, and eventually we had more white people coming in. And then some of the black people left because they were more white people appreciating it. I mean there are all of these little subtexts going on…It’s silly reasons like that which, you know, harm the general culture, in that everything shouldn’t be appreciated. I think that hip-hop, all of this stuff, is under the jazz umbrella. I think it’s all jazz. I think jazz is just a music force. You know, the real sense of what jazz is really the freedom, yet the sense of right and wrong. Jazz is what America is in a sense…

TOM ASHBROOK: But I wonder: Do you think there is going to be the kind of musicianship out there in the country, that you grew up in the midst of, around jazz that would be familiar to your peers in that hey-day? Is that going to be there, or is it just going to just be in the archives, just in the old recordings? And doesn’t it matter, Sonny?

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, I grew up in a time that was really a golden age. I don’t know if you’ve seen that jazz photograph, that famous jazz photograph, by Art Kane that had all of these different generations of jazz people.

TOM ASHBROOK: And everyone’s there in Harlem, all at once. It’s kind of – you can’t believe it’s true.

SONNY ROLLINS: I know, I know. But it shows that there was a point when there was everybody…it was kind of a golden age. You could hear Willie “The Lion” Smith, you could hear Ornette Coleman, you could hear everybody. Everybody was sort of playing and creating at the same time. But now I believe the future is bright. And music is so unlimited that we never know how these things are going to come about. But they will come about in some unexpected way.

Listen to the full hour with Sonny Rollins. You can also hear some other On Point jazz-related segments from our archives, on both the new and the old. We did a relatively recent show on the legendary pianist Thelonious Monk. And earlier last year, we looked at a new generation of jazz musicians.

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  • Jaye from Kingston, MA

    I was the caller who asked Mr. Rollins why he thought that for what seems like decades now, younger African Americans – even those of my somewhat older generation (I’m 47), seem to have turned away from Jazz and Blues – the only original American art forms.

    This is something I’d been wondering about for a very long time and I believe Mr. Rollins’ take on this phenomenon was right on target.

    Afterward, I realized that instead of implying that the younger African American generations don’t seem to me to have great taste in music, I should have been apologizing.

    I want to apologize now, to all Jazz Artists – especially Mr. Rollins and also to those who create and love the newer types of music that are now popular with younger African Americans. We all know about some of the darker times in our country’s history concerning how African Americans were treated.

    Of course they didn’t want to stay when whites began flooding the Jazz clubs. We hadn’t, and weren’t treating them very nicely (to vastly understate what happened). I’m sorry that we sort of “overran” Jazz performances. I’m also sorry for the things we’d done that made African Americans want to steer clear of us and have their very own cultural identity.

    I was impressed that Mr. Rollins openly, and seemingly comfortably, discussed race and racial issues in the U.S. I wish everyone could do that, but sadly it seems to me that most folks determinedly avoid the subject. I think if we could try to feel more comfortable with these discussions and generously allow each other to make a few little mistakes as we all learn, we might finally be a “united” country.

    Let’s face it, we really still aren’t. It’s my dream that one day we could be. Yes, we’ve made progress – we have a black President. Of course I respect Obama’s Presidency – he won, fair and square.

    Honestly, I was glad that for the first time we had a President who wasn’t a white man – everyone deserves a chance. But even though a black man got elected, we still have plenty of racism and racist attitudes. Look at how the Republicans have seemd to have been trying to shoot down every proposal Obama has made. It seems very transparent to me, and it’s heartbreaking.

    By the way, I love Tom Ashbrook and his show. And great job, On Point staff, always.

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