Tuesday, December 27, 2011

For a Night, Jazz Shines in America

Sonny Rollins receives Kennedy Center Honor on CBS television

It actually happened a few weeks ago, the night Theodore Walter Rollins was among people from the arts receiving the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., in front of the President and First Lady and hundreds of people associated with the arts. But the event aired tonight (Dec. 27) on CBS television … a national network. Once upon a time that might not be a big deal for jazz, but in recent decades, national exposure is rare. And who better to be the man this year than Sonny. Age 81 and still going strong.

It’s awarded annually for exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts. Sonny, the great living master of jazz, has repeatedly said it is one he accepted for people like Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk and their ilk … the greats he admired who never got to attain such awards. He appreciates that through the award, jazz--America’s classical music, as he and others dub it--gets exposure through the event. (Sonny also received, earlier this year, the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the U.S. government. He felt similarly about that award).

[Photo: Sonny Rollins at Newport Jazz Festival, 2008, © R.J. DeLuke]

It was a good night for jazz. The network spent about 20 minutes on Meryl Streep, well known as one of the great actresses. You can’t find anyone who doesn’t know who she is. Sonny’s portion followed on the broadcast, and they didn’t scrimp. It was about the same length, started by a witty, yet to-the-point, intro by Bill Cosby, a valued friend of jazz, and including a short bio film summarizing Rollins’ career. Short, but this is TV. It was still presented to a national audience and was fair treatment.

Then the public got some real sweet jazz performed by musicians like Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, who were great, backed by people like Christian McBride, Billy Drummond, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette. Jimmy Heath was there, as was Roy Hargrove. Truncated for TV, yes, but what there was, was a fine taste of jazz. Yo Yo Ma, another of the honorees, was digging it, as the cameras cut to the box where the honoress were seated. So was Michele Obama, who Sonny says is the REAL jazz fan of the First Family, formed by a long time of listening to the music in her household while growing up. The great Rollins classic “St. Thomas” ended the musical segment, even though many watching probably didn’t know the song.

I’ve seen networks give jazz VERY short shrift on occasions when it could have done sooooo much better. CBS gets a thumbs up this time from me. It was a good night. The jazz was cookin' and presented with some elegance to the nation. And Sonny is surely happier about that than his own accolades. All over the world, he notes, people love jazz. But he feels the U.S. needs to do more. The government needs to do more to help the musicians who play it, and help get the music to wider ahttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifudiences.

It had to be a great weekend--the weekend of Dec. 4 when it actually took place and was filmed by CBS--for the saxophone colossus. He was toasted by Bill Clinton and lauded by Obama (not on the telecast). But fun? “Well, not fun. It’s not exactly my style,” Rollins said to me last week. Sonny is a private man, modest. He knows his place in the pantheon of the music, but his life is about learning, exploring music, and “trying to get along and do the right things.”

So as the audience gave him a great ovation on a couple of occasions, Sonny stood, modest but distinctly noble, and accepted the admiration. But he’http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifs already on to his next thing. Off the road for a bit, his tour schedule is being compiled for 2012 and there are other things on the horizon. (Story on Sonny coming to All About Jazz near you, soon).

Viva Sonny Rollins. And let’s hope his desire to see jazz blossom more on its native soil, like it has around the globe, comes to fruition.

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