September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Sonny Rollins. Excuse me while I duck for a few seconds, after which I have some explaining to do.
Many of my friends believe jazz, on the whole, is overrated. I think jazz, on the whole, is underrated. From either perspective, jazz is consigned to the margins of American mass perception, and, nothing, not even Ken Burns’s mighty mojo hand, can coax it toward the center.
That makes it especially hard to single out any musician as being more underrated or under-appreciated than most. I could start with Henry (“Red”) Alien, the swing trumpet master and unsung influence on modernist horn players. But this leads to a cavalcade of “what abouts,” as in what about … Herbie Nichols, Sonny Stitt, Chris Conner, Phineas Newborn, Oliver Nelson, Gloria Lynne, Jabbo Smith, Frank Strozier, and just about every vibraphonist or sideman you can name.
The overrated side of the ledger presents similar dilemmas. There have been and will continue to be artists whom one believes to have won popularity points with the general public by holding back, selling out, or buying in. The logic goes: If a jazz musician strikes the pop mother lode, there’s got to be something fishy.
But throwing rocks or cold shoulders at such varied crowd pleasers as Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Maynard Ferguson, Erroll Garner, and Keith Jarrett becomes an empty exercise with its own built-in trap. To wit: An artist can be so widely and forcefully regarded by the jazz cognoscenti as overrated that he or she can be nudged into the “so overrated they’re underrated” column. (And what, by the way, is so wrong with pleasing the crowds?)
Then there are the hard-core musical reactionaries whose antipathy toward anything remotely avant-garde makes them single out any cutting-edge adventurer—Omette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Taylor—as overrated. As with anything else, it’s all a matter of perspective. And within the narrow confines of jazz, perspective can get awfully skewed.
Which brings us to Sonny Rollins. No one with any knowledge of the subject would deny that during the late 19505 and part of the early 19605, Rollins recorded some of the most daring and imaginative improvisations in jazz history. That someone of such indelible achievement continues to play into his seventies arouses misty-eyed gratitude from fans who seek out his live performances as if each were its own Sermon on the Mount.
When he’s on, he’s still capable of magic. When he’s not on … well, to many critics (I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone else), it doesn’t seem to matter. They greet every lick, every chorus, unresolved or not, as if it were a masterpiece.
Make no mistake: The Colossus can still stand and deliver riveting drama on his good nights. But if everything he does is magnificent, then where’s the measurement for his—and every other musician’s—worthiness?
Still, if critics can overrate RoIlins, the public at large greatly undervalues him. By rights, Rollins should be as widely recognized a musical deity as such recently departed icons as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and, yes, even Frank Sinatra. But the mainstream regards him, when it chooses to regard him at all, as being at once too large and too remote, someone whom only the refined and elevated of taste can enjoy.
This, to put it politely, is nonsense, especially in light of the Colossus’s most recent recordings, Global Warming and This Is What I Do (both on Milestone) They are openhearted, laid-back, and listener-friendly without undue compromise. Critics have deemed them RoIlins’s best albums in many years. (On this, at least, attention must be paid, since the critics don’t often cut Rollins as much slack on records as when he’s playing live.)
Meanwhile, the mainstream shrugs and scratches its head, just as it does with jazz in general. What’s it going to take?