“The whole thing seems designed not to let Sonny talk,” said my companion last night at the event that Washington Performing Arts Society advertised as “A Conversation with Sonny Rollins.” Perhaps the more accurate “An Evening of Jazz Scholar/XM Radio Host Dick Golden Telling Irrelevant, Self-Serving Stories and Occasionally Asking Sonny Rollins to Respond to Them” was too long for the handbills.
During the 90-minute program at the Freer Gallery, Rollins spoke for perhaps 25. Five minutes was occupied by audience questioners; the remaining hour was a waste. Golden filled it by recounting his own encounters with Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Gary Giddins, and others; these were often connected to some tenuous end, Golden turning to Sonny and saying “How did YOU feel about him?” Mostly, though, they emphasized how well-traveled Golden was in jazz circles and how much he loved hearing himself speak.
Even more dubious, Golden frequently paused to play recordings—none of which were Rollins’, but were instead by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra—assumedly because these had greater value in understanding Rollins’ musical development than, say, Rollins actually discussing his musical development.
Despite these concerted attempts to trivialize him, Rollins had some interesting things to say. He talked about the importance of growing up in a musical family, and in Harlem during its Renaissance. Asked about his creative process, he discussed it in terms of the burden he places on himself when he goes onstage: “It’s not about whether the audience is good or bad. It’s up to me to give them something good or bad.”
In this case, however, it was also up to the evening’s host to give us a good or bad experience with Sonny Rollins. By that standard, it was a train wreck.