Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

Tenor saxophone giant, Sonny Rollins, turned 81 on September 7. Last week, he turned in a short but hard-swinging set at UCLA’s Royce Hall. After running through about seven songs, he finished up with “Don’t Stop the Carnival”,  and his word was my command. My Sonny Rollins Weekend began with his Friday appearance on the Tavis Smiley show. Saturday I cleaned the house to the tune of Saxophone Colossus (great for me, though probably not so interesting for you)On Sunday, I reflected on something the giant of Harlem jazz had said on Thursday, about trying versus doing (or was it  doing versus trying?), while presumably he was trying to do what he’s done so many nights before, somewhere on the road to infinity.

Starting with Miles, Monk and Max Roach, Rollins took his own giant step toward direct political and musical fusion on Freedom Suite, the 1958 album on which he was accompanied by bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Roach. “The Freedom Suite,” a nearly 20 minute piece, was the first jazz instrumental to claim social issues as its inspiration.  “America is deeply rooted in Negro culture.  It’s colloquialisms, its humor, its music.  How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own is being persecuted and repressed.  That the Negro who has represented the humanities in his very existence is being rewarded with inhumanity,” wrote Rollins on the album’s original sleeve notes.

Last year, Rollins received the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama. This year, on December 4, he’ll receive his Kennedy Center Honors. Congratulations, Sonny Rollins: Keep on Swinging.


Filed under: Jazz, , , ,

Georgia (Georgia)

Georgia was on my mind this week—in the news, in the news—not once, but twice.  I lived there once upon a kudzu vine, in Atlanta, one block from the railroad tracks, spitting distance from Cabbagetown, the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Ave. and the Carter Center, devoted to “advancing human rights and alleviating suffering.”  I lived on a peaceful patch of urban land, in the most broke down flat on the block, and for the most part, I liked it. As for the rest of ATL’s urban sprawl, there was a whole lot of driving involved; it reminded me of  LA, only greener. I arrived down South, a freethinking, single white female from San Francisco, and was generally told I’d blend in with what was then called the “cosmopolitan” scene there, though I felt more like I’d landed on the moon.  For one thing, it was impossible to get a decent cup of coffee there back in ’89, a fact I never failed to remind my otherwise hospitable Southern pals, who in turn never failed to remind me, what would I know, anyway?  I was, afterall, fresh from “the land of fruits and nuts.”  Nevermind that those so-called fruits and nuts had taught me everything I knew about rock’n’roll at the time, as well as style, attitude and keeping it real (compared to what, I don’t know). Anyway, I don’t see those friends much anymore: We’ve largely gone our separate ways or they’re dead and gone now.  These things happen, though I’ve never really gotten used to them, nor do I like the idea of today here, tomorrow gone, though I’ve learned to accept life’s goings and comings, little inconveniences, and realities.  Part of how I dealt in Atlanta was with Coca-Cola: It pretty much cures everything that hurts.

In Atlanta I found new friends, and much to their horror there were nights I’d venture out alone, without them–a woman on her own—apparently some kind of taboo in the South, only I didn’t know that. So off I’d go, usually to the Colorbox, where musicians and DJs and artists of all kinds didn’t mind if I talked their ears off. They understood that I knew Georgia thanks to Little Richard, James Brown and Blind Willie McTell, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, President Carter and Dr. Martin Luther King.  I also knew that when Flashlight by Parliament played it meant last call on the dancefloor and that my heart would sink because it would be another week before I would see my friends and hear another De La remix turned up that loud again. Outside the Colorbox, and two records stores–Wax ‘n’ Facts and Wuxtry–the other place I felt at home in Atlanta was an hour outside of it in Athens, the college town known primarily as home of R.E.M., the South’s most beloved alternative rock band.  Their music and members once inspired me to do things–to take action in my community, to be a better person, to get into it and get involved. They were partly why I was in Georgia working in the first place.  R.E.M. reinforced for me in the post-punk era that music and message were actually compatible–that you could be human and be a rock star, that you could live, large, make mistakes and fall down, and move on.  And though I largely moved away from their music and the friends that bound me to it, upon the occasion of R.E.M.’s announced break-up this week, following 31 years together as a band, I got to thinking about them and Georgia again, my life and how I’ve  lived it, and all the people that have been and gone.  Me and Georgia were not forever either; ultimately it was a state I had to leave…

It wasn’t so much I got homesick for the West Coast, it’s just that things were different there, in ways that just didn’t set right with the Cali in me. Some people I knew and actually liked exercised their right to bear arms–just because they could–and that was one thing. These were people with whom I thought I had things in common, whose company I enjoyed, and yet, they thought it was also their right to determine my right to choose, and to exercise their right to free speech with nonchalant use of words I’d come to recognize as hate speech.  As a native San Franciscan and proud daughter of the blue state sisterhood, I was born to choose, and there are words I was raised up to never use, no matter what. And yet, there  is one thing on which my homestate and Georgia regrettably agree and that is the death penalty: We both have it and aren’t afraid to put it to use on a semi-regular basis.  And that’s the real reason I was thinking so hard on Georgia this September 21, the International Day of Peace, as it was preparing to execute one of its sons, Troy Anthony Davis, and did.

Some might say that as a music critic, it is not my job to weigh in on matters of life and death, but I disagree: There are some circumstances of this old life that I refuse to accept  and one is the death penalty.  Like former President Jimmy Carter, I reject it, in the name of “advancing human rights and alleviating suffering.”  “The death penalty in our country is unjust and outdated,” says the peanut farmer from Plains and you can call me a fruit and a nut, if you like, but I agree with him. I encourage anyone who feels the same way to take action and get into the reinvigorated effort to abolish the death penalty now. The link takes you directly to Amnesty International, an organization that for 50 years has fought in favor of human rights all over the world—I first heard about it in the ’80s, thanks to rock’n’roll and R.E.M.

(from a longer piece in progress)

Filed under: Georgia, , , , ,

In Memory of Four Little Girls

It was 48 years years ago today that the four Birmingham, Alabama girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, lost their lives during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Today an official marker was rededicated there in their names.

Singer Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in immediate response to her anger following the event,  just three months after the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.  “I shut myself up in a room and that song happened,” she said. From that moment forward, Simone was committed to writing and performing material that would jolt people awake or into action.  The song remains one of her most enduring works.

Filed under: Nina Simone, , , , ,

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