Saturday, May 23, 2020

Why Do You Play?

I’ve read a lot of interviews with Sonny Rollins…I really appreciate this most recent one…

It’s actually not an interview but an essay, written by him.  The New York Times ran it on May 18th as part of a series called “The Big Ideas”.  He’s addressing the question, “Why Does Art Matter?”  It’s a short piece yet it seems to encapsulate much of what he’s spoken about over the years.  He begins by prefacing art in relative terms, the concerns of the world we live in; ownership, judgement, money.  But he addresses the big picture head on, speaking of art as infinite, outliving those kinds of concerns.

Here's the link...Sonny Rollins: Art Never Dies

I feel moved to write something about it, which is risky since the article speaks for itself, completely.  It doesn’t require any further commentary from me.  But it’s inspirational and I feel something of a responsibility to take it as seriously as he clearly does.  I should point out that Mr. Rollins is no longer playing the saxophone due to health reasons.  And of course, none of us are able to be out in the world playing our instruments either.  He’s speaking now in a very direct way, still developing his themes, still reaching, even without his horn.  I’m listening and I want to learn something in this present time, about this present time.  And just as in music we have to find ways to internalize the lessons we receive.  I’m going to give it a try…

Reading it brought to mind the question, why do you play?

There can be many answers.  At the same time there is no answer, no reason.  The question itself assumes that music is about something else.  Dependent, conditional upon some greater or lesser reason.

That leads to another question.  Can you make a sound that is not about something else?

Sonny Rollins speaks about playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and developing it improvisationally into something new that stands on it’s own.  He’s played many well known songs over the years.  Regardless of whether you know what his performance is based upon or not, if you’re listening closely, you’re hearing something for the first time.  Even if you think you’ve already heard it.  Is it really about anything else?  Or perhaps it’s about everything else.  Is there a difference?

When I first read his piece I thought he was preferencing the big picture at the expense of the relative, the everyday.   After all, he’s 89 and his perspective is broadening.  These polarities are often seen as being in conflict or at least out of balance in our lives.  So it would seem important to shift from the prevailing emphasis on short term concerns.  But I was still uncertain.

He’s certainly not wrong about the relative state of affairs.  And yet he's speaking more from the big picture than ever before.  He states “Art matters today more than ever because it outlives the contentious political veneer that is cast over everything.”  That speaks of unity between the two.  To me this says art matters, in the relative world, because it’s not beholden to it.  Because it contains the wisdom we need to make it through this life.

Towards the end of the article he says “We’re not here to live forever.”  I haven’t heard him say this before, not quite this way.  It got my attention.  What does this mean?  What’s the small picture in the big picture, or vice versa?

I might venture, that there is something in the act of music.  To identify and address our own pain in this world (which we all have in our own ways) so that we might know something of the joy in being alive.  And to share that.

Sonny Rollins has brought a great amount of joy into this world.  We’re fortunate to be able to hear him, especially now.

Photo of Sonny Rollins Credit American Routes

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