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A Paean for Sonny Rollins


and then again at the heavenly Jazz festival of the gods…
from America back to Africa leading us wretched earthly clods
wearing our mortal bodies as we appealed for help from above
to sort out this mess we made listen as we plead our case thereof
shackled to the very lives we’ve lost to slaughter
of our own black and brown… sons and daughter
lynched as sport for a god so white
we’ve been blind to all but this very blight
toxin of our sap we drank even as we danced
to the very Jazz and blues that cried out for a chance
to be heard by every one of us… those who fell from grace
with no safety net… nothing to hold us as we descended to Hades

We awoke then you and I in a Bacchanalians, I with wine
but you with the needle in the arm tossed by Monk and Miles
drifting aimlessly searching for a stage and your story to tell
Oyo Ṣàngó air in your lungs ready…set… go… hot as hell
And yet for you, O immortal Apollo, what strife did you turn
to music rasping, luscious as raw silk on the gleaming sunburned
brawn of the negro body? O how my tongue longs
to pour praise like libations of sweet honey… sing a song
as mighty as the ones you made with Lion and Wolff
and Les Koenig Way Out West…all as you eyed the self,
deeper than anyone else had or can… you came
out guns in a blaze of dazzling fire flame eating flame
you purged your soul once again with mighty tenor
you wielded notes and phrases like a hammer

of beaten steel, a signal of the times that change
was coming again though it was still you not some strange
incarnation of the old Sonny we knew, yet still
Sonny born again… born anew as with the same old skill
at making the story of songs come alive and true
just as you did with Woody n’ You, Sonnymoon for Two
All the Things you Are and on What is This Thing Called Love
everything was just the way you always were a treasure trove
of melodic invention hurled at us with brimstone and fire
of youth welded into the wisdom of the ages… a higher
intelligence we we’re not used to… certainly not the choir
you summoned from the sky above Kilimanjaro
where other gods roar like you evading the horror below

Happily, your songs have helped us drown out the noise we made
elevating minor poets and saxophonists to your celestial grade
high above the clouds of Olympus leaving you wondering then why
and what possesses mere mortals to pursue you? You say you retire
But remembering what monumental jazz you gave us
right after that lonely Williamsburg bridge hiatus
Yes, Sonny… till you pick up your tenor and begin to rail
again at the way we are, this I pray: don’t stop the carnival
pick up your tenor and play
Let Jazz through hope prevail

Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.


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