on the sonny side

the 2011 kennedy center honors honorees. back row: yo-yo ma, meryl streep and neil diamond. front row: sonny rollins and barbara cook.

If you were to judge by the TV promos running over the past week on CBS, tonight’s broadcast of the annual Kennedy Center Honors boils down to the Meryl Streep and Neil Diamond Show with a few extra guests.

Never mind how Streep is one of the most accomplished and versatile screen actresses of our age and fully deserving of such notice. Never mind that Diamond seems a wildly peculiar choice for the program, especially given the pop and rock celebrities honored in recent years (from Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey in 2008 to Bruce Springsteen in 2009 to Paul McCartney in 2011 to – seriously? – Neil Diamond?) And never mind that two other honorees – world class cellist and all around musical journeyman Yo-Yo Ma and heralded Broadway/cabaret vocalist Barbara Cook – are undeservedly treated like also-rans in the TV spots.

No, we would like to give a quick tip of the hat to the evening’s remaining honoree – the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. At 81, Rollins is one of the last remaining members of a jazz vanguard that re-revolutionized the music in a career that has now lasted for more than six decades.

A famously self-effacing personality with one of the most alert sax tones of this or any jazz generation, Rollins has played Lexington on at least three occasions over the years as part of the Spotlight Jazz Series

During a brief meeting with him following his last local outing (in September 2000), Rollins turned the tables and asked a question of me.

“Tell me something, do you dislike it when people call you ‘Walt?’”

Rollins was very much in earnest. His full given name is Theodore Walter Rollins.

Caught slightly offguard, I said no, even though I form an almost immediate distrust of people who address me as Walt when I first meet them. I muttered something to Rollins like, “Well, I’ve been called a lot worse.”

Rollins didn’t blink. He didn’t alter his facial expression one iota. Instead, he looked me dead in the eyes and gave this polite but deadly serious reply.

“I hate it when people call me Walt.”

To play things safe, just call him Sonny. Should you require a more exact introduction, might I suggest a pair of albums released in 2011 sporting sets of concert music separated by nearly 45 years.

The first, Live in Munich 1965, offers a previously unreleased trio performance with bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson and drummer Alan Dawson (both of whom have since passed away). The recording quality is just a few notches about bootleg quality, but Rollins’ tenor tone is absolutely lustrous.

The second, Road Shows, Vol. 2, sports roughly 50 minutes from a 2010 concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre honoring the saxophonist’s 80th birthday. Over 1/3 of that time is taken up by a riveting take of the Rollins original Sonnymoon for Two performed in tag-team fashion with alto sax/free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.

The tune will be part of a medley played by fellow sax giants Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Benny Golson and Ravi Coltrane (and introduced by Bill Cosby) during tonight’s telecast.

The Kennedy Center Honors airs at 9 tonight on CBS-TV.

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