Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins Designates Major Gift to Oberlin

November 13, 2017

By Erich Burnett

portrait of musician Sonny Rollins
Photo credit: John Abbott

Newly created Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Fund will support exemplary conservatory musicians and service efforts.

In a career spanning seven decades, Sonny Rollins has left an indelible mark on the international jazz world.

Now the saxophone legend and composer has done the same for Oberlin.

This fall, Rollins designated a generous gift to Oberlin College for the purpose of establishing and maintaining the Oberlin Conservatory of Music Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Fund.

A phenom in the jazz world while still in his teens, Rollins was already playing and recording with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell by his early twenties. His gift to Oberlin grew out of his friendship with author and musician James McBride, a 1979 graduate of Oberlin College. The gift was made in recognition of the institution’s long legacy of access and social justice advocacy. In particular, Rollins was moved by Oberlin’s place as the first institution of higher learning to adopt a policy to admit students of color and the first to confer degrees to women, and by the contributions of alumni such as Will Marion Cook, a black violinist and composer who studied at Oberlin in the 1880s and who went on to become an important teacher and mentor to Duke Ellington.

Commitment to inclusive excellence and social impact remain foundational to Oberlin’s educational mission, just as Rollins has long derived meaning through service to his fellow man.

“That the legendary Sonny Rollins—an artist of truly extraordinary accomplishment, soulfulness, and character—would entrust Oberlin to steward his legacy is the highest honor, and deeply humbling,” says Dean of the Conservatory Andrea Kalyn. “We are so very grateful to James McBride—whose own life and work stands in testament to Oberlin’s values—for shepherding this gift, which has a singular power to demonstrate for our students the full dimension of their obligation as musicians in this world, to inspire them to fulfill that obligation far beyond their years as students, and so to advance Oberlin’s own legacy of impact.”

Beginning in spring 2018, Oberlin jazz studies majors may audition for the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble—“The Sonny Ensemble.” Students may be accepted into the ensemble through annual auditions at any time during their Oberlin Conservatory education. Qualified incoming students may be accepted into the ensemble upon their decision to attend Oberlin.

Each student’s candidacy will be considered on the basis of four criteria: an audition for Oberlin’s jazz faculty, evidence of academic achievement, thoughtful response to a question about the place of jazz in the world, and service to humanity.

Variable in size, the Sonny Ensemble will perform in flexible configurations in both formal settings and outreach programs, in venues across the region and around the world. Members, called “Sonny Scholars,” must dedicate at least two semesters to performing in the ensemble.

More than a mere spot in an elite unit, membership in the ensemble requires a commitment to service through music and willingness to give for others—core principles exemplified by Rollins throughout his life and career.

Sonny Scholars fulfill this mission in part through a required winter-term project—approved by each student’s principal studio professor—that embodies Rollins’ spirit of giving. In this way and others, each musician in the ensemble is an ambassador not just for jazz, but for all people.

“The humanity element has to be a big presence in everything young players do,” says Rollins, now 87. “People are hungry for a reason to live and to be happy. We’re asking these young musicians to look at the big picture, to tap into the universal power of a higher spirit, so they can give people what they need. Giving back to others teaches inner peace and inner spirituality. Everything is going to be open for them if they devote themselves in this way.”

Each ensemble member’s commitment will be memorialized in the Sonny Scholar Ledger, a volume that declares each musician’s adherence to the principle of giving. The cover of the ledger is emblazoned with these words from Rollins: “Trust that later on in life, there’s something bigger for you when you serve others.”

The first signature is that of Rollins.

The ledger will be permanently displayed in the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, home of Oberlin’s Division of Jazz Studies. The gift also includes a 1972 Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone, mouthpiece, and reed played by Rollins, which will be displayed with the ledger.

“This gift is incredibly powerful for us,” says Bobby Ferrazza, professor of jazz guitar and director of the Division of Jazz Studies. “It creates a direct link for our students to one of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz—and to his ideals. In aspiring to participate in this group, our students will be imbued with the humanity and musical values established by Mr. Rollins himself. The founding principles of the ensemble will be singularly inspirational for our department, today and for generations to come.”

Inaugural auditions for the Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble at Oberlin Conservatory will take place in spring 2018. Additional details will be available at a later date.

Those interested in joining Sonny Rollins in support of this endeavor are invited to visit www.oberlin.edu/donate, email giving@oberlin.edu, or call 440-775-8273.

About Sonny Rollins

Born in New York City in 1930, Walter Theodore “Sonny” Rollins started playing the saxophone at the age of eight, receiving guidance from pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. By the time he finished high school, Rollins was playing professionally in the Harlem clubs near his home. In seven decades of performing, he collaborated with countless jazz luminaries, from Miles Davis to McCoy Tyner, and made more than 60 records showcasing his unsurpassed improvisational chops and distinct compositional voice. Rollins won multiple Grammy Awards, including a 2004 award for lifetime achievement, and was honored with the National Medal of Arts in 2010.

Acclaimed writer and musician James McBride, a 1979 graduate of Oberlin College, praises Rollins not only for his musicianship, but for his “humility, deep spirituality, and a reflective studiousness that included the study of religion, philosophy, and existentialism.”

“His immense musical vocabulary, creative originality, and profound body of work mark him as one of the greatest musicians of any serious music, no matter what name it is given, no matter what era or century in which it was made,” McBride has said of Rollins.

About Oberlin Conservatory

Founded in 1865 and situated amid the intellectual vitality of Oberlin College, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music is the oldest continuously operating conservatory in America and the only major conservatory dedicated primarily to the education of undergraduate musicians. Hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post, Oberlin was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2009. The conservatory incorporated jazz into its curriculum in 1973. In 2010 Oberlin christened the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, home of the Division of Jazz Studies.

Learn more about Oberlin Conservatory

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