Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble in NYC: 2023

Jazz musicians performing in a nightclub.
The Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble made its second-ever appearance at Dizzy's Club in New York—its first visit since debuting at the famed club in 2019.
Photo credit: Chris Lee

The Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble
Bobby Ferrazza, director

Thursday, January 19, 2023
Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center

“When you’re going to New York City, you don’t just want to play a tune from the jazz canon that people have heard a thousand times, because there’s none of you in it,” Bobby Ferrazza, director of the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, said at the outset of the group’s second-ever runout to the Big Apple. “We want to give them something they can’t hear anywhere else. And when you’re making the tune your own, the excitement goes to the next level as it unfolds. It starts to play itself.”

What unfolded in back-to-back sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola was a jubilant mingling of musicians and mentors, alumni and friends of Oberlin, and avid devourers of jazz—two-plus hours of music that paid homage to the greats and showcased the young talent on stage through uniquely stamped solos and precocious original tunes. Interspersed with classics like Rollins’ “St. Thomas” and “No Moe,” Mingus’ “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” Horace Silver’s “Room 608, the Gershwin standard “The Man I Love,” and songs popularized by Billie Holiday (“Them There Eyes”) and Ella Fitzgerald (“These Foolish Things”) were creative creations by first-year alto sax player George Rodgers and senior guitarist Jacobs Clements, with indelible musical markings left by all eight performers.

In the lead-up to its twin gigs at Dizzy’s as well as early the following morning, the Sonny Ensemble visited schools and music programs in the city and in nearby New Jersey, performing for—and with—students and talking about their craft and life in the conservatory.

“I would be disappointed if I went anywhere else,” senior guitarist Jacob Clements told students at the Jazz House Kids program in Montclair, N.J., when asked why he chose Oberlin. “You get so much care and attention here. I feel like everyone I interact with cares about me. I feel like I’m part of a community and not just going to school.”

The Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble was established at Oberlin through the support of the legendary saxophonist, who charges the group’s standout student performers to serve humanity through music.

“This is important," said James McBride ’79, a bestselling author and musician who was instrumental in connecting Rollins with Oberlin. McBride chatted with the ensemble after taking in their visit with children in his Brooklyn hometown.

“You’re not going to see a school of this level and this caliber come into a neighborhood like this,” he said. “This is a message that teaches the students that are listening and the students that are performing. This is real-world stuff.

“For me, one of the most satisfying parts is hearing how good this group sounds. This is one of the best college jazz ensembles in the world. It’s hard to hold New York City schoolchildren attentive for an hour and a half—you’d better bring something. And they did. I’m very proud of them. This is exactly what Sonny had in mind. This is life-altering.”

The Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble

  • George Rogers, saxophone
  • Jordy Guldman, trumpet
  • Melvin Nimtz, trombone
  • Mitchell Galligan, piano
  • Kamran Curlin, bass
  • Jacob Clements, guitar
  • Noah Nelson, drums
  • Gillian Piper, voice
  • Bobby Ferrazza, director

About the artists

For more than 30 years, Cleveland, Ohio native and jazz guitarist Bobby Ferrazza has performed in concerts across the United States and beyond, with some of the most celebrated jazz musicians in the world, including Donald Byrd, Joey DeFrancesco, Joe Lovano, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, Curtis Fuller, Billy Hart, Robin Eubanks, Gary Bartz, Dan Wall, Marcus Belgrave, Clark Terry, Steve Turre, Bill Watrous, Jack McDuff, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Greg Bandy, Ernestine Anderson, and Vanessa Rubin. Ferrazza’s early jazz studies were with jazz guitar legend Bill deArango. Ferrazza has been on the faculty at Oberlin Conservatory since 1988, and he also taught at Interlochen Arts Academy from 1992-96. At Oberlin, he teaches jazz guitar and he served as the Director of Jazz Studies for many years. He now leads the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble. 

Formed in 2018, the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble was made possible through a generous gift to Oberlin Conservatory by Rollins, the revered jazz saxophonist and composer. 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. Auditions for the "Sonny Ensemble"—a core ensemble based in Oberlin's Jazz Division—are held each year, and all Oberlin jazz students are eligible for inclusion beginning with their first year on campus. The "Sonny Ensemble" made its New York City debut performing two sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in January 2019. The following year, the ensemble made its West Coast debut in the Joe Henderson Lab at SFJAZZ in San Francisco.