Saxophone legend Sonny Rollins has established a fund at Oberlin College to further the study of jazz.
The Sonny Ensemble will be formed this spring. “Sonny Scholars” will be named based on an audition for jazz faculty, academic achievement, thoughtful response to a question about the place of jazz in the world, and service to humanity.
Members will be required to complete a winter term project that embodies Rollins’ spirit of giving.
“The humanity element has to be a big presence in everything young players do,” said 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, which declares each musician’s adherence to the principle of giving. Its cover is emblazoned with these words from the jazz legend: “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 the Oberlin Conservatory Division of Jazz Studies. The gift of financial support also includes a saxophone, mouthpiece, and reed once played by Rollins to be displayed with the ledger.
“This gift is incredibly powerful for us,” said Bobby Ferrazza, professor of jazz guitar and director 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.”
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 graduated in 1888 and who went on to become an important teacher and mentor to Duke Ellington.