Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Plays Debut Concert, Emphasizing Service
SAM SCHUMAN // NOVEMBER 30, 2018
Last Thursday morning, Oberlin’s inaugural Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble made its debut appearance in Clonick Hall. The ten-piece ensemble is funded by a large donation given to Oberlin last November by prolific jazz saxophone player Sonny Rollins.
After a short introduction and two songs by Bill Evans and Billie Holiday, the group called Rollins on the phone. Their conversation was broadcast to the audience in Clonick Hall.
“He spoke to us on the importance of being generous and kind and sharing our music, but also finding ways to do good in every part of our life, which was really moving especially given that he’s so important to music, not even just jazz music or American classical music,” said Camille Vogley-Howes, a fourth-year dual-degree comparative American studies and jazz performance major who plays violin in the ensemble. “He’s just a legend for many of the people that go through the jazz department.”
Getting into the ensemble, which is directed by jazz guitar professor and jazz studies director Bobby Ferrazza, requires more than just an audition. Applicants must also demonstrate academic achievement and a record of community service, and must give a “thoughtful response to a question about the place of jazz in the world,” says Oberlin College’s website. Members are known as “Sonny Scholars,” and must perform with the ensemble for at least two semesters. They are also required to complete a service-oriented Winter Term project.
This January, the ensemble will travel to New York City, where they will be playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola with guest pianist Sullivan Fortner, who graduated from the Conservatory in 2008. Ferrazza said the group also plans to engage in local outreach while in New York, possibly playing in schools, hospitals or senior centers.
“The humanity element has to be a big presence in everything young players do,” Rollins said when giving the donation in November. “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.”
Rollins chose to give his donation to Oberlin at the suggestion of his close friend James McBride, a well-known writer and musician who graduated from Oberlin Conservatory in 1979. Rollins said he was originally considering giving the donation to other prestigious music schools but was won over by Oberlin’s legacy.
Ferrazza said that Oberlin was a good match for the service-oriented ensemble because of its historic commitment to social justice, citing “the fact that Oberlin admitted African-Americans and women in the 1830’s, the fact that because of that it was a place that Will Marion Cook came in the 1880’s to study violin.” William Marion Cook was a Black violinist who would go on to study with famous romantic composer Antonin Dvorak and later serve as an important mentor to jazz great Duke Ellington.
“I wanted the musicians to not only be good academically, but I thought that it would be very important to recognize what’s important in this world is that you have to give,” Rollins told Ideastream in February. “You have to live by the Golden Rule. Let’s say these Oberlin students repay wherever they got this great musical gift from, that’s what I always wanted to do.”
Conservatory Dean Andrea Kalyn said that the gift “has a singular power to demonstrate for our students the full dimension of their obligation as musicians in this world.”
Rollins, now 88, is a tenor saxophone player widely considered to be one of the best living jazz musicians and one the best jazz improvisers of all time. He has played alongside musicians including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Rollins’ gift also includes one of his instruments, a 1972 Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone. Similar instruments are routinely valued at well over five thousand dollars.
Ferrazza said Rollins is “not only one one of our greatest living jazz musicians but one of the greatest jazz musicians in the history of the art form.”
Students in the ensemble will have their names and service recorded in the Sonny Scholar Ledger, a book displayed by the entrance to the Kohl Building. On the cover of the Ledger is a piece of advice from Rollins: “Trust that later on in life, there’s something bigger for you when you serve others.”