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Saxophonist/Composer Miguel Zenón Awarded $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship

Miguel Zenón, a young jazz saxophonist and composer, is among the recipients of the 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, a cash award of $500,000. Zenón, like all other recipients of the prize, learned about the no-strings-attached award during an “out of the blue” telephone call. He was unaware that he was being considered for the honor, and was not told who had chosen him to receive it.

According to a press release, Zenón is described as “a musician who is expanding the boundaries of Latin and jazz music through his elegant and innovative musical collages. As both a saxophonist and a composer, Zenón demonstrates an astonishing mastery of old and new jazz idioms, from Afro-Caribbean and Latin American rhythmical concepts to free and avant-garde jazz. Beginning with his 2001 recording Looking Forward, Zenón has exhibited a high degree of daring and sophistication in the manipulation of conventional jazz forms. His third album, Jíbaro (2005), illuminates his intense engagement with the indigenous music of his native Puerto Rico.”

Contacted in Monterey, Calif., where he was scheduled to perform at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival that evening, Zenón told JazzTimes of his reaction to the phone call: “I was surprised! I didn’t expect it at all,” he said. “I’ve heard about it before, and I know of some jazz musicians that have won it before. But I was totally shocked. The whole thing was really mysterious. They called me and said, ‘Don’t tell anybody about this call.’ It was like some kind of secret agent thing. I’m still kind of dealing with the aftermath. They asked me if I know what this is, and I said yeah and they said, ‘Well, you won one.'”

Zenón received a B.A. (1998) from the Berklee College of Music and an M.A. (2001) from the Manhattan School of Music. His additional recordings include Ceremonial (2004) and Awake (2008). He has performed at venues and in festivals throughout the United States and abroad, including the Jazz Standard, the Village Vanguard and Carnegie Hall.

The $500,000 will be paid out in five even chunks over a five-year period. Recipients may use the money in any way they see fit, or they can just hold onto it. “You could take a long sabbatical,” said Zenón. “But I really hope I can take advantage of it in a creative way and do things that are gonna live up to it. I also got a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on this project that has to do with plano music from Puerto Rico. I’m doing some research on it and writing some music that is based on the plano music style, for my band. Hopefully we’ll go into a studio some time this year.

“There are many things I want to do, different plans and ideas that I have. This is definitely going to help bring it into reality. And of course it’s a very prestigious thing so hopefully it will open up more doors and more work. This is gonna help, definitely.”

Originally Published