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Mary Halvorson Wins MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant

The guitarist and composer is the only musician among this year's 26 fellowship winners

Mary Halvorson
Mary Halvorson (photo: courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson has won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known colloquially as a “genius grant.” Along with 25 other fellows announced today (Sept. 25), she will receive a grant of $625,000 doled out over five years.

“From addressing the consequences of climate change to furthering our understanding of human behavior to fusing forms of artistic expression, this year’s 26 extraordinary MacArthur Fellows demonstrate the power of individual creativity to reframe old problems, spur reflection, create new knowledge, and better the world for everyone,” foundation president John Palfrey said in a statement. “They give us reason for hope, and they inspire us all to follow our own creative instincts.”

Halvorson, 39 and the only musician to receive a MacArthur this year, is one of the most innovative and prolific guitarists to have emerged on the jazz scene over the decade or so. Her first album, Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12), a trio date featuring Ches Smith and John Hébert, was released in 2008 and acclaimed for its originality. One of her most recent releases, Code Girl, featured a vocalist singing lyrics written by Halvorson. 

Halvorson, who plays a hollowbody Guild Artist Award guitar and favors a dry, almost reverb-free tone, grew up in Brookline, Mass., and studied with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University as an undergraduate student. She has also studied with the avant-garde guitarist Joe Morris. She moved to New York in 2002 and has maintained an active presence on the scene. In 2017, she headlined her first show at the Village Vanguard, a rite of passage for rising stars in the jazz world. 

In an interview with JazzTimes published last summer, Halvorson said that she had never really thought of herself as a jazz musician, having always regarded the guitar as a kind of neutral vessel. 

“The cool thing about the guitar is it’s not associated as much with a particular genre,” she said. “Whereas, if you think saxophone you’re most likely going to think jazz—even though there is saxophone in other genres. But with guitar, it could be classical, it could be rock and roll, it could be jazz, it could be folk.”