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Four Jazz Musicians Win 2021 Guggenheim Music Fellowships

Fellows receive support for writing new music

Helen Sung
Helen Sung (photo: Margot Schulman)

Four jazz musicians—guitarist Rez Abbasi, bassoonist Katherine Young, and pianists Helen Sung and Elio Villafranca—have been named 2021 Guggenheim Fellows in Music Composition.  The three are among 13 who won in that category and among 184 artists, writers, scholars, and scientists who received fellowships. The amount awarded to each Fellow varies according to the needs and merits of the respective applications.

Since 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation has awarded nearly $400 million to more than 18,000 individuals. According to the press release received at JazzTimes, the Foundation offers “fellowships to exceptional individuals in pursuit of scholarship in any field of knowledge and creation in any art form, under the freest possible conditions. After a rigorous review involving hundreds of distinguished scholars and practitioners, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees appoints Fellows on the basis of past achievement and notable promise for future accomplishments.”

Sung said that the fellowship will enable her to realize a long-hoped-for large-ensemble project. “I’m lucky to have played with a wide range of big bands/large ensembles (including Clark Terry’s Big Badd Band, the Mingus Big Band, the JLCO, and Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse project),” she told JT. “I look forward to carrying all of those beautiful experiences with me as I scale this next ‘compositional’ mountain.” Sung added that she’s also grateful for the timing of the award: “It is a huge encouragement during what has been an incredibly challenging time for artists. And it gives me the confidence to keep living and pursuing the creative life.”

Rez Abbasi
Rez Abbasi (photo: John Rogers)

Abbasi said that he had been considering three different projects. “The most costly and time-consuming is the one I proposed for the Guggenheim,” he explained. “The project is called Blu-Qawwali and it will merge jazz with qawwali music, combining musicians from both improvisatory traditions.” Abbasi was likewise encouraged by the support. “I am truly honored and grateful to be named a Guggenheim Fellow,” he said in the Guggenheim press release. “The award is a concrete affirmation that embracing my intuition and artistic values was the right thing to do.”


For the Cuban-born pianist Villafranca the Guggenheim Fellowship enabled him to finish writing his three-movement piece “Don’t Change My Name,” which honors the rich yet often unheralded Arará tradition in Cuba.  He said that the piece “draws inspiration from the life of a Dahomenian girl who in 1843, at age 15, was captured, brought to Cuba and sold to Julián de Zulueta y Amondo, a notorious slave owner in Perico, who branded her with a hot metal iron as his property and forever changed her name to Florentina Zulueta.”

Elio Villafranca
Elio Villafranca

The piece is divided into three acts (“Tolo-Ño,” “My Name is Na-Tegué,” and “Florentina”) and each one charts the plight of her capture and enslavement of the young woman. It’s written for piano, bass, drums, Batá and Arará percussion, five horns, and a 12-member gospel choir.  Villafranca said that “This piece will not just impact my life, but also the story of ‘Florentina’ will empower young girls and women to become leaders within their communities, while teaching future generations to respect and value the work and sacrifice of our ancestors.”