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Sonny Rollins Honored Again

Saxophonist receives National Medal of Arts at White House

Sonny Rollins and Bob Cranshaw at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway
Sonny Rollins receives the 2010 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama at an East Room ceremony at the White House on March 2, 2011.
Quincy Jones receives the 2010 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama at an East Room ceremony at the White House on March 2, 2011

The high honors, perhaps long overdue, keep on rolling in for saxophonist Sonny Rollins. His historic 80th birthday concert in New York’s Town Hall three nights after his September 7 birthday was one of the top jazz events of 2010

Then you add in Edward MacDowell Medal, a lifetime achievement award from the Montreal International Jazz Festival, being the subject of an artful and insightful book (John Abbott and Blumenthal’s Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins) and induction into to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary society.

Now, Rollins is on the eve of visiting the nation’s most famous address: 1600 Pennnsylvania Avenue.

On Wednesday March 2, Rollins will be one of 10 recipients of the 2010 National Medal of Arts for outstanding achievements and support of the arts. President Barack Obama will do the honors in an East Room ceremony at the White House. The medal is the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence.

The National Endowment for the Arts, which has announced its intention to eliminate the NEA Jazz Masters awards program going forward, organizes this one as well. And it is good to see jazz have a prominent place.

The other 2010 National Medal of Arts Recipients are theatrical critic, producer and playwright Robert Brustein, pianist Van Cliburn, sculptor Mark di Suvero, poet Donald Hall, musician and producer Quincy Jones (who has firm jazz roots), author Harper Lee, actress Meryl Streep, singer-songwriter James Taylor, and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

What splendid company.

And it is great to see Rollins and Jones help keep the jazz momentum going on this stage. Past jazz honorees include Ella Fitzgerald (1987), Billy Taylor (1992), Cab Calloway (1993), Dave Brubeck (1994), Lionel Hampton (1996), Betty Carter (1997), Benny Carter (2000), Paquito D’Rivera (2005), Wynton Marsalis (2005) and Hank Jones (2008).

Time permitting, you can tune in via the Web to watch tomorrow’s event at 1:45 pm Eastern Time.

UPDATE: JT Managing Editor Evan Haga attended the event. Here’s his report.

Earlier today in a ceremony at the White House’s East Room, President Barack Obama handed out the 2010 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal awards. Among the recipients of Arts Medals were saxophonist Sonny Rollins and composer, arranger, trumpeter and producer Quincy Jones. Before and after the ceremony the “President’s Own” Marine Band performed outside the East Room, and among the repertoire was Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”

Shortly before 2 p.m. the medal recipients filed in-Jones sat next to Rollins, who wore a bright red button-down and sat alongside singer-songwriter James Taylor-and were soon followed by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The president delivered a brief speech that revolved around the myriad functions the arts serve in American life and the profound importance of those functions.

Obama invoked the names of Jones and Rollins to deliver a couple well-timed jokes. “One of the great joys of being president,” he said, “is getting a chance to pay tribute to the artists and authors, the poets and performers who have touched our hearts and opened our minds-or, in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood.”

And later: “I speak personally here, because there are people here whose books or poetry or works of history shaped me. I’ve got these thumb-worn editions of these works of art, and these old records when they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital, that helped inspire me or get me through a tough day or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken.”

After his remarks the president began bestowing the medals, and a moderator introduced each recipient and read a brief description of his or her accomplishments. Awardees Harper Lee and Meryl Streep were unable to attend. Other notables in the audience included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman.

From the White House transcript:

Quincy Jones

The 2010 National Medal of Arts to Quincy Jones for his extraordinary contributions to American music as a musician, composer, record producer and arranger. As a master inventor of musical hybrids, he has mixed pop, soul, hip-hop, jazz, classical, African and Brazilian music into many dazzling fusions, traversing virtually every medium, including records, live performances, movies and television.

Sonny Rollins

The 2010 National Medal of Arts to Sonny Rollins for his contributions to American jazz music. Widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians of the post-bebop era, Mr. Rollins’ melodic sensibilities, playing style and solos have delighted audiences and influenced generations of musicians for over 50 years.

Originally Published