Sonny Rollins Named 2010 Edward MacDowell Medalist

Saxophonist is the first jazz composer to be honored by the MacDowell Colony

Sonny Rollins image 0
John Abbott

Sonny Rollins

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins was named by the MacDowell Colony as the recipient of the 2010 Edward MacDowell Medal. Rollins will receive the medal on Sunday, August 15 at a special presentation at the Colony, located in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He will be presented with the award by Robert MacNeil, chairman of The MacDowell Colony, along with Cheryl Young, the Colony’s executive director. Writer Gary Giddins, who was chairman of this year’s Medalist Selection Committee, will introduce Rollins.

The MacDowell Medal has been awarded annually since 1960 to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to his/her field, but this year marks the first time the Colony has recognized the field of jazz. Rollins joins an impressive list of past recipients, including writer Alice Munro, architect I.M. Pei, dance choreographer Merce Cunningham, and painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Among past recipients in the music field are: Aaron Copland (1961), Edgard Varese (1965), Roger Sessions (1968), William Schuman (1971), Walter Piston (1974), Virgil Thomson (1977), Samuel Barber (1980), Elliott Carter (1983), Leonard Bernstein (1987), David Diamond (1991), George Crumb (1995), Lou Harrison (2000), and Steve Reich (2005).

The MacDowell Colony, founded in 1907, is the nation’s oldest artists’ colony. It was founded by Marian MacDowell, a pianist. She and her husband Edward, a composer, had bought a farm in Peterborough, where they spent their summers working on their creative projects. When Edward MacDowell, one of America’s great early composers, fell ill, he told his wife that he wanted other artists to be able to create there. Before his death in 1908, Marian followed through on creating an artistic community on the grounds of their New Hampshire property, where artists could work in an isolated and idyllic place away from distraction of the pressures of daily life, and also surrounded by creative artists in a wide range of disciplines.

Over the last 100+ years, the Colony provided crucial time and space to more than 6,000 artists, including such notable names as Thornton Wilder, Aaron Copland, Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Spalding Gray, and more recently Alice Walker, Alice Sebold, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Suzan-Lori Parks, Meredith Monk, and many more.

“I’m proud and pleased to be selected to receive this very special prize,” Rollins said in a press release received at JT. “Edward MacDowell’s spirit engaged me many years ago when, as a child, I was inspired by his composition ‘To a Wild Rose.’ Later, I had the opportunity to make it a part of my repertoire, performing it on many occasions and eventually recording it. Somehow I feel I’m getting to meet him again.”

In the same press release, Giddins said, “Much as The MacDowell Colony represents to countless artists a matchless paradise for inspired, uninterrupted creativity, this year’s Medalist represents the zenith of his art. Perhaps more than any other artist since World War II, Sonny Rollins has personified the fearless adventure, soul, wit, stubborn individuality, and relentless originality that is jazz at its finest. From the time he began recording, at 19, he was recognized as a major talent; his innovative approach to the tenor saxophone was endlessly copied, and his original compositions frequently adapted. But in jazz, composer and performer are often one and the same, and perhaps his key achievement has been the forging of an improvisational method that has given the idea of theme-and-variations a renewed vitality. His singular music is at once reassuring in its fortitude and daring in its detours. Incapable of faking emotion or settling for rote answers to the challenges of creating music in the moment, he keeps us ever-alert to the power of the present.”

Joining Giddins on the Medalist Selection committee were composer and founder of the Skymusic Ensemble, Carman Moore; composer, musician, and noted professor Dr. Valerie Capers; and Dan Morgenstern, jazz historian, critic, and current director of Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies.