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Sonny Rollins Establishes Oberlin Ensemble to Give Back

It was a letter that helped jazz legendSonny Rollins make up his mind.

The 87 year old jazz legend, whose life life-long mission has been to give back to others wanted to award a major gift to one of the schools that had  honored him with a doctorate.

The question became: “where?”

Rollins who has received honorary degrees from a number of institution was considering Berklee College of Music, The New England Conservatory and Julliard School.

When James McBride, the award-winning fiction author and musician heard about Rollins’ plan, he sent the saxophonist a letter with a suggestion.

“Why not Oberlin?” 

McBride, a 1979 graduate of Oberlin College began corresponding with Rollins, making the case that McBride’s alma mater was the right place for the kind of gift Rollins had in mind.

“James convinced me that a better school would be Oberlin.  I had performed in Oberlin over the years.  I know about Oberlin’s impeccable social history in the United States and I was happy to consider Oberlin,”  Rollins said.

In 2017, Rollins made an undisclosed gift to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music to establish the Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Fund.

Beginning this spring, Oberlin jazz studies majors can audition for the Ensemble.  Those students who are accepted must dedicate themselves to at least two semesters of performing in the group.  Plus, when Rollins made the gift, he had another stipulation.

“I wanted the musicians to not only be good academically, but I thought that it would be very important to recognize what’s important in this world is that you have to give.  It’s not about taking. They have to give back. They have to do work at some kind of center, where they serve meals, or whatever they decide on doing.”

It’s Rollins hope that this community service project will teach the students, known informally as “Sonny scholars,” a lesson that he sees as more valuable than anything gained in the classroom or on the bandstand.

“You have to live by the Golden Rule. Let’s say these Oberlin students repay wherever they got this great musical gift from, that’s what I always wanted to do.  This was the idea, to try to get the students to think in that way, so they can have a successful life.   They’re not just going to have a successful life just playing music and being exceptional players.  That’s not enough. This is how I would like the world to be like this and there’s no reason it can’t be like this, but somebody has to start somewhere and make it happen,”  Rollins said.



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