Sonny Rollins Wins Edward MacDowell Medal

The Edward MacDowell Medal, a major arts award whose previous recipients have included writer Alice Munro, composer Leonard Bernstein, and choreographer Merce Cunningham, for the first time is going to a jazz artist.

This year’s winner: Sonny Rollins, the veteran jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader whose work seems to have burned even more brightly as he has moved into his golden years, as demonstrated by such releases as 2008’s Road Shows, Vol. 1.

Rollins is rightly viewed by many as the world’s greatest living jazz saxophonist.

“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,” jazz critic Gary Giddins, chairman of this year’s selection committee, said, in a prepared release. “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.”

The award will be presented Aug. 15 at the MacDowell Colony, set on 450 acres of field and woodlands in New Hampshire’s  Monadnock region, an area known for its natural beauty.The colony, established more than 100 years ago, has played host to more than 6,500 artists from many disciplines.

Rollins is the 14th composer to receive the MacDowell Medal, but the first from the field of jazz, following such talents s Aaron Copland (1961), Edgard Varese (1965), Roger Sessions (1968), William Schuman (1971), Walter Piston (1974), Virgil Thomson (1977), Samuel Barber (1980), Elliott Carter (1983), Bernstein (1987), David Diamond (1991), George Crumb (1995), Lou Harrison (2000), and Steve Reich (2005).

For the complete press release on the award, click here.

The saxophonist, at 79, isn’t slowing down. He hits the road again in April, with performances scheduled for Detroit (4/6), Chicago (4/9), Boston (4/18), Seattle (5/10), Berkeley (5/13), Los Angeles (5/16), Davis CA (5/19), Burlington VT (6/12), and the Winnipeg (6/23), Montreal (6/27), North Sea (7/11), Perugia (7/16), and Molde (7/20) jazz Festivals.

Due March 30 is a reissue of Way Out West, Rollins’ classic 1957 trio album with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne, on which the saxophonist saluted the big-screen cowboys he adored as an avid moviegoer during the Depression. The new release includes alternate takes of “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “Come, Gone” and the title track.

“My reality wasn’t bad,” Rollins told critic Marc Myers, for the reissue’s new liner notes. “It’s just that Westerns took me to another place. They gave me hope that a Utopia did indeed exist in life.”

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