Discipline: Music Composition

Sonny Rollins

Discipline: Music Composition
Region: Woodstock, NY

Edward MacDowell Medalist: 2010

Theodore Walter Rollins (b. 1930) grew up in Harlem not far from the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and the doorstep of his idol, Coleman Hawkins. After early discovery of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, he started out on alto saxophone, inspired by Louis Jordan. At the age of 16, he switched to tenor, trying to emulate Hawkins. He also fell under the spell of the musical revolution that surrounded him: Bebop.

In the early 1950s, he established a reputation first among musicians, then the public, as the most brash and creative young tenor on the scene, through his work with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1956, Rollins began recording the first of a series of landmark recordings issued under his own name: Valse Hot introduced the practice, now common, of playing bop in 3/4 meter; St. Thomas initiated his explorations of calypso patterns; and Blue 7 was hailed by Gunther Schuller as demonstrating a new manner of “thematic improvisation,” in which the soloist develops motifs extracted from his theme.

He won his first performance Grammy for This Is What I Do (2000), and his second for 2004’s Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert), in the Best Jazz Instrumental Solo category (for “Why Was I Born”). In addition, Rollins received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004. In a seven-decade career, he has recorded at least 60 albums as leader and a number of his compositions, including "St. Thomas," "Oleo," "Doxy," "Pent-Up House,” and "Airegin" have become jazz standards. Rollins has been called "the greatest living improviser.”