Honorary Degree Citation
Sonny Rollins. Saxophone colossus. A half-century after the release of your iconoclastic album of the same name, we recognize that those two words merely begin to suggest your monumental influence on jazz composition and performance. Guided by your gift for melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic invention, you have remained true to your convictions about how jazz should be played throughout your career. As soloist, ensemble player, and composer, you have opened unknown and compelling musical territory to your listeners while also unlocking unimagined beauty from the familiar phrases of standards. Even after winning the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2004, you continue to tour and perform with energetic brilliance. You also have demonstrated the essential link between music and African-Americans’ struggle for equality and justice. As early as 1958, you responded to the gathering power of the civil rights movement with your composition “The Freedom Suite,” courageously declaring on the album cover “How ironic … that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.” Colby salutes you for your commitment to the challenging path of artistic innovation, for the uncompromising individuality of your musical language, and for teaching us all the value of spontaneity and freedom in music and in life. The poetry of your playing is reflected in your succinct yet eloquent description of the music whose history you have done so much to shape: “A different sunset every night; that’s what jazz is about.”
By the authority of the Board of Trustees of Colby College, I confer upon you, Sonny Rollins, the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa. The hood with which you have been invested and this diploma which I place in your hand are visible symbols of your membership in this society of scholars, to all the rights and privileges of which I declare you entitled.
Conferred May 27, 2007
Sonny Rollins grew up in Harlem admiring saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and after he graduated from high school it was not long before he himself was playing tenor saxophone alongside other jazz greats, including Bud Powell and Roy Haynes. When he was only 21 years old he made his debut playing lead saxophone on a recording by Prestige, the label that also produced two of his most famous records, Saxophone Colossus (1956) and Tenor Madness (1956). In a career spanning 56 years, he has played and recorded with a Who’s Who of distinguished jazz musicians, and he has made an even greater mark as a solo performer. He is considered to be among the greatest solo performers in American musical history. Mr. Rollins’s contributions to American and world music have been recognized with several Grammy awards — the latest for best instrumental jazz solo in 2006 -— as well as a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He was inducted into the Academy of Achievement, won artist of the year awards from Down Beat, and received the 2007 Polar Music Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. His latest CD, Sonny, Please, was released on his own label, Doxy.