President Obama digs Sonny Rollins

President Barack Obama paid beautiful lip service to great American artists and arts yesterday, conferring the 2010 National Medal of Arts and Humanities on heroes including Sonny Rollins, age 80. “I speak personally here,” said the president at 3 minutes, 30 seconds into his address, alluding to authors, poets, historians, “because there are people here whose works shaped me. I’ve got these thumbworn editions of these works of arts, and these old records from when they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital, that helped inspire me, or get me through a tough day, or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken, and I think what’s true for me is true for everyone here and true for our country.” Amen to that. Sonny takes his bows at minute 16, after Quincy Jones, before James Taylor.

But the House of Representatives disagrees, cutting the entire $40 million Arts in Education program of the U.S. Department of Education on the heels of cutting the National Endowment for the Arts budget by 26%, largest slashing in 16 years.


Among my personal inspirations in the crowd of honored 20: Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Lee, Jacques Barzun and especially Philip Roth. Not that I disdain Donald HallRobert Brustein, Mark di Suvero or Meryl Streep . . .Apologies to Wendell Berry, whom I’ve meant to read but haven’t yet. 

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  1. Chris Baker says

    Did Sonny Rollins, or any of the other recipients, receive NEA grants or any gov’t grants to help shape them into being worthy of this medal?
    HM: Sonny was awarded the Polar Music Prize — I believe that comes with 1 million Swedish Kronor, largest cash grant of any music honor, currently valued at more than $158,000 — in 2007 (Steve Reich also received that prize that year). He received a Jazz Masters award from the NEA in 1983 — I’m not sure that came with $25,000, as Jazz Masters have been receiving more recently. Sonny was given the Austrian Cross of Honor in 2009, and was the first jazz musician named an Edward MacDowell Fellow in 2010; I can’t find out whether either of those has money attached, though I suspect the MacDowell medal does, since they credit Lincoln Financial Foundation for “continued financial support.” I don’t think any of these honors (among many others he’s received) “helped shape” Rollins as much as his growing up in Harlem across the street from Coleman Hawkins did, but they’ve helped sustain him and helped him create his own record label, Doxy.
    Philip Roth received the first PEN Saul Bellow Award for his achievements in fiction n 2007. It included a $40,000 honorarium. Joyce Carol Oates won the National Book Award in 1969 for her novel Them. Today winners receive $10,000 — I don’t know if she got that much back then. Donald Hall has received several prizes (Glascock Prize, Newdigate Prize) and fellowships, besides serving as Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress (commonly known as “poet laureate”) in 2007. Jacques Barzun has received numerous prizes and honors since 1927. Mark di Suvero received $250,000 as part of his Heinz Award in 2005.
    Many of the honors and financial prizes I mention above are for outstanding work over years — similar to the Jazz Masters awards, given for lifetime achievement. I don’t know if it’s possible to look at all the lists of NEA project-development grants and fellowships given to jazz musicians back before they were abolished by the NEA due to Congressional complaints about who was receiving them (Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe were among recipients cited as “obscene”). But the NEA’s 1980 annual report lists funds given to jazz-related activities — organizations, fellows and students — at $1,363,329. Among the musicians given grants (less than $10,000) were Olu Dara, Vinny Golia, John D’earth, Fostina Dixon, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Brookmeyer, Walter Booker, Jimmy Hamilton, Tiny Grimes, Baikida Carroll, Steve Colson, Garvin Bushnell, Andrew Cyrille, James Newton, James Moody, Pharoah Sanders, Hilton Ruiz, Leroy Jenkins, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Buddy Montgomery, Clifford Jordan, Shiela Jordan, Jimmy Owens and Dave Liebman. Liebman was named a Jazz Master in the 2011 ceremony last January.