"Look at the Big Picture." A Campus Gift Merges Music Education and Social Activism

sonny rollins. photo: catwalker/shutterstock

sonny rollins. photo: catwalker/shutterstock

Recent coverage around socially conscious arts philanthropy has typically focused on giving to museums, individual artists and performing arts organizations. News out of Ohio suggests that this line of thinking is beginning to permeate the higher education arts space as well.

Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins designated a major gift to Oberlin College to create the "Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Fund" to support "exemplary conservatory musicians and service efforts." It may sound like a standard higher ed music give, but a closer read of Oberlin's press release underscores some intriguing and particularly timely context.

"The gift was made in recognition of the institution’s long legacy of access and social justice advocacy," according to the school. "In particular, Rollins was moved by Oberlin's place as the first institution of higher learning to adopt a policy to admit students of color and the first to confer degrees to women, and by the contributions of alumni such as Will Marion Cook, a black violinist and composer who graduated in 1888 and who went on to become an important teacher and mentor to Duke Ellington."

In short, the gift wasn't simply about cultivating promising jazz musicians, but doing so within the framework of "inclusive excellence and social impact." Commenting on the gift, Rollins, now 87, said:

The humanity element has to be a big presence in everything young players do. People are hungry for a reason to live and to be happy. We're asking these young musicians to look at the big picture, to tap into the universal power of a higher spirit, so they can give people what they need. Giving back to others teaches inner peace and inner spirituality. Everything is going to be open for them if they devote themselves in this way.

It'd be easy to riff on how Rollins' gift represents the kind of free-form giving we've seen in donors like fellow jazz musician Herb Alpert. But as with Alpert's giving, that would be a mistake. There is a design behind the improvisation. Simply consider the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble's organizing principles.

Beginning in spring 2018, Oberlin jazz studies majors may audition for what's informally dubbed "The Sonny Ensemble." Each student’s candidacy will be considered on the basis of four criteria: an audition, academic achievement, "thoughtful response to a question about the place of jazz in the world," and "service to humanity."

The ensemble will perform in both formal settings and outreach programs in venues across the region and around the world. "More than a mere spot in an elite unit," Oberlin states, "membership in the ensemble requires a commitment to service through music and willingness to give for others—core principles exemplified by Rollins throughout his life and career."

And so the gift marks an intriguing redefinition of arts education and—if I may be so bold—the utility of higher education itself. 

Recent higher ed coverage suggests that most donors view colleges as a stepping stone to a viable professional career. Proponents of a classical liberal arts education sneer at this mechanical and antiseptic approach. College, they argue, shouldn't be a glorified and incredibly expensive vocational school.

And while they have a point, the student loan crisis, an increasingly digitized workforce, and the escalating cost of tuition have forced donors' hands. Students need to get the maximum bang for their buck. College increasingly resembles, well, a glorified and incredibly expensive vocational school.

Sonny Rollins says, "Not so fast."

Following the lead of other arts funders like Creative Capital, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, Rollins argues that a music degree is more than a ticket to a big-city performance troupe, but a means to a greater end—namely, driving social change outside the campus gates.

Now, purists can make the argument that an accomplished jazz student shouldn't be penalized for failing to articulate a compelling vision of "jazz in the world" or a comparative lack of "service to humanity." We'll have to table that argument for another time, but it's probably a moot discussion, anyway. The terms of discussion have irrevocably shifted. Most funders fervently believe that art should be a vehicle for social change. The only issue of disagreement is the degree to which it should be a vehicle for social change.

In retrospect, it all seems pretty obvious. Of course donors like Rollins would be keen on merging the performing arts and social impact at the university level. Yet, just like the relative dearth of "artist as activist" giving from individual patrons, we haven't seen a comparable amount of movement among alumni and higher ed donors. Why?

I tackled this question in the aftermath of Agnes Gunds' gift to the Parrish Art Museum and the launch of her Art for Justice Fund in partnership in tandem with the Ford Foundation. The reasons why arts patrons have been slow to embrace social activism also apply to higher ed donors. Most applicably, individual patrons and higher ed donors lack the administrative infrastructure available to institutional funders to support or design programs that dovetail with social activism.

Rollins' gift invalidates this excuse while providing rather striking symbolism in the process.

After all, Rollins was a trailblazer in the field of jazz. Given the headwinds sweeping the arts space as a whole, history may show him to be an unwitting innovator in higher ed arts philanthropy, as well.