May 17, 2015, Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford awards Sonny Rollins an Honorary Doctorate. Jazz luminary Sonny Rollins (whose full name is Walter Theodore Rollins) grew up in Harlem and was inspired by the songwriter and bandleader Louis Jordan to play the alto saxophone. At age 16, he picked up the tenor saxophone, trying to emulate his idol, Coleman Hawkins, and by age 20, he was working and recording with Babs Gonzales, J. J. Johnson, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis.
In 1955, Rollins joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, and during that time, earned the nickname Newk after a cabdriver mistook him for Brooklyn Dodgers ace pitcher Don Newcombe. The following year, he began his first series of recordings, Valse Hot, St. Thomas, and Blue 7. Dissatisfied with the music business, Rollins took a sabbatical in 1966 and traveled in Japan and India, spending time in a monastery and learning about Eastern religions. He re-emerged in the early 1970s with the encouragement of his wife, Lucille, and signed with Milestone to release Next Album. He went on to produce two dozen albums with Milestone, including recordings with Tommy Flanagan, Jack DeJohnette, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter (Juilliard Jazz faculty since 2008).
Rollins won his first performance Grammy for This Is What I Do, in 2000, and his second for Without a Song (the 9/11 Concert), in 2004. Also that year, he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and in 2006 was inducted into the Academy of Achievement. In 2009, he received the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, and the following year he was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and became the first jazz composer to be named an Edward MacDowell medalist. In 2011, President Barack Obama presented Rollins with a National Medal of Arts.