Karen and Leon Frison are the recipients of the 2020 Hedgelawn Foundation Kenny Award from the Kent Cultural Alliance in recognition of their decades of service to Kent County as public-school music teachers. The couple, who first met as high school students in Philadelphia, both retired in June 2020.
“Leon and I are truly excited and honored to receive the Kenny Award, and it’s a double blessing to be honored along with an extraordinary person, teacher and friend, who is also my spouse,” Karen Frison said.
“We have willingly poured our hearts and souls into our jobs and our students because of our passion for music and people. We have done this without seeking recognition, but it is always nice to be recognized and appreciated.”
The Frisons are quick to share credit with the many professional artists and musicians who visited their classrooms over the years, and with school staff and administrators, students, families and Arts in Motion, a program supported by the Hedgelawn Foundation.
“We stand up front and conduct the musical groups, but nothing could be done without all of you,” she said. “Many thanks to the Hedgelawn Foundation and the Kent Cultural Alliance for bestowing this honor upon us.” Karen Frison taught for 27 years in Kent County, her husband for 25.
Created in 2006 by the Kent Cultural Alliance and the Hedgelawn Foundation, the Kenny Award honors Kent County residents who have made outstanding contributions to the arts and cultural life of the county. The award is a handmade stoneware vessel by acclaimed local potter Marilee Schumann with a base by local metal artist, Rob Glebe. Past recipients include the creative team behind the musical “Red Devil Moon,” musician and educator Tom McHugh, and Vincent and Leslie Raimond.
Karen Frison’s musical inspiration began with hearing her mother singing around the house while doing chores. She began singing in church and school choirs, and learned to play piano and organ at an early age. It was while a student in the music magnet program at Overbrook High School that she met her future husband. From there, they became members of The Gabriel Hardeman Delegation, a well-known contemporary gospel music recording group. Mrs. Frison is a graduate of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. and has a master’s degree from McDaniel College. She’s a firm believer in the power of music to unite people, enhance communication and improve physical and mental health. Locally, Karen has performed as a guest soloist with the Chester River Chorale under the direction of Ann Turpin, and the 100-Voice Choir directed by Sylvia Frazier.
Leon Frison also got his musical start at a young age, playing the piano at five years old and trumpet when he was nine. In his teens, while with the Gabriel Hardeman Delegation, he played on his first recording. Later he received a scholarship to study the business of music at Temple University. This led to him producing a song at the prestigious Sigma Sound Studios and also to produce demos for Mighty Three Music Company, owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who would later be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
After graduating from Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, with a degree in trumpet with a studio-jazz emphasis, Mr. Frison. became an established composer and arranger, writing for jazz bands and arranging for Savoy and Sweet Rain Records. His peers nicknamed him, “Mr. Gospel” as he had played gospel music for groups at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and Kemper Arena in Kansas City.
Frison moved to Kent County in the 1990s to take a ministerial appointment and also taught 4th grade through 8th grade instrumental music at Chestertown Middle School (now Kent County Middle School). So great was his love for working with students “he almost felt guilty for being compensated,” according to his wife. His goals and objectives were to ensure that no student was denied the opportunity to play an instrument.
Under his leadership, the middle school band grew to 133 students at one point. His students participated in the Eastern Shore Band Directors Association’s District Festival, Solo and Ensemble Festival, All-Shore Honors Band, and All-State Solo and Ensemble Festival. Besides school concerts, his bands also participated in the Trills and Thrills Festival several times at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, scoring both Excellent and Superior Awards.
The Kenny Award is usually presented during a ceremony in Chestertown. This year’s event had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hedgelawn Foundation provides competitive grants to support humanities and arts organizations on Delmarva, and research initiatives in Venice, Italy. The Foundation’s Board is chaired by Ben Kohl, Jr.
The Kent Cultural Alliance (formerly the Kent County Arts Council) serves the residents of Kent County supporting and creating inclusive artistic and cultural experiences designed to connect communities through shared conversations. The KCA’s Board is chaired by Jason Claire.