NEA Arts Magazine

All Jazzed Up

2006 NEA Jazz Masters Awards

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Posed photos, four jazz masters seated in front, the three others with Chairman Gioia standing behind

Chairman Gioia joins the 2006 class of NEA Jazz Masters. From top to bottom and left to right: Chairman Dana Gioia, Buddy DeFranco, Chick Corea, Bob Brookmeyer, John Levy, Tony Bennett, Ray Barretto, Freddie Hubbard. Photo: Tom Pich

In the late morning of January 13, 2006, a crowd of onlookers formed, necks craned, for a peek at a group gathered for a photo shoot in the lobby of the New York Hilton. The group, average age 75 years old, greeted each other with smiles and hugs, laughing and joking with each other. Reporters and photographers waited anxiously for their turn with the group, and it became clear that this was not just any ordinary group of older Americans. In fact, these prominent artists were among the greatest names in jazz history, and all were NEA Jazz Masters.

The NEA Jazz Masters Awards, America's highest honor in jazz, are given annually to those artists who have made significant contributions to the development and performance of jazz. Receiving the award later at a special concert and award ceremony during the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference in New York City were percussionist Ray Barretto, singer Tony Bennett, composer/arranger and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, keyboardist Chick Corea, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and manager John Levy, receiving the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.

The evening concert and awards ceremony was hosted by jazz greats Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson, and A. B. Spellman, former NEA deputy chairman and noted author of Four Jazz Lives. The award for jazz advocacy was named after Spellman last year for not only his contributions in the jazz field as a writer and advocate, but also for his invaluable contributions to expanding the NEA Jazz Masters program.

Chairman Dana Gioia provided the opening remarks, stating, "Most everyone will agree that the two greatest artistic exports from the United States are jazz and film. Film has its internationally famous prizes - the Academy Awards. Now, finally, after a century of great jazz, we have the equivalent: the NEA Jazz Masters Award."

Five Jazz Masters and one young boy improvising onstage

NEA Jazz Masters Slide Hampton, Paquito D'Rivera, and Jimmy Heath, as well as Chick Corea and James Moody (not pictured) join along on stage during the 2006 NEA Jazz Masters Awards ceremony. Photo: Tom Pich

Two big bands provided musical entertainment for the evening's festivities: the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra of New York, which opened the event and included a version of John Coltrane's "Countdown," in an arrangement by NEA Jazz Master Frank Foster, and the Count Basie Orchestra, under the direction of Bill Hughes, which played during the second half of the ceremony, highlighted by vocalist Nnenna Freelon's rendition of Erroll Garner's "Misty" with NEA Jazz Master Barry Harris on piano. In between the performances, the NEA Jazz Masters award was given to the 2006 class.

The artists receiving the award were clearly moved. Chick Corea said, upon receiving his award, "I'm encouraged now to really give it back so I'm going to turn up the heat." And Tony Bennett, who received rousing applause from the audience, said, "This is amazing. I'm overwhelmed...More than anybody else, I'd like to thank Count Basie for teaching me how to perform."

For the grand finale, both orchestras played, in a tribute to the 1961 recording Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, with dueling soloists battling. NEA Jazz Masters Chick Corea, Paquito D'Rivera, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath, and James Moody joined the band onstage for a rousing finale. And in an impromptu illustration of the NEA's mission to bring jazz to new generations, the venerable group was joined on stage by 10-year-old trumpeter Tyler Lindsay, who held his own and staked a claim to the NEA Jazz Masters class of 2056.

The three musicians ham it up at lunch

NEA Jazz Masters Chick Corea, Roy Haynes, and Ron Carter in New York City for the 2006 NEA Jazz Masters Awards ceremony. Photo: Tom Pich.

The next day of the conference, the NEA held a panel on the 2006 NEA Jazz Masters. Moderated by A. B. Spellman, the panel included Barretto, Brookmeyer, DeFranco, Hubbard, and Levy. Less a panel discussion than a rollicking conversation centered around jazz, the session began with Spellman intoning, "There are no stories like jazz stories." Indeed, there were plenty of stories and plenty of laughter from the audience.

The IAJE conference being an education conference, the artists began by offering suggestions to young performers. DeFranco and Levy talked about how young musicians needed to feel the music more, rather than just playing fast, and learn the canon. "Benny Carter told me," offered Levy, "'I don't know how anybody can improvise without knowing the melody or the words.'" Brookmeyer offered advice to young composers: "They have to form their own bands to play their songs, find their own venues, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the World Saxophone Quartet did. Find a place and make a place for your music to be played."

The NEA Jazz Masters, whose careers practically spanned the history of jazz, also shared anecdotes about their influences. "The first time I saw Charlie Parker," said DeFranco, "I was spellbound. I couldn't sleep at night thinking about what he did." Barretto was also awed by Parker: "We went to the Apollo Bar, next to the Apollo Theater, to see Charlie Parker and Parker was late.We started to jam and then Charlie Parker was in the house, so we started to get off stage. Parker put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'You stay.' It was like being touched by the hand of God." Hubbard talked about his first influence being Chet Baker, but "after I heard Clifford Brown, when he played the trumpet, it touched me." At the end of the hour session, the enthusiastic audience gave the group a standing ovation, one richly deserved by all the 2006 NEA Jazz Masters.