NEA Arts Magazine

A Great Spiritual Legacy

The NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert

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NEA Jazz Masters Quincy Jones (seated) and Tom McIntosh at the 2008 reunion lunch. Photo by Tom Pich

Roy Haynes mugs for the camera with Chick Corea and Ron Carter, a veritable jazz super-trio in the making. Billy Taylor greets Jimmy Scott with a hug and a smile. Quincy Jones, known the world over, chats with Tom McIntosh, little known outside of jazz circles but as a result of being named an NEA Jazz Master getting better known. These are just a few of the moments from the NEA Jazz Masters luncheon, one of the few places you can find an entire room of jazz legends in the same place at the same time. That’s why so many of them look forward to the annual NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony and concert, where 38 NEA Jazz Masters are planning to attend at Jazz at Lincoln Center in January 2010. The special reunion luncheon is just one of many Arts Endowment-sponsored events to occur around the ceremony, for the first time being presented in tandem with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference.

The ceremony begins each year with a roll call of the jazz greats that have gathered to honor their peers. From the darkened stage emerge some of the greatest American artists of the last hundred or so years: Ornette Coleman. Paquito D'Rivera. Nancy Wilson. James Moody. Randy Weston. Chico Hamilton. NEA Jazz Masters one and all. And the annual NEA Jazz Masters awards concert has begun again, recognizing all of these great American artists who have made such an impact on United States culture.

This year, seven new master musicians join their ranks: Muhal Richard Abrams, Kenny Barron, Bill Holman, Bobby Hutcherson, Yusef Lateef, Annie Ross, and Cedar Walton, as well as record producer/executive George Avakian, who received the A. B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.

The NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship is the nation’s highest honor in jazz, recognizing one of the preeminent indigenous art forms to emerge from the United States. Born of the blues emanating from the plantations of the South, and steeped and simmered in New Orleans, jazz grew into a full-force artistic entity in the 1920s and 30s, spreading throughout the country, with each locale developing over time its own flavor of the music. From New York to Chicago, from Kansas City to Los Angeles, the new musical language of jazz evolved into a potent art form.

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

The continuum of jazz is represented by the NEA Jazz Masters. From Danny Barker, born in New Orleans in 1909 and working with such early greats as Barney Bigard, James P. Johnson, and Little Brother Montgomery, to the swing greats Count Basie and Andy Kirk, to the bebop of Dizzy Gillespie and the cool jazz of Miles Davis, to the vocal power of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and the avant garde of Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor. The legacy of these master artists, both those still working and those that have passed on, is handed down generation to generation. NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston noted his place in this long line of greats when he received his award in 2001: "I am grateful to be a part of a great spiritual legacy. Thanks to the ancestors and the great musicians who have inspired me."

Jazz has moved far from its roots in the bordellos of New Orleans to being feted by the U.S. Congress in 1987. House Concurrent Resolution 57, introduced by Representative John Conyers Jr. (Michigan-14th District) and passed by the 100th Congress of the United States of America, declared "that it is the sense of the Congress that jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated."

Despite such accolades, jazz still requires nurturing to continue to grow, and that was the point of expanding the scope of the NEA Jazz Masters program to increase public awareness of the art form. As honoree Frank Foster has noted, "Although jazz has been officially declared a national treasure in recent years, far too few of its representative artists ever receive sufficient acknowledgement in the mass media. In view of this unfortunate reality, it's quite fitting and honorable that a prestigious entity such as the National Endowment for the Arts recognizes the artistic, aesthetic, and spiritual value of this homegrown music."

Wynton Marsalis leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the 2009 awards ceremony. Photo by Tom Pich

But the influence of jazz has transcended national boundaries—all over the world people have found this art form intoxicating, from Latin America to Europe to Africa to Asia. The international impact of this music cannot be underestimated, as Dave Brubeck pointed out: "If you listened to my recordings in the Soviet Union during the darkest days of the Cold War, you could be sent to Siberia or worse. They listened to my records, and they called it 'Jazz in Bones.' Using xray plates, they could record Willis Conover and get a fairly good recording. If you were caught with that, you were dead. But the doctors and the nurses and the students would very carefully listen to these recordings, and they had underground jazz meetings all the time. This is the power that we have with jazz, because it's the voice of freedom all over the world."

The great singer Tony Bennett himself has declared jazz "one of America’s greatest contributions to world culture." As one who has traveled around the world many times, he would know.

Like the NEA National Heritage Fellowships— which honor those in the folk arts—the NEA Jazz Masters began awarding a non-performer award in 2004. To honor those whose tireless championing of jazz helped perpetuate the music, the NEA introduced the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, named after the author, poet, and former NEA Deputy Chairman who has dedicated much of his life to bringing the joy and artistry of jazz to all Americans.

Other recent additions to the program include an educational component, NEA Jazz in the Schools, and a performance initiative, NEA Jazz Masters Live (both of which are discussed at length in other articles in this issue). To further broaden audience reach, the NEA also is utilizing the Internet and broadcast media. More than 150 Jazz Moments, radio shorts featuring NEA Jazz Masters, have been produced by the agency and broadcast on stations throughout the country (they are available on the NEA website: www. arts.gov). In partnership with the Smithsonian Institution on their Jazz Oral History Program, recordings of comprehensive interviews with NEA Jazz Masters are available for free on the Smithsonian Jazz website (www.smithsonianjazz.org/oral_histories/joh_ start.asp).

NEA Jazz Master Dave Brubeck performing at the 2004 awards ceremony.

Given the dwindling audiences in jazz (and all the arts), generating new enthusiasm for the music is an essential component of the NEA Jazz Masters program. As Benny Golson said in an NEA interview, "Jazz is an indigenous culture that generates its own energy. But it also invokes energy from the people who listen. They become a part of the fabric from a listening point of view which in turn encourages the performers. It creates a symbiosis."

And the NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony makes this clear. As the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, launches into a song composed by an awardee that has become a standard in the field, or an NEA Jazz Master takes the stage to trade eights with the band, the audience— those at Rose Hall or at home, listening via live broadcasts on the radio and Internet—is caught up in sharing a personal and musical experience with these artists. It demonstrates the power and vitality of the arts to create this shared experience, this symbiosis, where both the artist and the audience are enriched. And that is what the NEA Jazz Masters program is all about—recognizing these great musicians for their achievements and sharing them with the world.