Art Works Blog

Postcard from 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Celebration

2012 NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Owens performs at the January 10 concert celebration. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Last week we celebrated the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters, and as I was saying to [NEA Music Director] Wayne Brown, I thought this was our best Jazz Masters yet. We began on Monday, January 9, the day before the NEA Jazz Masters concert, with a panel that was conducted by my old friend Bob Blumenthal, who’s a pre-eminent jazz critic. The panel was really about the future of jazz and about mentoring. He had a couple of veterans there: 2005 NEA Jazz Master George Wein, who started the Newport Jazz Festival and is a legendary jazz producer, and 1990 NEA Jazz Master Gerald Wilson, a trumpeter, composer, bandleader. The panel also included two musicians from the younger generation: percussionist Dafnis Prieto and Ambrose Akinmusire who’s a trumpet player. (Ambrose also joined us the next evening, sitting in for a number during the Jazz Masters concert.) What was neat about the panel was seeing several generations of leading jazz people on the same podium, talking about the importance of mentoring, and the different kinds of education and training that they feel are important to jazz musicians.

Next I went over to a luncheon hosted by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). Our great friend Mario Garcia Durham---formerly the head of NEA’s Presenting program---is now leading APAP. He’s taken on a big, big job, and you know, if anybody has the energy for it, it’s Mario! And certainly he also has the passion and dedication. At the luncheon we heard a very spirited speech by Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation who received APAP’s Sidney Yates Award. (Sidney Yates was a great Congressional champion of the arts.) George Wein also received an award for achievement in the performing arts, acknowledging his legendary career as a producer.

On Tuesday, I attended another luncheon, this one hosted by music industry leader BMI. The luncheon was attended by the 2012 class of NEA Jazz Masters as well as an entire roomful of past Jazz Masters. My job was to give each of the new Jazz Masters their official plaque, and that was a thrill, just to be able to introduce them and shake their hands. We had three of the five 2012 Jazz Masters present. (Unfortunately Charlie Haden and Von Freeman weren’t able to make the trip to New York, but were ably represented by their children.) I was really tickled to meet the incredible drummer, keyboardist, and composer Jack DeJohnette, and when I gave his intro I said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve been listening to you since I was a kid.” Sheila Jordan was there, and she’s just had an incredible career as a vocalist and educator. And of course Jimmy Owens was there and he’s not only been an educator, trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer, and arranger, but he’s also a passionate advocate for the rights and privileges of jazz musicians---their healthcare, their security, their place in the musician’s union. He has just been a great force for jazz musicians.

I was glad to have some time during the day to meet with Aby Rosen and Lisa Robb from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). Aby is NYSCA’s chairperson and Lisa's the newly installed executive director. NYSCA may be, I think, the largest supporter of the arts among the state arts agencies, and I look forward to a very interesting ongoing conversation with them.

That evening, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, we held the NEA Jazz Masters concert itself, which was the climax and culmination of the whole series of events. It was just a wonderful evening---well-paced, well-produced. It was great to see a few of our National Council on the Arts members who were able to join us---Aaron Dworkin, Barbara Ernst Prey, and Irving Mayfield, Jr. As wonderful as it was to see the jazz musicians perform and be acknowledged onstage, it was also great to see them among themselves; there were nearly 40 of them there for the event. I sat next to 1984 NEA Jazz Master Ornette Coleman, and that was quite a thrill. Some of the Jazz Masters performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), including, of course 2011 NEA Jazz Master Wynton Marsalis, JLCO's artistic director. What was especially great about this year’s musical program was that each of the musical selections was composed by an NEA Jazz Master. So, I had a blast, and it was just a wonderful event.

I do have to share one moment that particularly stands out for me about the evening. After Jimmy Owens accepted his NEA Jazz Masters award, he gave a tribute to 1988 NEA Jazz Master Billy Taylor, who passed away right before last year’s celebration. Owens played a solo trumpet version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” that was very haunting and sad, and yet uplifting at the same time. It was very, very beautiful; you could hear a pin drop in the house when he did that. That was maybe my favorite moment.

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