NEA and Jazz, Part 1

According to its annual report, “The National Endowment for the Arts…carries out programs of grants-in-aid given to arts agencies of the states and territories, to non-profit, tax-exempt organizations and to individuals of exceptional talent.” It was established in 1965 but didn’t include jazz within its purview until President Lyndon Johnson appointed Duke Ellington and Willis Conover to its National Council on the Arts in 1968. The next year, $5,500 was allocated to foster jazz in the United States in the form of a single Jazz Composition Award given to George Russell. In 1970, the NEA established a real jazz panel and gave out 30 grants to institutions and individuals totaling $20,050—compared with half as many grants for orchestras totaling $931,600 and eight grants to opera companies totaling $836,000. Even Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (parenthetically allocated for the New York Film Festival) was given $25,000!

In 1980, one of the assistant directors of the NEA’s music board, Aida Chapman, suggested a Hall of Fame to honor the jazz genre. Two years later, the NEA announced the creation of the Jazz Masters Awards, to be “given to those musicians and advocates who have had a significant impact on the field” (according to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman). These awards included a $20,000 gift and were privately given to three individuals annually (but in 1991 four were given out) until 2004, when the number of recipients was raised to seven, the amount of each gift was raised to $25,000, and the awards were presented at the annual International Association of Jazz Educators convention, wherever it was held. With the demise of the IAJE in January 2008, the award’s ceremony was moved to the Jazz At Lincoln Center’s facility in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle in New York.

On Tuesday, January 10, I attended the NEA Jazz Masters 30th anniversary award ceremony. The five 2012 award recipients were: drummer/pianist/composer/bandleader Jack DeJohnette, who first came to prominence in Charles Lloyd’s quartet (which also included bassist Ron McClure and pianist Keith Jarrett) in 1966 and then debuting with Miles Davis’s group on Bitches Brew in 1969; Chicago-based saxophonist/bandleader Von Freeman, whose career spans over 70 years and who is the father of saxophonist Chico Freeman; bassist/composer/educator/bandleader Charlie Haden, who was part of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, the original Keith Jarrett Quartet, and co-founder of the Liberation Music Orchestra; vocalist/educator/lyricist Sheila Jordan, who was one of the first and few, if not only, vocalists to record on Blue Note and ECM; and trumpeter/composer/educator/activist Jimmy Owens, who, when not teaching, composing and arranging, touring, and concertizing, dedicates much of his time to establishing and sustaining organizations, such as the Collective Black Artists and the Jazz Musician’s Emergency Fund, that help musicians in life/career crises.

As in previous Jazz Masters events, the awards’ presentations alternated with performances by select past Masters that occasionally included “emerging” artists considered worthy of inclusion. I don’t know exactly how or who decides this. To be honest, I haven’t thoroughly read all the literature handed to my wife, Francesca, as we entered and exited the event (a playbill listing all of the event’s performers and a program of the concert, a large book that includes single-page biographies of all the past Jazz Masters, and a folder with letter-size descriptions and vision statements of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and some of their ancillary programs); but my initial perusal hasn’t revealed anything about that. Maybe the next read-through will be more informative.

The event opened with a performance of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come,” an up-tempo minor-key variation on “I Got Rhythm,” by the JALC Orchestra that featured the 2007 Jazz Master Phil Woods and Grace Kelly as guest soloists. Both played alto saxophone. At 80, Woods is venerable, legendary, and still plays his ass off. Nineteen-year-old “saxophonist/vocalist/composer/lyricist/arranger” Kelly’s website lists an impressive career that dates back to 2002 when her first CD was released. Her performance kept up with Woods and matched the tightness of the Orchestra’s execution of Gil Fuller’s arrangement. Because the entire 134-minute concert and ceremony are available to be viewed online, I won’t go into a play-by-play (although the well-paced ceremony’s musical performances are well worth words, of which jazz journalist Howard Mandel has written wise ones (another excellent synopsis, ostensibly by NEA’s Liz Auclair, is worth reading, too).

One thing about this year’s event I thought was interesting and significant was a slant towards the “political” that might have been a reaction to the recent National Public Radio article suggesting that the Jazz Masters program will be discontinued, but this is not the case. (It looks like opera funding will be cut instead.) There is a possibility that the ceremony/concert might be scaled back or eliminated, or even that fewer awards might be given, but the individual award amount will not be reduced.

The political slant began when 2007 Jazz Master Ramsey Lewis, before introducing Chairman Landesman, made a point of “declaring that this music is vibrant, that it’s here now, and it will be here forever.” While Lewis’s oration was presented in a dignified manner in perfectly spoken English, the NEA Chairman’s presentation was peppered with jazz-style colloquialisms (“really knocked-out,” “really cool”). But one got the feeling that Landesman’s enthusiasm for jazz is sincere as he announced that $135,000 will be given to twelve presenting organizations this year.

The evening’s politicalness continued in Jack DeJohnette’s award reception, emphasizing his connection to the avant-garde of the 1950s and ’60s Chicago scene (being “discovered” by 2010 Jazz Master Muhal Richard Abrams, founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who also introduced him to the audience) and his prominence in the 1970s music of Miles Davis and other artists at a time when “consciousness was rising up” and “everything felt possible.” He underlined this experience in his acceptance speech: “It seems to me that, once more, we are in momentous times, historically. As in the sixties, it is a time of changes and huge paradigm shifts. I believe the music has always played a profound part in the emotional and the spiritual development of people and, therefore, we as artists have a great responsibility to contribute to the ongoing changes in a positive way and contribute to the future of world peaceful co-existence.”

Von Freeman, who could not attend, was represented by his sons, Chico and Mark Freeman. They described their father as a musician dedicated to the furtherance of a musical legacy that included very close ties to Louis Armstrong, who used to stay with the family on his earliest forays to the Windy City and play duets with his father, a policeman who also played piano. Von Freeman, who will turn 90 this year, has been playing since 1938 but recorded his first album as a leader in 1972. But, as 1996 Jazz Master Benny Golson attested to in Freeman’s introduction, he has always been a moving force on the Chicago scene and an advocate for maintaining high standards in a local jazz milieu that may have felt second rate when compared to New York. Mark quoted his father’s response to the question of why he kept working in such a difficult career stream as, “for the love of the music.”

Bassist Ron Carter (1998 Jazz Master) and flutist Hubert Laws (2011 Jazz Master) performed a subdued and heartfelt duo (“Memories of Minnie” and “Little Waltz” ) that reminded me, by contrast, of the work of Eric Dolphy and Richard Davis, as well as Sam Rivers and Dave Holland. Rivers, who passed away on December 26 at the age of 88, will not receive a Jazz Masters award, which are only bestowed on the living. When A. B. Spellman read a list of recently deceased Jazz Masters, the unspoken name of Sam Rivers rang in many ears in the audience.

Rising star trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, soprano saxophonist (incorrectly listed in the program as an alto saxophonist) Dave Liebman (2011), pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi (2007), and conguero Candido Camero (2008) joined the JALC Orchestra in Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues” (arranged by Carlos Henriquez). Akinmusire clearly felt the heat of having four of the world’s heaviest trumpeters sitting behind him, and still put in a fantastic performance. Akiyoshi channeled Silver’s style perfectly and Liebman proved why he is a Jazz Master with an amazing performance consisting of his trademark chromaticism.

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