The NEA Embraces Jazz Mastery

(l-r) Jazz musicians Mose Allison, Lou Donaldson, and Eddie Palmieri performing at the 2013 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony & Concert.
(Michael G. Stewart NEA)

If you’ve ever stood courtside before an NBA game, you know the feeling. What grips you isn’t speed, strength, agility, or shooting touch, but simply scale. It’s something — a feeling simultaneously humbling and inspiring — to be close to a team of towering figures.

The Jazz Masters assembled at Dizzy’s, the nightclub within Manhattan’s Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, were mostly sitting and mainly between the ages of 70 and 90 on Monday night at the annual National Endowment for the Arts ceremony and concert in their honor, but I got that same feeling. Up close, together, these figures seem ever more towering.


Though never distant, not in the least. “There’s nobody you’d rather hang with than jazz musicians,” A. B. Spellman, former NEA deputy chairman, said from the podium. He’s right, of course. Above all else, this annual event was a potent and spirited hang. In past years the event was held at Rose Hall, JALC’s more formal theater. The move to the club, which may have stemmed from a budgetary matter, turned out to be a great innovation befitting jazz’s original and essential audience context as well as its contemporary one. While it’s great and necessary that jazz gets played in concert halls, the music has always thrived best in clubs. The black-tie crowd and planned all-star performances were a far cry from the all-night Harlem jam sessions saxophonist Lou Donaldson would later recall from the stage, yet the vibe was intimate enough for jokes to be cracked and properly gotten, and for audience members to share appreciation in real time as opposed to politely scheduled applause. Meanwhile, six cameras hovered, serving the online viewing audience that constitutes the art form’s main marketing challenge. The event was broadcast live on SiriusXM and WBGO 88.3 FM as well as at the NEA’s website, where it can still be viewed.

At the start came brief video segments including old footage and new interviews with the four new Jazz Masters: pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, who exemplifies the best of jazz and Afro-Latin traditions and the grandest union of both; alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, among the most soulful, bluesy, and groove-aware players in jazz; Mose Allison, a singer, songwriter, and pianist whose wry lyrics, knowing delivery, and subtle swing defy easy genre names; and Lorraine Gordon, owner and proprietor of Manhattan’s storied Village Vanguard, the first club owner (and first woman) to be honored in the relatively new category for “jazz advocacy.”

“A couple of years ago, all you’d hear was ‘jazz is dead,’” Gordon remarked with characteristic directness during her video segment, and then went on: “I said, ‘Really, when’s the funeral?’ All these people are still coming to the club. Hardly.” Gordon, who is 90, missed the event due to illness. But her main point was amplified by her fellow inductees and the 24 other Jazz Masters in attendance, some of who performed with evident fire and youthful joy. The Jazz Masters program itself — which since 1982 has honored 128 men and women — nearly died in 2011, but was quickly resuscitated by Congressional directive (these are federally appropriated funds). That’s a good thing. Joan Shigekawa, acting NEA chairman, declared early on Monday night, “The Jazz Masters represents the highest honor our nation bestows on jazz musicians and advocates,” and explained its three practical elements: a $25,000 stipend; a commissioned formal portrait; and an interview for inclusion in the Smithsonian Institution’s oral history archive.

If there was existential angst in evidence, it was of more sophisticated variety. Performing her “Sheila’s Blues,” which amounts to an autobiography via jazz hookups set to blues, Sheila Jordan (Jazz Masters class of 2012) sang, “If it wasn’t for jazz I wouldn’t be alive.” After accepting his award, Mose Allison played piano while his daughter Amy sang his composition, “Was,” one lyric of which asks: 

Will there be someone around

With essentially my kinda sound

When am turns to was and now is back when 

Individuality and influence across generations, twins that form the conundrum within jazz’s aesthetic, were important themes on Monday. Both Allison and Donaldson claimed Louis Armstrong as their earliest spark of inspiration. Allison, who played trumpet as a boy, said in his video that he heard in Armstrong “an ambivalent streak” with which he could identify. Donaldson recalled being excited by an Armstrong album, the only one the deejay had on the only jazz show aired on his childhood local country-music radio station. Spellman, who presented Gordon’s award to her daughter Deborah, talked about how Gordon had championed Thelonious Monk’s music early on, when his idiosyncratic brilliance was widely dismissed as simply weirdness.

Palmieri, who grew up in the Bronx and quickly mastered Afro-Latin musical styles, accepted his award from pianist McCoy Tyner (class of 2002) with a long, tight embrace. He then explained how trombonist Barry Rogers, who helped him gain an interest in jazz in the first place, brought him to Birdland nearly a half-century ago to hear John Coltrane’s quartet. “Everything was going great,” Palmieri said, “and then Coltrane put down his horn to let McCoy Tyner take a solo.” He described how “the tension and release in his playing reached such a climax” — the sort of epiphany that sets great talents like his off. Moments later, he sat alone at the piano, playing “Iraida,” a wide-ranging original composition named for his wife that at moments rang out with chord voicings overtly nodding Tyner’s way.

Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director and among the 2012 Jazz Master class, took the stage only briefly, as a deferential host. The NEA program, he said, “reinforces the values of jazz in our collective consciousness,” which he listed as “individuality, shared responsibility, preparation, and improvisation.” These values were amply demonstrated when pianist Kenny Barron (class of 2010) deconstructed the melody of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” and, a minute later, as drummer Jimmy Cobb (2009) slipped in a crafty counter-rhythm while bassist Ron Carter (1998) soloed. The three served as what Marsalis called “a house band to end all house bands.” At one point, Barron gave over the piano chair to Randy Weston (2001), who mined the simple theme and flexible groove of his signature tune, “Hi Fly,” in extended and rewarding fashion. His improvised exchanges with Carter weren’t traded phrases; they overlapped and fed each other more like a conversation between old friends. Jimmy Heath (2003) dedicated “Sweet Lorraine” to Lorraine Gordon, from him and his storied brothers. Now 86, he played with timeless grace and, here and there, a fiery spark. Lou Donaldson spoke from the podium as if delivering a standup routine at one of the “circuit clubs” he’d reminisced about from his early days, “where you could play all kinds of music.” Now also 86, he shared three medical breakthroughs for longevity: Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra. But when he took center stage, he was all business. His playing, confident and wise, acknowledged the formative influences he’d cited: There was a trace of Johnny Hodges’s tone and manner of slurring notes; hints of Charlie Parker’s movement through chord changes; and, as Donaldson dropped the spiritual “Wade in the Water” into the middle of his own composition “Blues Walk,” the church music of his childhood. When David Liebman (class of 2011), on soprano sax, and Paquito D’Rivera (class of 2005), playing clarinet, joined the house trio to end the show with “All Blues,” the Miles Davis composition ubiquitous to modern jazz was enlivened by both the contrasts of their styles and their ability to fall into purposeful collective improvisation.

Accepting her mother’s award with the Village Vanguard’s stalwart staffer Jed Eisenman at her side, Deborah Gordon spoke of how Lorraine, when told of her award, expressed “how lucky she feels to a be a part of this community of musicians and music lovers.”

I seconded that emotion as I sat at a table across from D’Rivera. Next to him was saxophonist Lee Konitz (class of 2009), who, at 85, remains among jazz’s most distinctive and daring players, challenging himself regularly in both high-end joints with his contemporaries as well as with promising players closer to one-third his age at, say, last weekend’s Winter Jazz Festival. On my left was Joanne Robinson Hill, the widow of pianist Andrew Hill (class of 2008), who forever changed my ideas about structure within a jazz composition. To my right, Maxine Gordon, widow of saxophonist Dexter Gordon, whose music my older brother turned me on to before I knew the word “jazz.”

Had I leaned back too far in my chair, I’d have disturbed pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who was key to the formation of Chicago’s influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the mid-1960s, and who I hold within my own small pantheon of composers that reveal the true promise of modern music, apart from category. During Palmieri’s riveting performance, I fixed on Abrams, right behind me, cocking one ear when Palmieri’s tune grew spare and abstract, lightly clapping his hands when broken chords coalesced into densely percussive clusters, nudging his wife gently to attention when, from what seemed like underneath all that, a swinging montuno emerged.

“He does it his own way, that’s for sure,” Abrams said.

They all do. We didn’t come here dressed so fine just to eat dinner.