Jazz at Lincoln Center Event Honors NEA Jazz Masters
Posted 2/10/2014

Educator-saxophonist Jamey Aebersold, reedist-composer-professor Anthony Braxton, bassist-educator Richard Davis and pianist Keith Jarrett were celebrated as National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters during a live-streamed and radio-broadcast event held in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room in New York City on Jan. 13.

Co-hosted by Wynton Marsalis and journalist Soledad O’Brien, the 195-minute program publicized the U.S. government’s highest jazz honors. It featured NEA-produced video profiles of the latest honorees, freewheeling speeches, music performances, several previously named Jazz Masters and emerging musicians representing a theme of “intergenerality.”

“Our music has a distinguished history of old-school apprenticeship on new-school concepts,” said Marsalis, himself a Jazz Master, in his opening remarks. Soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman validated Marsalis’ assertion, leading pianist Kris Bowers, trumpeter Bruce Harris, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. in a rendition of the late Cedar Walton’s song “Bolivia.” Those sidemen, plus pianist Chris Pattishall, bassist Russell Hall, drummer Jamison Ross and saxophonist Melissa Aldana, filled out ensembles led by elders throughout the evening.

After NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa hailed her agency’s three-decade commitment to its Jazz Masters initiative, Liebman brought on Aebersold, recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award for Advocacy. The jazz publisher and educator read an anecdote-filled summary of his development of books and recordings meant to help students of any level improvise on chord changes, accompanied by world-class rhythm sections. As if to demonstrate, Aebersold blew alto sax on Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” backed by Pattishall, Hall and Ross. Ann Hampton Callaway followed, singing Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” with Aldana, Nakamura, Ross and Azerbaijan-born pianist Amina Figarova.

Before the ceremonies, honoree Braxton said he was “grateful and surprised” about his award. Having emerged in the late 1960s from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Braxton has been deemed a jazz outlier due to his unique sax vocabulary and expansive, often experimental concepts. Muhal Richard Abrams, the Jazz Master who co-founded the AACM, welcomed Braxton onstage, and Braxton delivered a lengthy, detailed, emotional discussion of his wide-ranging artistic enthusiasms, creative perspective and devotion to American ideals.

Despite a high profile for his music in the mid-’70s and uninterrupted productivity, Braxton suffered a subsequent decline of opportunities and media visibility. He was appointed to a tenured position at Wesleyan University in 1990, in 1994 received a MacArthur fellowship and in 2012 was named a Doris Duke Performing Artist. Appreciative of these honors, Braxton said he had nonetheless become accustomed to being accused of not playing jazz, not swinging and not being “black enough.” The Jazz Master award, he said, made him feel like a “spy who was brought in from the cold.”

Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and vocalists Ann Rose and Vince Vincent performed an excerpt from Braxton’s chamber opera Trillium J.

Next, retired NEA administrator A.B. Spellman commemorated the seven Jazz Masters who died in 2013: Walton, Donald Byrd, Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Yusef Lateef, Marian McPartland and Frank Wess. Jimmy Owens (trumpet) and Kenny Barron (piano) performed a touching version of Wess’ “Placitude,” and Owens brought up new inductee Richard Davis.

A bassist with more than 60 years of professional experience and a longtime teacher at University of Wisconsin–Madison, Davis identified famed Chicago high school bandleader Walter Dyett, iconoclastic Sun Ra, vocalist Sarah Vaughan, conductor Leonard Bernstein and reeds innovator Eric Dolphy as his mentors. He improvised a bass solo with arco and pizzicato passages. Then tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, with Bowers, Wolf, Nakamura and Whitfield, performed “Blue Bossa,” a tune Davis has recorded multiple times. Lovano’s arrangement had unusual stop-times and tempo shifts.

Barron read a letter from ailing impresario George Wein to introduce Jarrett, who has refined and popularized fully spontaneous solo piano concerts and led notable combos including his 30-years-old Standards Trio. At the podium Jarrett tossed aside papers left by Aebersold, saying, “A lot about education. I don’t need any of that.” He continued, “Music is not something you can use words to describe. Music is either in the air and you find it, or in the air and you cannot find it. You can be educated … about everything there is to do with music, and you are still zero until you let go of what holds you back.”

Later, Aebersold was asked if he thought Jarrett’s dismissal of jazz education was directed at him. “No,” he answered. Had he heard those sentiments before? “Not much, not recently,” Aebersold said.

Jarrett didn’t play—instead, guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Jason Moran interpreted his composition “Memories Of Tomorrow,” interpolating a hint of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.” Departing NEA Director of Music and Opera Wayne Brown was hailed; he implored everyone to “keep jazz alive.” To conclude the event, saxophonist Jimmy Heath performed his waltz “New Picture” with Aldana (whom he lauded as “the new picture of jazz”), Pattishaw, Jamison and Ross. Intergenerality certainly was served, with touches of new jazz, too.

—Howard Mandel


Newly named NEA Jazz Master Jamey Aebersold (left) speaks while 2011 NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman listens at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center on Jan. 13 (Photo: Frank Stewart).

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