NEA 2013 Jazz Masters: What Does It Mean?

Word came down in early 2011 that that the National Endowment for the Arts would discontinue its annual Jazz Masters awards, and that jazz musicians would in the future contend for honors (and honoraria) within a more general “American Artists of the Year” award. The 2012 Jazz Masters were to be the final class. There was much anxious reporting not mention a moment to reflect on the value and meaning of this honor. No sooner had I begun drafting a longish essay than the House Appropriations Committee — this is federal government money — directed the NEA to keep the Jazz Masters program going, and to scrap the proposed “American Artists” award.

Which brings us to Monday’s Jazz Masters award ceremony, on which I’ll report next week, at Dizzy’s, the nightclub within Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The past few years have been celebrated in JALC’s Rose Hall. So this year’s audience will be a more limited group than in past — awardees, their friends, families, and associates, past winners, and some press. That’s a minor disappointment: Previous editions at Rose Hall offered rare moments of excitement within a packed theater that included row upon row of standard-bearing if not famous musicians and, behind them, the sort of folks who live for such events. They were able to witness firsthand some unexpected, even touching, performances, when elder players joined forces musically — I recall pianist Kenny Barron and vibist Bobby Hutcherson last year (the latter, using an oxygen tank offstage) playing Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” Barron, wonderfully subtle and deferential, Hutcherson taking bold harmonic risks. The musicians also honor one another with words; a close colleague presents each award.

Still, you can get in on the Jazz Masters awards concert as it happens, digitally, beginning at 7:30 EST. (Details here.) And you should.

This year, the musician honorees are: pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, whose 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; and Mose Allison, a singer, songwriter, and pianist whose wry lyrics, knowing delivery, and subtle swing defy easy genre names. Not long ago, Jazz Masters began honoring non-musicians for “jazz advocacy.” Lorraine Gordon, owner and proprietor of Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, is the first club owner (and the first woman) to be so honored. Considering how she has extended the legacy of her late husband’s landmark club while also innovating based on her own tastes and savvy, she is well deserving of it.

Last year, I began to revise that unpublished essay about the Jazz Masters, spurred further along by my friend and colleague (a mentor, really), David Hajdu, who wrote the following in his online column at The New Republic, where he is music critic:

As the NEA explains the Jazz Masters program, recognition as a Jazz Master is a “lifetime honor” and “the nation’s highest honor in jazz.” Its purpose is clearly to reward creative achievement over the course of a career. What it honors, though, by definition, is the lifetime— the time spent making jazz during an artist’s life. The longer the life, the more qualified the candidate. This is true of all lifetime-achievement awards, of course. The complicating factor in this case is the Jazz Masters honors’ claim to singularity in their field. It’s fair to ask, with due regard for the value of a long life led well: Should the nation’s higher honor in jazz really have such a link to longevity—as opposed to, say, uniqueness, influence, or sheer brilliance.

So here’s where I ended up:

When the Jazz Masters program began 30 years ago, jazz occupied a curious place within the American cultural landscape. It was no longer truly popular culture but had also not yet been solidly embraced within institutions of higher culture or education (or was only beginning to get that sort of attention). It had not yet really been codified as something emblematic to American identity in any meaningful and formal way — or perhaps it had simply lost that sense of meaning. Not to mention that many true jazz masters — elder players of accomplishment and broad influence — were simply not making enough money or getting proper recognition.

Jazz wasn’t then and isn’t now going to wither away, however far from pop-culture’s spotlight it may stray. Still, the Jazz Masters program addressed the needs of these elder players as well as the idea of supporting jazz in a broader context with both symbolic and practical answers, and did something more: It embodied the notion, essential within circles of jazz musicians and in communities that have nurtured jazz, that elders must be honored and respected with more than just lip service. Especially in the marketplace, jazz’s return to popular fascination in the late 1980s and 1990s was heralded by and focused on a youth movement of so-called “young lions.” The Jazz Masters program, in contrast, placed the spotlight on jazz’s elders, some of them popular stars at one point or another, others little known beyond jazz insiders. (Only living musicians are eligible.)

Symbolically, the Jazz Masters program was also one of the clearest and most tangible representations of Rep. John Conyers’s House Concurrent Resolution 57, adopted in 1987, which stated: “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.” And it forwarded that intent by bestowing real cash. (Each of this year’s five Masters receives and honorarium of $25,000; there are also funded initiatives for performances and education programs.)

I felt ambivalent for many years about the Jazz Masters program, until the announcement, later reversed, of its proposed cancellation. I found myself arguing for its continuation, based mostly on notion that we either honor jazz or not — and isn’t it much better to identify a pool of “masters” and have those musicians (and their bodies or work, and their influence) define what jazz might or might not be (instead of endless haggling about what jazz is and isn’t, based mostly on critical presumptions, sales, and grandstanding writers). I guess I sort of ended up liking the idea of “jazz masters” roaming the earth — even simply as people this country’s government choose to designate, despite the reality that those musicians more often than not rely on European government cultural subsidies for their own bottom lines. And while it does seem on the face of things that this serves as a “lifetime achievement award,” that particular aspect of the way this program is structured can just as easily be taken (or at least, I’m going to assert it) as a reflection of jazz’s essential African (and African American) root, wherein elders and ancestors are not simply honored but invoked, and in which light the jazz master is really something of a griot — a master storyteller/historian/correspondent whose medium is music. In that sense, a jazz master is honored not simply for length of service, brilliance, innovation, singularity, or appeal (though those things are necessary just to make the cut) but for the significance and resonance of the storyline they contribute to whatever could possibly be meant by a jazz community. Excellence is taken for granted, but cannot be the sole measure; some of the most technically gifted or critically important musicians take a backseat to those who simply end up mattering more in sublime ways.

That could be either my own convoluted rationalization or a (perhaps unintentional) beauty of the whole enterprise. Staged as it is, formal and formatted as it is, I think one of the best things about the annual concert is that it at least hints at the long history of jazz that involved a social music with a larger purpose and a sense of spontaneity, not in terms of a given solo but in terms of opportunities for musicians to play together. These aren’t freewheeling jam sessions, of course: producers plan them. But at least we get a break from just business as usual. (When was the last time an American jazz festival did anything but book existing bands?) In that sense, far from patronization, these little showcases are chances for, say, 90-year-old percussionist Candido Camero to show that he’s still just as hip as those young guys think they are.

Awards are problematic in any form. But when I look at Jazz Masters as an honoring ceremony based on traditions jazz often barely even recalls yet is actually built upon, it makes sense to me as something beyond the sort of “achievement” we mark through Grammys and critics’ polls and halls of fame. I sometimes quibble with the NEA’s selections, just like everyone else does. But elder masters seems, for me, to nail something essentially right in jazz terms.

Images: (l-r) Eddie Palmieri, Lorraine Gordon, Mose Allison and Lou Donaldson/ Photos by (l-r) Jason Goodman, Eric Ogden, Michael Wilson and Bob Lasky

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