2014 NEA Jazz Masters Named

Jazz Masters all: Aebersold, Braxton, Davis, and Jarrett

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Anthony Braxton, pianist and composer Keith Jarrett, and bassist and educator Richard Davis were named as 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, the endowment announced on Thursday.

Jamey Aebersold, whose play-along recording series and popular summer camps have taught generations of musicians, was also named, as recipient of the A.B. Spellman N.E.A. Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, which is “bestowed upon an individual who has contributed significantly to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of the art form of jazz.”

These musicians and educators will each receive a one-time award of $25,000. They’ll be honored at a January ceremony and concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which will be webcast. (Here’s my report on the 2013 ceremony.) In a press release, Joan Shigekawa, the organization’s acting chairwoman, said, “On behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, I am proud to announce the newest class of N.E.A. Jazz Masters. The N.E.A. is committed to supporting this uniquely American art form, whether it’s through educational materials such as N.E.A. Jazz in the Schools, supporting performance and educational activities by the Jazz Masters through Jazz Masters Live, or in this case, honoring the individuals who have devoted their lives and careers to mastering, sharing, and expanding this music.”

That’s great to hear. Word had came down in early 2011 that that the National Endowment for the Arts would discontinue its annual Jazz Masters awards—generally considered the nation’s highest honor for a living jazz musician—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.

Yet the Jazz Masters program continues, and that’s a good thing, a necessary thing.

I need not extoll the virtues of Keith Jarrett, so broad and deep has been his appeal and influence. I’ll just say that “Somewhere” (ECM), the recent release by his Standards Trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette is yet one more example of mastery and an understanding of the possibilities implied by song forms.

Regarding the selection of Jamey Aebersold, David Baker (Jazz Master class of 2000) is quoted in the N.E.A. announcement as saying, “Jamey has revolutionized the way people practice, teach, create, and perform their music. Jamey has carried his message that ‘anyone can improvise’ and that ‘creativity is part of the nature of every person’ throughout the world to great success, impacting generations of both aspiring and established jazz performers and teachers.”

Richard Davis was named “best bassist” in Down Beat magazine’s Critics Poll from 1967-74. He worked throughout the 1960s as a notable sideman with, among others, pianists Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill, and saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, and Roland Kirk. Before that, he spent three years touring with singer Sarah Vaughan. He also worked with pop and rock singers including Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen. Somewhere in between, he worked with classical orchestras, as conducted by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and George Szell. Davis is a noted educator, having been a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1977. His playing was elemental to the indelible beauty of Dolphy’s 1964 album “Out to Lunch.” But what first alerted me to Davis’s power was his work on Van Morrison’s classic, “Astral Weeks.” On that album, his every note lands Morrison into deeply swinging territory (especially on “The Way Young Lovers Do”) and, more importantly, throughout, Davis tugs us into the pain and yearning behind Morrison’s words.

To me, Anthony Braxton embodies the very idea of a Jazz Master. Here, below, I share some appreciation of that, largely through the words of other musicians, via a 2010 piece for Jazziz magazine, which is not otherwise available online, and is based on a 65th birthday celebration (he’s now 68):

A bagpiper circled a darkened room. A single drone grew gradually into something more complex then suddenly distorted and choked off. This invocation, played by Matthew Welch, was the briefest and first of seven performances at le Poisson Rouge, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village —all in celebration of Anthony Braxton, a multi-reedist and composer whose influence runs deep and broad. It marked the first half of “Tri-Centric Modeling: Past, Present and Future,” a two-night festival in June that was both a 65th birthday party for Braxton and fundraiser for the nonprofit Tri-Centric Foundation, which supports archival performances and archival preservation of his music.

“If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be here,” said alto saxophonist Steve Coleman after drifting purposefully in and out of some Braxton pieces —“Rituals,” “Clouds,” “9 to 5”—in duet with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. Braxton stood in the doorway, stage right, in his customary button-down shirt, cardigan, and glasses, beaming. Coleman recalled first encountering Braxton’s musical concepts in Graham Lock’s book, “Forces in Motion.” “Your ideas blew me away,” he said. “There was a lot you didn’t answer, and I’ve been trying to figure that stuff out ever since.”

Braxton’s musical ideas have unspooled with mysterious authority ever since his involvement, in the 1960s, with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and the release, in 1968, of his solo-saxophone double-LP, For Alto. Idiosyncratic and uncompromising, Braxton’s work has reflected the influence classical and avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Karl Stockhausen as much as that of jazz icons likes John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. And Braxton has shown little inhibition regarding form or scale (1978’s’s Four Orchestras was just that: four orchestras amassed into a single epic work). His music has always reflected original conceptual frameworks for organization; some pieces were labeled with diagrams rather than with titles. From 1974 to 1980, the scope and imagination of Braxton’s music was aided and abetted by an unusual relationship with Clive Davis’s Arista Records. Such rare industry support would be impossible today.

Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, a board member of the Tri-Centric Foundation who served as host at le Poisson Rouge, alluded to such from the stage. “Anthony continues to show unshakeable commitment in a world where you’re allowed maybe to have a quartet,” he said. “He refuses to fit his ideas into any constraint.” In a later interview with National Public Radio’s Lara Pellegrinelli, Bynum expanded on that theme, and the context for work like Braxton’s:

“We need this kind of creativity. We’re desperate for it. So that’s why we put this celebration together: to have a platform for him to pursue his vision to the fullest extent and then to pull as many people into that vision as possible. There are the existent models for organizations that raise money: the philharmonics and the operas and the places that do jazz. Anthony’s a black guy with a saxophone…. So, the Foundation is here to support him, but ultimately the point is not to get 10,000 people doing Anthony Braxton’s music — it’s to get them doing their own music with a kind of vision, integrity, and beauty that Anthony has done with his own. We’re here to celebrate all of the ripples that his creativity has generated by bringing these people together in one room.”

And that’s how it went, for more than four hours.

Alto saxophonist John Zorn repeated Coleman’s sentiment—without you, there’s no us—after a stirring three-song set in quartet with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Brad Jones, and drummer Gerry Hemingway. They played one song apiece from Zorn and Douglas, and gave a riveting read to Braxton’s “Opus 23D,” mapping quite clearly the connections between their own sonic signatures and the architecture of Braxton’s piece.

Flutist Nicole Mitchell was no less fierce, in performance with her Black Earth Strings (violinist Rénee Baker and cellist Tomeka Reid); they brought precise articulation and a finely calibrated emotional arc some of Braxton’s music, including his “Ice” and Symbology.” A Chicagoan, she spoke of Braxton’s lasting influence in that city, through the AACM, and of his manner of “bringing a renegade spirit to music education.”

Braxton took to the stage three times. As scripted, he ended the evening playing within and directing his 12+2tet, which features instruments ranging from bassoon and tuba to electric guitar and violin. His 20-minute “Composition 361” ranged from funny to deep, clunky to graceful. Full of dense rumblings and interlocking motifs, it seemed in a constant state of formation and dissolution, like clouds across a busy sky.

The first of two surprise cameos by Braxton came in an electronics set by Richard Teitelbuam, after Teitelbuam recalled the roots of their 41-year friendship (they met in a muddy Belgian cow pasture) and related Braxton’s idea to do a duet recording (“Anthony says it must be at least 10 CDs,” he said.) With Teitelbaum seated before a tangle of wires dangling from what looked like archaic equipment, the two commenced a roughly ten-minute sonic dialogue. Sounds of raindrops, rusty hinges, cows mooing, and winds blowing were answered by Braxton’s alto horn—first breathily, then more forcefully. What began sounding like a chance encounter of sounds soon achieved an arc of narrative and some neatly matched tones. It was inscrutable, but also elegant, even song-like.

Deep history was referenced when pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser took the stage, along with Hemingway: They were Braxton’s bandmates through much of the 1980s and into the ‘90s, in a classic quartet. As a trio, they played with an admirable blend of reverence and abandon. But when Braxton stepped up to join them, the room grew hushed with anticipation—and for good reason.

Prior to playing, each of the three had spoken about their time with Braxton. Crispell explained how liberating it was to work with a musician who “doesn’t accept any of the existing models,” and how the quartet’s inaugural tour was the first time she laughed so hard that she cried. Hemingway described the feeling of “being on the edge of what the music is,” that Braxton made available. “I can’t tell you what it means when he gives you the green light,” said Dresser, “when he offers you space to realize not just his music but yourself.”

Beautiful words, but somehow suddenly unnecessary, especially when Braxton began playing John Coltrane’s “Impressions”—first glancingly, then more clearly, and distilled through his own filmy sound and wily sense of space. It wasn’t clear whether he blew the lid off the place or sealed a cap on something sacred.

Braxton spoke too, embracing everything from Lady Gaga’s pop-culture influence to the former glory of the American space program, landing firmly on the need for the sort of music his celebrants make. “My hope is that in the coming cycles somehow room will be made for non-marketplace artists who are trying to pursue their work…. Everywhere I go, especially in America, I meet men and women of good will. I meet artists who have taken on the discipline in the old tradition, with total dedication and love. And it’s still happening now, just like a hundred years ago.”

Braxton has lived and worked, blazing a lasting trail, through nearly half that century’s stretch. And he seems far from done. “If you have to be 65,” he said finally, “this is the best way to do it.”

Images/ Jamey Aebersold: by John Nation/ Anthony Braxton: by Carolyn Wachnicki/ Richard Davis: by Ken Halfmann/ Keith Jarrett: by Rose Anne Colavito

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