Meet the NEA’s new Jazz Masters

The National Endowment for the Arts’ latest class of official “Jazz Masters” includes vocalist and guitarist George Benson, drummer Jimmy Cobb, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, harmonica and guitar player “Toots” Thielemans, trumpeter Snooky” Young, and recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder.  All estimable choices, each receiving $25,000, opportunities to participate in photo shoots and public appearances and introduction an official ceremony on October 17 at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Plus, Steve Wonder has won the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Music. Fair choices, all. These are professionals whose works sometimes are truly inspired.   

  • Benson is quite possibly the best improvising guitarist alive — though for many years he’s buried that talent under his modest but popular skills as a singer. 
  • Cobb, most famously drummer on Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue (which has just been reissued as a three-CD “Anniversary Collector’s Edition”), has a faultless sense of rhythm; I once watched him testing cymbals in a Turkish cymbal factory showroom, patiently spinning a series of metal discs for ten minutes at a time against his steady ding-dinga-ding, listening critically for overtones from their rims to their nubs. 
  • Konitz is one of the coolest original soloists over the past 60 years, a man who held his own against the overwhelming influence of Charlie Parker while collaborating with progressive iconoclasts from Stan Kenton to Lennie Tristano to Miles Davis to Elvin Jones and even to Ornette Coleman, who might be alpha to his omega.
  • Thielemans is beloved for the jazz waltz “Bluesette” and for the easily swinging novelty of his harmonica playing and whistling.
  • Young is a lead trumpeter who developed the plunger mute to a high art, employed first in big bands then in television studio orchestras.
  •  Van Gelder is indubitably the person most responsible for giving jazz recordings their sound since 1952. And he gave recordings on Blue Note, Prestige, Savoy, Impulse! and CTI Records all their own sounds. 
  • Wonder has written, recorded and performed more sweet, soulful and edgy songs than even Paul Simon who won the Gershwin Prize when it was first given, just last year. Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Stephen Sondheim or Chuck Berry in 2009, please.
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  1. Lauren Deutsch says

    And meanwhile in Chicago, a true Master once again does not get recognized–the inestimable 86 year old Von Freeman. I sent the box of Von’s masterworks to NEA this year, daring them to say he is not deserving of the accolade–and they sent me back a form letter. Even letters of support from Richard the Second, Lois Weisberg, and many writers and musicians from around the country do not seem to persuade the A.B. Spellmans of the world that someone who chose to stay in Chicago and raise a whole generation of new players is deserving of the award.
    I mean–George Benson? He maybe had it at one time, but what has he done for us lately?
    HM: Von Freeman is indeed a jazz master and how the Jazz Masters are chosen remains a mystery; Benson doesn’t need the $ or recognition any more than did Quincy Jones, one of last year’s picks. But please let’s not pick on the “A.B. Spellmans of the world” — A.B., who wrote the enduring “Four Lives in the Bebop Business” about Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Jackie McLean and Herbie Nichols (without Spellman’s book, now titled Four Lives, Nichols might have been lost to history) back in the ’60s should be part of the solution, not a nickname for the problem.