Hurray for the new NEA Jazz Masters

Dean of post-jazz Muhal Richard Abrams,  doyenne of vocalese Annie Ross and George Avakian, who invented jazz albums and reissues, popularized the LP and live recording, are among eight 2010 Jazz Masters named today by the National Endowment of the Arts. New York-based pianists Kenny Barron and Cedar Walton, exploratory reedist Yusef Lateef, big band composer-arranger Bill Holman and vibist Bobby Hutcherson complete the list of the NEA’s new honorees, who receive $25,000 grants and significant honors starting next January with ceremonies and a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Founded in 1982, the Jazz Masters program has recognized American musicians (and since 2004, non-musician “jazz advocates”) for career-long achievement and pre-eminence and influence. This year’s fellows are highly regarded professionals who have been productive, hailed by critics and love by aficionados for decades, if seldom visited by huge commercial success or mainstream fame. The relative exception is Ms. Ross, who has cut a fashionable figure since her emergence in the late 1950s (as in this clip singing her signature song “Twisted,” later covered by Joni Mitchell) and participation in the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Her acting career includes a starring role as a saloon singer in Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts (based on stories by Raymond Carver).


But Muhal Richard Abrams,78, based in New York since the 1980s though identified irrevocably with Chicago, where he co-founded the artists-run AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in 1966, and Yusef Lateef, an 89-year-old Chattanooga-born, Detroit raised reeds specialist and educator who developed a world-music perspective through extensive studies and travel — like Barron (66), Hutcherson (68), Walton (75), Holman (82) and Avakian (90) — are names most likely recognized to devotees, though their impact on musical culture has been extensive and significant. 

Abrams’ interests in musical experimentation and his organizational savvy have resulted, for example, not only in a catalog of some two dozen varied and multi-facted solo, small group and mix-ensemble recordings and a four-decade-plus concert history, but also in the rise and continued generation of original, boundary- and genre-defying AACM instrumentalists (such as Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell et al of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, George Lewis, Henry Threadgill) in two chapters, steeped in traditions but using them as they will. (Abrams also has a small speaking role in Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool, shot around the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968).
Lateef, named William Huddleston at birth, converted to Islam and took his new name in 1950, became a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and an introducer of double reed instruments from the Middle East and Asia into jazz song forms while co-starring in the popular Cannonball Adderley Sextet starting in 1961.He currently teaches at University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Hampshire College in Vermont, and also has a vast catalog of recordings, most of which are exemplary for expressiveness and unpredictability.
Hutcherson is one of this blog’s favorites, a hard-swatting mallet melodicist equally at home playing uptempo Blue Note hard-bop, contributing to abstract and far-reaching compositions (as on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch), standards and ballads. Barron and Walton are heroes of New York’s late-night piano bar scene and a zillion sessions; both are renown for taste and touch. Holman is highly regarded by his peers in the rarified strata of large ensemble jazz arrangers. Avakian, a sophisticated jazz enthusiast who recorded everyone from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins in positions at RCA and Columbia Records, among other labels, is a welcome presence at clubs all over New York, and famed in his ancestral home, Armenia. 
This year’s NEA Jazz Masters represent some of jazz’s depths, if rather less so its breadth. There are many more jazz masters throughout the U.S. who deserve comparable levels of recognition and support, though the NEA can, understandably, only do so much on its own. Perhaps it behooves states and municipalities to imitate the National Endowment’s initiative, and reproduce this kind of jazz masters program on more local and regional levels. Is it hopelessly idealistic to hope the financing could be found for such a project? 

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