New NEA Jazz Masters: A classy last class

The National Endowment for the Arts’s final designated Jazz Masters are all worthy: drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, singer Sheila Jordan and trumpeter-educator-organizer-gadfly Jimmy Owens have had long and profoundly influential if not broadly celebrated or financially rewarded creative careers. So much the worse that this 30 year program highlighting genuine American artistic heroes has been zeroed out in the 2012 budget, to be replaced by proposed “American Artist of the Years Awards” that will toss jazz musicians into a mix including every kind of artist working in the performing arts (defined as dance, music, opera, musical theater and theater), with a de-emphasis on long-demonstrated artistry (I’ve blogged about this in detail previously). 

The Jazz Masters announcement was made in conjunction with announcements of new NEA National Heritage Fellowships and NEA Opera Honors recipients; both those programs have also been eliminated in the NEA’s 2012 budget.

Ending the Jazz Masters program which the NEA ballyhoos as “the nation’s top jazz honor” and which has conferred that status on 124 people over the past three decades leaves many equally worthy candidates without hopes of the $25,000 prize and, more significantly, official U.S. governmental admiration for lives exemplifying the USA’s forward-looking, democratic ideals regarding original individual expression and spontaneous collaboration. I have my own long, long list as to whom should be put on the Jazz Masters’ pedestal and they are entirely subjective (Sam Rivers, age 87; Roscoe Mitchell, age 71; Henry Threadgill, 67; Eddie Palmieri, 74; Andrew Cyrille, 71; Dee Dee Bridgewater, 61; Roswell Rudd, 75; Dave Holland, 63; Dave Burrell, 70; and Reggie Workman, 74 are at the top) and you can create your own, as jazz musician and educator Noah Baerman has

There are those who deny that the Jazz Masters program is good for jazz, and I think they’re wrong. But in any case, here are listening recommendations from the recorded works of the new Masters:

  • DeJohnette (age 68) is not only a drummer, well-established as perfect accompanist in un-Awarded jazz master Keith Jarrett’s trio (with fully deserving bassist Gary Peacock) — he’s a composer, pianist and especially fine bandleader. His most recent ensemble featuring saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, guitarist Dave Fuiczynski, pianist George Colligan and bassist Jerome Harris is cutting edge exciting and inspires him to play hard. He’s the drummer on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, too. As an introduction to his work, try New Directions, a 1978 quartet with the late, great Lester Bowie (an unacknowledged jazz master) and the track “Silver Hollow,” named for DeJohnette’s home outside of Woodstock NY.

  • Freeman (87 — for whom I wrote a nomination letter in 2009) is Chicago’s reigning jazz father figure, who has for decades taught numerous saxophone stars (aforementioned Mahanthappa, Steve Coleman, his own son Chico Freeman, etc. etc.) from the bandstand of his modest weekly gigs on the South Side. On Lester Leaps In from 1993 he leads a Chicago quartet including vastly under-appreciated pianist Jodie Christian, stalwart bassist Eddie de Haas and the late drummer Wilbur Campbell — all of whom are jazz masters. As is Von’s brother George Freeman, a unique guitarist.

  • Haden (73) — I’m proud to have known this bassist, composer and musical/political activist, who first rose to prominence for his indestructible interactions with Ornette Coleman and his Liberation Music Orchestra, for 30 years. I speak on his behalf in the documentary film bio Ramblin’ Bo by Reto Carduff, and I have many favorite records among his vast output. If you haven’t heard him, try Closeness Duets (now, criminally, available only as an import) in which he goes one-on-one with Ornette, Keith Jarrett, Alice Coltrane and not-yet-officially honored Paul Motian, or Ballad of the Fallen with his Orchestra, arranged by Carla Bley (another ought-to-be Jazz Master). The Blessing, Cuban born and bred pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 1991 North American debut, is also beautiful listening, with Jack DeJohnette in the drum chair. This is not to dis Haden’s Quartet West, his work in Old and New Dreams, his special projects with not-yet-Awarded jazz master guitarist Pat Metheny and Brazilian multi-talent Egberto Gismonti, et al.

  • Sheila Jordan (82) is one of the warmest and most down-to-earth singers jazz has enjoyed, and is unusual in her abilities as an improvising lyricist and songwriter. Her very earliest recordings, “You Are My Sunshine” on George Russell’s album The Outer View and her own Portrait of Sheila (from 1962, now out of print) are timeless, but her album Jazz Child from 1999 conveys what she’s learned and earned over time. One highlight is “Art Deco,” her lyrics to a lovely melody by the late, never-Jazz Master-honored trumpeter Don Cherry.

  • Jimmy Owens emerged in the ’70s as a fire-breathing trumpeter, but his recordings as a leader have been few and far between as he’s concentrated on jazz education and making music as a featured player. Considering his interest in team-play, it’s appropriate to recommend listeners curious about his sound to check out One More: Music of Thad Jones on which Owens has the horn chair in an all-star octet revisiting the compositions of the late trumpeter/composer/orchestra co-leader who was named an NEA Jazz Master in 1989.

These Jazz Masters will be feted and heard at a concert next January at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which the NEA credits as a partner in the presentations. The NEA/JALC concerts have been glorious events and I look forward to the 2012 edition. But it’s unclear whether some of other benefits Jazz Masters have enjoyed, such as tour and appearance support, will be offered to this group. Yes or no, it’s too damn bad the United States of America will no longer have a policy of identifying, praising and higher-profiling artists who work specifically in the jazz field, which so much different in every way than the world that’s available to dancers and choreographers, opera singers and orchestras, classical music composers and soloists and ensembles, theater directors and actors and musical theater participants. 

It doesn’t help the jazz cause that there is no concerted effort by any jazz-representative group to raise funds to supplant the NEA’s Jazz Masters program. I’ve heard unsubstantiated rumors that the constituency for the National Heritage Fellowships has banded together and present
ed their case for continuing that program to congressmen, hoping they’ll restore funds for that project through budget appropriations that are removed from the NEA itself. If only jazz people could try that same tactic. . . 

Meanwhile, there are several National Heritage fellows who deserve mention here, since they’re linked to jazz or the traditions that led up to jazz or follow from jazz or something like it. I include:

  • Bo Dollis, Mardi Gras Indian chief
  • Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, Taiko Drum leaders
  • Ledward Kaapana, Ukulele and slack key guitarist 
  • Frank Newsome, Old Regular Baptist singer 
  • Carlinhos Pandeiro de OuroPandeiro player and percussionist 
  • Warner Williams, Piedmont blues songster 
  • Yuri Yunakov, Bulgarian saxophonist

Hail to all, and the Opera honorees, too.
Subscribe by Email |
Subscribe by RSS |
Follow on Twitter
All JBJ posts |

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    I would add Butch Morris to your list. A true innovator by any historical standard.
    HM: Absolutely right, Gordon. Butch has done and is still doing something of enormous value which is so enormously overlooked that even I who consider him a friend forget to insist that he be recognized as the master and key innovator that he is.

  2. Chuck N says

    Your Von Freeman link is a dozen years out of date.
    HM: Chuck Nessa produced a great Von Freeman record before anyone else. Chuck — what’s Von’s current link? I haven’t found anything else but reviews of this or that album and an occasional article.

  3. says

    Yes, I suppose it is a shame. But the relationship of the U.S. govt (and we must consider the NEA to be under that umbrella) has had a complicated relationship with Jazz masters going a long way back.
    So perhaps one way of looking at it is that there will be one less item of hypocrisy to be ballyhooed.
    But it certainly is our loss as a nation; another rung down on our ladder of ignorance.
    HM: I had thought the NEA’s Jazz Masters was a step in the right direction for the US government to proclaim American artistry. It was, and now the US gov’t is stepping back from it. Conservatives don’t accuse jazz (or National Heritage fellows or Opera honorees) of overstepping bounds of good taste, the way they attacked visual and performance artists in order to end the NEA’s individual artists’ grants programs. They just deny Keynsian economics and that’s it, the programs (among many others, most even more essential) are folded.

  4. petroleum v nasby says

    I will catch some flak for this, but to include Jimmy Owens in this group is absolutely nuts. I don’t know how one could consider him a jazz master. He is indeed an educator, known at the New School. He is not well respected there however; The students see him as a self-important talker who does not really play any gigs and has not really made any important contributions in terms of recordings, writing, or playing. He is a very active advocate of Jazz music through local 802. But Jazz master? Never. Name one record you can put on and say “ahhh, that feeling, that sound, those ideas…that’s Jimmy Owens.” Those records do not exist. THAT is the definition of what a Jazz Master is…

      • petroleum v nasby says

        Ok. I still think that the Jazz masters awards should be for Jazz masters! There are so few areas where Jazz artists can be recognized. Advocate for that!

        • says

          As few areas for recognizing jazz artists, even fewer to recognize advocates. This is one reason there’s a JJA Jazz Awards, some of which honor journalists. The NEA award is named for A.B. Spellman, whose advocacy extended deeply within the NEA itself. I’m all for recognizing people who’ve worked to make sure jazz music and the people who make it are recognized, that the art form are respected, nurtured, disseminated, and yes preserved, too — but especially sustained in the present.