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).
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.
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.
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. . .
- 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 Ouro, Pandeiro player and percussionist
- Warner Williams, Piedmont blues songster
- Yuri Yunakov, Bulgarian saxophonist
Hail to all, and the Opera honorees, too.