The glory of living American jazz musicians filled Jazz at Lincoln Center last night to celebrate the 30th annual National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters fellowships — and some of the best news was the vitality of the music they played (webcast audio by WBGO and Sirius Radio, video at arts.gov).
But of equally significance immediately was spread of the word that the Jazz Masters program will indeed continue into the future in regards to financial awards for selected Masters, for sure. As for celebratory ceremonies and productions such as the concert, press activities, luncheons and fellowship attending the 30th annual Jazz Masters awards, the future is less clear.
Here are some highlights of what I saw and heard:
- Bobby Hutcherson, 72 and hooked to oxygen, sitting back from his vibes for brief rest between each chorus, ending his duo with pianist Kenny Barron improvising one of the most utterly spontaneous yet finely struck of final cadences.
- Frank Wess, turned 90 Jan. 4, blowing a tenor sax tribute to long gone but never forgot Lester Young, with young Benny Golson (83 on Jan. 25, 2012) fast on his tail.
- Irrepressible class of 2012 Jazz Master Sheila Jordan, 83, playfully getting an audience to sing along with her, “Bird!” and returning to scat with ’12 JM Jimmy Owens playing flugelhorn on Ornette Coleman’s jaunty “When Will The Blues Leave?” — driven by ’12 JM Jack DeJohnette, tethered by long-ago-named JM bassist Ron Carter, and with Ornette himself (a JM of course) listening from a front row.
This was music full of fun, a sense of possibility and jauntiness — nothing old fashioned about it, though sure enough a blues.
A few minutes earlier Owens had played a touching unaccompanied flugelhorn solo on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” which he dedicated to the late Dr. Billy Taylor — having first lambasted New York City’s jazz performance clubs for reneging on promises purportedly made to a jazz musicians’ pension fund. His blunt indictment might have seemed out of place at a fete of lifetime achievement, had not Jack DeJohnette in his acceptance speech cited today’s turbulence as like that of the ’60s when he began his jazz career, and had ’12 JM Charlie Haden, who stayed home for medical reasons, not earned a rep for similar truth to power with protests that got him arrested in Portugal, and that resulted in his classic Liberation Music Orchestra album.
Wynton Marsalis, named an NEA Jazz Master along with his father Ellis and brothers Branford, Jason and Delfayo in 2011, sat in the trumpet section of his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, backing the performing masters as necessary and delivering substantially swinging versions of big band works by Count Basie and Benny Carter. There was an ostensible bridging of generations in this Jazz Masters concert, as young up ‘n’ comers Grace Kelly, Kris Bowers and Ambrose Akinmasure with older Masters Phil Woods, Wess-Golson and Liebman/Carter/DeJohnette, respectively. Altoist Kelly could aspire to Woods’ naturalness, Bowers seemed more Monk- than Basie-like, and Akinmasure didn’t make a strong impression, though Liebman did, squeezing sardonic squiggles out of his soprano saxophone as if putting his reed under the most intense pressure.
There were other nice moments, like Hubert Laws’ rippling low notes against Ron Carter’s upright bass. Some nice moments of speech — as when Stanley Crouch, presenting the award who, like Von Freeman, wasn’t attending for health reasons, spoke of empathy as the essence of jazz.
The Jazz Masters ceremonies, including press conference and photoshoot, luncheons, rehearsals as well as the two and a half-hour concert performed by Masters and Wynton Marsalis’s Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, are the occasion of an amazing gathering of living, aging yet still active jazz masters. At a photo shoot before the concert, Randy Weston, Ahmad Jamal, Muhal Richard Abrams, Annie Ross, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lee Konitz (seemingly recuperated from a medical crisis last summer), Jimmy Scott (wearing one perfectly white shoe, one sneaker, and in a chair), Paquito d’Rivera, Candido, Laws, Carter, Jordan, Woods, Coleman, Sheila Jordan, DeJohnette, George Wein, George Avakian, Gunther Schuller, Dan Morgenstern, Yusef Lateef, Jimmy Heath, Joe Wilder, Roy Haynes . . . They posed for a formal portrait, then broke and let in NEA officers and about half the music photojournalists in the tri-state area (Jack Vartoogian, Norm Harris, Alan Nahigian, Mitchell Seidel, Frank Stewart, etc.) It was most entertaining.