Celebrate NEA Jazz Masters Tonight (And Advocate for the Endowment Tomorrow & The Next Day…)

Dee Dee Bridgewater. Photo by Mark Higashino
Dee Dee Bridgewater is among the NEA Jazz Masters class of 2017. Photo by Mark Higashino

I suppose we’re past the point of irony these days. And yet I’ll note: Before the Trump International Hotel was installed at Washington D.C.’s Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue (which involved a thoughtless renovation, involving crystal chandeliers, polished brass railings and marble tiles that contradict the structure’s architectural integrity), the historic building was home to the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Trump administration’s initial budget plan, released last month, proposed eliminating the NEA, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. (Who needs culture and history when you’ve got gleaming brass and chandeliers?)
Much has been said—and need be said—about the practical wisdom of sacrificing support of arts and culture to save a mere .003 per cent of the federal budget (roughly forty-six cents per capita) not to mention the symbolism of axing this sort of governmental priority while increasingly military spending.
statement from NEA Chairman Jane Chu noted “as a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly. We will, however, continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.” There’s another useful NEA website document on this subject here.
As Chu said, the NEA is continuing its valuable practice, which makes a significant mark across arts and culture, and is deeply felt in jazz circles. For instance, the most recent round of NEA Art Works grants for presenters more than 40 grants to support jazz projects or projects that have a component related to jazz. (The NEA was one of the earliest and remains among the largest funders of jazz in this country; since 2005, the NEA has awarded more than $33.5 million in jazz-related grants and additional support to the field.)
As Ann Meier Baker, the NEA’s director of music and opera told me during a recent interview, “We’re supporting the entire ecosystem of jazz, from the top down and from the bottom up and often blurring the lines between disciplines because that’s what jazz musicians do.”
The most visible and celebrated aspect of the NEA’s support for jazz is the Jazz Masters Program, which this year will be celebrated with a tribute concert at the Kennedy Center on April 3, 2017. Below are the facts and links.

WHAT: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) honors the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters at a tribute concert held in collaboration with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, hosted by Jason Moran. The concert will also be webcast live.

The 2017 NEA Jazz Masters are:

The tribute concert will include remarks by the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters (representing Ira Gitler will be his son, Fitz Gitler); as well as Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center; Jason Moran, pianist and Kennedy Center artistic director for Jazz; NEA Jazz Masters Dan Morgenstern and Kenny Barron; jazz and film critic Gary Giddins; and National Medal of Arts recipient and Kennedy Center Honoree Jessye Norman. The concert will include performances by NEA Jazz Masters Paquito D’Rivera and Lee Konitz, as well as Bill CharlapTheo CrokerAaron DiehlRobin EubanksJames GenusDonald HarrisonBooker T. JonesSherrie Maricle and the Diva Jazz OrchestraPeter MartinMike MorenoChina MosesSteve NelsonKassa OverallChris PotterDianne ReevesNate SmithDan Tepfer, and Matthew Whitaker.

WHEN: Monday, April 3, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall (2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20566); video-streamed live at arts.govKennedy-Center.org, and NPR.org/Music; and audio-streamed at SiriusXM Channel 67, Real Jazz.


In addition to the concert, there are two other events celebrating the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters:

  • NPR Listening Party with the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters on Sunday, April 2, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.
  • Howard University Master Class with 2017 NEA Jazz Masters on Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.

Full details are available here.

These have in past been touching and good events, emblematic of not just the diversity and strength of jazz’s ranks but the sense of community and personality that exalt the art form. You can find my coverage of past Jazz Masters events here, here and here.

I recall in 2011, when word came that the Jazz Masters as we knew it would be disbanded, there was considerable outcry and some soul-searching. One colleague of mine wrote about the idea of honoring worthy jazz musicians of all ages with a renewed Jazz Masters honor. I thought about that, and concluded that the program is just right as it is—and essential to what we now must protect and a necessary NEA endowment. You can read that full piece here, but below is an excerpt:

…the Jazz Masters program addressed the needs of these elder players as well as the idea of supporting jazz in a broader context with both symbolic and practical answers, and did something more: It embodied the notion, essential within circles of jazz musicians and in communities that have nurtured jazz, that elders must be honored and respected with more than just lip service. Especially in the marketplace, jazz’s return to popular fascination in the late 1980s and 1990s was heralded by and focused on a youth movement of so-called “young lions.” The Jazz Masters program, in contrast, placed the spotlight on jazz’s elders, some of them popular stars at one point or another, others little known beyond jazz insiders. (Only living musicians are eligible.)

….I felt ambivalent for many years about the Jazz Masters program, until the announcement, later reversed, of its proposed cancellation. I found myself arguing for its continuation, based mostly on notion that we either honor jazz or not — and isn’t it much better to identify a pool of “masters” and have those musicians (and their bodies or work, and their influence) define what jazz might or might not be (instead of endless haggling about what jazz is and isn’t, based mostly on critical presumptions, sales, and grandstanding writers). I guess I sort of ended up liking the idea of “jazz masters” roaming the earth — even simply as people this country’s government choose to designate, despite the reality that those musicians more often than not rely on European government cultural subsidies for their own bottom lines. And while it does seem on the face of things that this serves as a “lifetime achievement award,” that particular aspect of the way this program is structured can just as easily be taken (or at least, I’m going to assert it) as a reflection of jazz’s essential African (and African American) root, wherein elders and ancestors are not simply honored but invoked, and in which light the jazz master is really something of a griot — a master storyteller/historian/correspondent whose medium is music. In that sense, a jazz master is honored not simply for length of service, brilliance, innovation, singularity, or appeal (though those things are necessary just to make the cut) but for the significance and resonance of the storyline they contribute to whatever could possibly be meant by a jazz community. Excellence is taken for granted, but cannot be the sole measure; some of the most technically gifted or critically important musicians take a backseat to those who simply end up mattering more in sublime ways.

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