The Jazz.com Blog
January 12, 2008 · 2 comments
An NEA jazz master is one of a tiny, tiny elite. Only a hundred men and women have ever been chosen by the United States’ top arts organization to receive this honor, less than the number who have climbed Mount Everest or flown into space.
Too many masters of jazz passed on before they could receive this kind of honor: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday are a few from the hundreds who died before the country of their birth – and indeed, the world - fully recognized the value of their gifts.
As the number of jazz pioneers dwindles, the NEA has accelerated its granting of this honor. At least six have been honored each year since 2004, instead of the three in each of the preceding twenty-one years. Of this hundred, nearly half have passed on. From the six who were honored this year, one – pianist Andrew Hill – died last April, shortly after he received news of the award.
Because of this, a sense of heartfelt camaraderie and gratitude for the gifts of jazz and life permeated this year’s NEA awards at the IAJE, which honored Candido Camero, Andrew Hill, Quincy Jones, Tom McIntosh, Gunther Schuller and Joe Wilder.
“I only had to wait nine months to be born, then 86 years to receive this award!” joked Camero, a conga player who has introduced countless jazz fans to the intricacies of Afro-Cuban rhythm since his arrival in New York from Havana in 1946. Camero, who invented the technique of playing two conga drum at once, has performed and recorded with everyone from Charlie Parket and Tony Bennett to Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus and Stan Kenton.
85-year-old trumpeter Joe Wilder, one of the first major jazz musicians also to gain acceptance in the world of classical music, shared memories from his years on the road with Lionel Hampton and Count Basie, and reflected on the contributions of jazz to the advancement of equality. “It’s raised our level of social understanding,” he said.
Quincy Jones was visibly moved by his reunion with friends from his early years as a trumpeter and arranger. “I knew these guys before electricity – we used to starve together!” he laughed. Despite the hardships, he recalled his apprenticeships with Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and others as a time of peak musical experience. “The forties and fifties – I wouldn’t trade that time for anything in the world.”
“The world has chosen jazz and blues as its Esperanto,” Jones remarked on his travels around the world, but he laments the fact that more is not done in the United States to introduce young people to jazz. “They don’t know how to hear it,” Jones said. "When we were young, it was all we knew, because it was all around us.”
Composer Gunther Schuller marveled at how the musical conversation has broadened since the fifties, when he and John Lewis sought to bring improvisation into classical music through the Third Stream movement. ”I got hell from both sides,” recalled Schuller. “But now, so many talented musicians have decided to bring music together.”
McIntosh, the legendary arranger and film composer who Duke Ellington once hoped would replace Billy Strayhorn after his death, summed up the mood of the past and present jazz masters at the evening’s gala ceremony. “The source of life is happiness,” he told the gathered crowd. “And jazz is not the devil’s music: it’s God’s choice.”
The evening concert began with a tribute to Oscar Peterson, played by surviving members of Peterson’s group and Oliver Jones, a Canadian pianist who learned as a child by sitting on the steps of Peterson’s family home in Montreal to listen to him practice.
Jazz Master David Baker then led the Smithsonian’s Jazz Masterworks Orchestra through a number of highlights from Quincy Jones’ career, including “Soul Samba” and “Quintessence."
Vocalist Kurt Elling joined the orchestra for rousing renditions of songs Jones arranged for Frank Sinatra, including “Luck be A Lady Tonight” and “You Make Me Feel So Young,”as well as his own lyric and arrangement to “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”
Singing for the audience of assembled jazz masters – which included Jones, Joe Hendricks and Nancy Wilson – was a dream come true for Elling. “Just give me the first three rows,” Elling said, “and I'm happy.”
But the evening’s highlight came after the ceremony, when newly minted Jazz Masters Candido and Joe Wilder, and 2005 master Paquito D’Rivera, came on stage for an impromptu jam session.
“One more time?” Candido asked the audience, beaming, after he brought them out of their seats with his solo. “Yeah!” the crowd answered, on their feet. “One more time?” He asked again, after an even hotter reprise. “Yeah!!” They replied. These Masters are no ways tired, nor are they done with us yet. We are lucky to have them.
This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins