The Jazz.com Blog
October 22, 2008 · 1 comment
Jazz fans love a party, and the biggest bash in jazz these days is the annual celebration of the NEA Jazz Masters. This year the event took place under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a standout group of honorees was on hand. The event also marked the swan song of a visionary NEA Chairman—yes, the one my my kids call Uncle—who has done a tremendous amount of good for the jazz world (among other things) during his tenure. Jazz.com’s arnold jay smith tells more below. T.G.
The National Endowment for the Arts presented its annual awards at a ceremony and concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Friday. The 2009 awardees are guitartist / vocalist George Benson, drummer Jimmy Cobb, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, guitarist / harmonicist/ whistler Jean Baptiste ‘Toots’ Thielemans, trumpeter Eugene ‘Snooky’ Young, and engineer Rudy Van Gelder, winner of the award for jazz advocate.
The 2009 NEA Jazz Masters (photo by Jos L. Knaepen)
At the conclusion of the concert Chairman Dana Gioia talked about his resignation as Chairman of the NEA effective inauguration day, January 20, 2009. The evening began with Gioia conducting a panel discussion with six jazz figures honored. Benson told of his uncle and stepfather creating his first electric guitar out of a table with a formica top. “Formica was new at that time,” he reminded us. This came after he heard his family’s swing and bebop recordings. “I knew then what I wanted to do.” Some years ago George told a reporter that his uncle had made his first acoustic guitar out of a cigar box and a stick. With it he made his first appearance as a professional, on a street corner.
Cobb’s legerdemain turns with the greats, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, Billie Holiday and a veritable Who’s Who of jazz. He reminisced about Dinah singing with a band in which he was in the rhythm section. When Dinah launched her solo career, having previously changed her name from Ruth Jones, Jimmy went with her. When asked about his appearance on the history-making, largest-selling jazz recording, Miles’s Kind of Blue, Jimmy seemed to mist over saying that it was the best time of his career. He clarified the details of an infamous incident outside the original Birdland where Miles was bloodied by the police making for some ugly racist tabloid headlines. Miles had told me that it was partially his fault. When I later asked Jimmy about it, he thought for a moment, then said,” Yeah. That sounds about right.”
Konitz talked about his time with pianist Lennie Tristano. To these ears, Tristano was a conundrum. His lines were simplicity personified, that is until you tried to play them. There were these strong unison lines which he insisted be played his way all the time. Yet when Konitz performed with the group his crafted solos often regarded as the first “free” jazz improvisations. Interesting-Lee changed his attention from “free” to the pure creativeness that his jazz has become.
Like Coleman Hawkins’ tenor sax before him, Toots Thielemans didn’t invent this ancient instrument; it just seems that way. He is by far the most creative musician on the harmonica, but he also plays the guitar and he whistles. You may read all about him in the OctoJAZZarians column on this blog. During the conversation portion of the ceremonies Baron Thielemans revealed that he once played a cardboard accordion performing French musette music. His responses to Chairman Gioia’s queries were filled with joy at just being alive and being able to play the music he loves.
Snooky Young, on the other hand, had to have the questions written out for him as he has lost most of his hearing. I guess playing in trumpet sections of virtually all the great bands from the thirties on, and doing the studios and the Tonight Show Band for 30 years takes a toll. He picked Jimmie Lunceford’s as the most fun although Count Basie was where he made his modern mark.
Lastly, we come to the non-musician of this sextet, but a valued sideman nonetheless, the engineer. At the concert portion the short film about Rudy Van Gelder flashed reproductions of record jackets. I remarked to no one in particular, “That’s my collection up there.” Again, it seems that way: Blue Note, Prestige, Clef/Verve. He was personal with Norman Granz and the latter day Verve producers including Creed Taylor. Van Gelder denies putting any kind of thumbprint on his recordings. “I just let the musicians do what they wanted,” he said. He didn’t do tracking till Taylor‘s CTI days. I visited the Van Gelder church-like studio in Englewood, NJ, church-like in that you didn’t speak especially in the booth. When he left the room to go into the studio to adjust a mike he covered the board with a cloth—I presume so that prying curious eyes couldn’t cop his settings.
The presentation/concert portion of the evening, co-hosted by Gioia and Wynton Marsalis, contained humor, some pathos, and best of all bonhomie. Tom McIntosh introduced Benson by telling us that he knew George before he knew George. Seems he and George’s birth father were armed forces buddies. Benson then laid into an up tempo “Stella By Starlight” with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Cobb, in an interview with WBGO earlier, said he’d try to play some of his patented “ding, ding, ding” as he did on the intro to “Someday My Prince Will Come” from his stint with Miles. He reprised the ding thing but the tune this time was John Williams’s Superman theme, “Can You Read My Mind,” again with the JALCO. Superman? Apropos indeed.
Konitz’s intro was by his long-time friend Phil Woods, who read his own prepared notes. “My memory is still good, just short,” he quipped. He also noted that Lee has no licks for anyone to cop. Then introduced him by “copping one of Bird’s lick’s, ‘my worthy constituent’ Lee Konitz. (The line was something Charlie Parker used on the Massey Hall recording introducing Dizzy.) Tears and standing cheers followed. Konitz proved the no-licks line by playing (around) “Body and Soul,” if you catch my drift.
Thielemans offering was not his 'social security number' “Bluesette.” Nor did he whistle the Old Spice jingle and no muppets appeared on stage with him. He dedicated his offering to Louis Armstrong, whom he first heard on recordings in his native Belgium. During “What A Wonderful World,” with a chart arranged and conducted by Rich DeRosa, Thielemans interjected the familiar Satchmo closing phrase, the one which ends with a growly “Oh yeah!” Snooky’s seconds were Frank Wess and Gerald Wilson who were as funny as any Bob and Ray routine. Wilson went on and on and Wess shot by when he could. It was all in good fun and the JALCO played Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’,” which featured Young on the atomic bomb cover Basie album.
An example of Van Gelder‘s work was played by the JALCO. Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” came from the album Blues and the Abstract Truth. As an encore and as a further tribute to the late Neal Hefti the JALCO played his “Splanky” which also came form the Atomic Basie album. McIntosh and congero Candido Camero sat in.
Almost anticlimactically, Chairman Gioia announced that this was his last Jazz Masters event, as he was resigning from his post. His all-too-brief tenure was marked by triumph after triumph for both jazz and its practitioners. The number of awardees doubled from three as did the financial aspect, which now stands at $25 grand per. He also has given jazz a greater profile among the public and the schools. Gioia is returning to his poetry writing, “before my muse abandons me.”
This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith