The 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Awards were presented at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Allen Room in early January.  The awardees were Jamey Aebersold, Anthony Braxton, Richard Davis and Keith Jarrett.  Hosted by Wynton Marsalis and tv anchor Soledad O’Brien, it ran 90 minutes overtime half of which was takan up by a Braxton ramble on topics even the astute among us could not fathom.

An important veteran observer noted of Jarrett’s acceptance speech that “on a night where the three previous recipients were all music professors and spoke at length about their careers [Jarrett] noted that he was kicked out of music school and fired from his first gig.”  [Jarrett] also said that “you can be educated about everything there is to do with music and you are still zero until you let go of what holds you back.”  My feeling is that short oration was a subtle and polite reaction to what went on before.

When I was coming up as a pianist –very short-lived– one of the first things I was told is that you don’t take long solos because that will open the door for others to do the same and ruin the set for the audience.  Braxton might have heeded that advice.

The rest of the evening was boilerplate, masterful in moments, but to these ears  pedestrian at best.  Aebersold, the publisher of a long line of excellent How-To-Play-A-Long-Books and a multi-instrumentalist in his own right, spoke at length (setting the stage?).  He did, however, demonstrate the theme of these awards, neophytes and vets playing together as he was joined by a young rhythm section.  Vocalist Ann Hampton Calloway sang with, among others, this year’s Thelonious Monk Competition winner saxist Melissa Aldana and excellent newbie pianist Amina Figarova.

Previous NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Owens and Kenny Barron, trumpet and piano, respectively, honored fellow Master Frank Wess with the latter’s “Placitude.”  Wess had recently passed (see my blog item below).  Bassist Richard Davis, veteran of rock, r&b, jazz, pops, and symphony orchestras, some of which were delineated, offered a masterful a-cappella improvisation.

Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” was an “extra” by Joe Lovano, tenor, Warren Wolf, vibes, Kris Bowers, piano, Yasushi Nakamura, bass and Mark Whitfield. Jr., drums.  Whitfield, a scion of a musical family, has a lot to say; watch for him.

As the exhausted audience were already retreating, guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Jason Moran played Jarrett’s “Memories of Tomorrow.”  NEA Master Jimmy Heath, tenor, wound it down playing his own “New Picture” with Aldana, Chris Pattishall, piano, Russell Hall, bass and Jamison Ross, drums.

What passes for the JALC A-List came to be seen dressed from furs to jeans, but they nodded during the speeches.  Perhaps cue cards shouting “ENOUGH!” is the answer, or someone making the “cut” motion across their throat.  (Hey, Frank Sinatra was rudely cutoff at a Grammy Awards national telecast.  Each time I look at that piece of tape I cringe.)  It’s a tough call, one I wouldn’t want to make; these are, after all, our Jazz Masters.

© January 2014 by arnold jay smith

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