while considered the most perstiguous awards in Jazz the NEA JAZZ MASTERS, now down to four, are complex and vexatious.  the 2013 presentation of the 2012 announced $25,000 awards are Mose Allison, Lou Donaldson, Eddie Palmieri, and –pause for reflection– Lorraine Gordon.  the awards were held at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola on the 14th.

all the presenters are Jazz Masters in their own right.  even the entre acts are Jazz Masters.

in no particular order let’s break ‘em down.  Mose Allison is among the most influential vocalists in all music.  his voice and presentation comes from the country-fied field hands.  my early jazz friends and i did not even know he was white.  his stylized nasality and the tales he weaves are distinctly Southern, his roots.  the titles of his songs tell the story even before he sings his lyrics: Your Mind Is On Vacation (and your mouth is working overtime), Parchman Farm, to name but two.

his daughter, Amy, sang Mose’s ballad Was accompanied by her father.  George Wein presented the award not quite saying that he and the honoree share a history that transcends most of the black-tie audience.  Ms. Allison shares the family nasality.

Eddie Palmieri is the current star of a long line of Latin-Jazz composers, pianists and bandleaders.  there are those out here who still do not believe there is any such thing as “Latin-Jazz.”  the late Tito Puente even hated the word “salsa.”  ”it’s what you put over food,” he loved to quip.

Palmieri’s acceptance speech was a dedication to his forebears on the Cuba and Puerto Rico side as well to the presenter pianist McCoy Tyner.  i remember well when Eddie was being called “the McCoy Tyner of Latin music.”  when i read that it stood me up.  there was a renewed feeling towards my friend McCoy and never having met Eddie i listened with new ammunition.

Eddie told of taking his breaks at the Palladium on West 53rd and Broadway and dropping down to the original Birdland near West 52nd and catching McCoy doing an extended solo while Tyner’s boss, John Coltrane, sat at a nearby table “doing the payroll, or something.”  (more likely writing his next epochal composition.)

the Palladium.  now there was a showplace for Latin music.  it was there in the 1950s and ’60s where one could dance to perhaps on a good night two headliners, and one comer.  Dizzy Gillespie and his beboppin’ partner Charlie Parker would go up those stairs –Birdland was down a flight– on their breaks to find out “where one was,” Diz liked to say.  (the first beat in the measure is obfuscated in Latin music.)

one Palmieri aggregation came to be called “La Perfecta.”  but Eddiie had other bands some of which even played disco-danceables, i call them.  but if you were listening, underneath were the Palmieri percussion tempi.  they are still enlightening.  and you’ll never hear them on commercial CDs.

Eddie’s contribution at the NEA Awards was a very percussive piano solo Iraida.

Lou Donaldson has been on the scene longer than some people have been on earth.  his acceptance speech was as good a stand up routine as any there is.  his presenter, Jimmy Cobb, could not keep from laughing at his own script when he was reminiscing about his time with Sweet Lou.

Donaldson opened by saying that he was “wondering when they were going to get around to me,” [while i'm still around.]  Lou claimed he owed his long life to modern day chemicals: Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, pausing between each with a perferctly timed, “very important.”

it was during a Charlie Parker Lecture Series at my New School’s “Jazz Insights”ⓡ when Donaldson told the class that all those other guests may talk about Bird, but “i actually knew him!”

his selection was his own Blues Walk, a collection of riffs which at this point he indeed walks through.  but even somnambulistically Lou Donaldson blows soulfully hard.  his r & b attack still heats things up.  he was backed by the Jazz Masters Trio (see below).

the house rhythm section, NEA Jazz Masters all, Kenny Barron, piano, Ron Carter, bass, Jimmy Cobb, drums, opened the festivities with a dedication to the late Jazz Master Dave Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way.

Jazz Master Randy Weston in for Barron played his own Hi-Fly while the trio backed Jimmy Heath on his dedication to Gordon, Sweet Lorraine.  Master Sheila Jordan half-sang her story in Sheila’s Blues with trio back-up.  Masters Dave Liebman and Paquito D’Rivera plus Trio closed the affair with All Blues.

Former & current NEA Awardees @ Jazz At Lincoln Center Ceremony
photo Frank Stewart, courtesy Jazz @ Lincoln Center

i could get picky and ask why certain other performers and advocates are more deserving than others and why have they been overlooked to this point.  that would be pointless and self-serving as i’m sure so many others have their own faves.  but let’s face it, folks.  the NEA’s life seems to be tenuous what with gumment budget cuts and all.  reevaluation is needed as to whom presentation is made.  these awards are far too important to become a political football.

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ⓒ arnold jay smith

February 2013



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