Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has bestowed the honor of Jazz Master on more than 134 of jazz music’s greatest innovators. This past Monday night, the NEA recognized four more in keyboardist and composer Carla Bley, saxophonists George Coleman and Charles Lloyd, and Joe Segal, the owner of Chicago’s Jazz Showcase. The evening was ripe with witty introductions—thanks to the storytelling of “Sweet Papa” Lou Donaldson—and pregnant reflections as fans and fellow Jazz Masters looked on inside Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall. Multi-award winning bassist Christian McBride served as the evening’s host.
The evening began with a performance of compositions by two of the eight NEA Jazz Masters who were later recognized in memoriam more than halfway through the ceremony: Clark Terry and Horace Silver. The ceremony’s designated house band—pianist Helen Sung, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, drummer Rudy Royston, and bassist Hans Glawischnig—performed Clark Terry’s “Serenade to a Bus Seat,” and Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty” before NEA Chairman Jane Chu offered welcoming remarks on behalf of the nation’s premier arts organization.
Jazz Masters past served as presenters for the evening. Eddie Palmieri was the first presenter, offering a few light-hearted jokes just prior to introducing honoree Carla Bley. For her part, Bley kept her comments brief sharing stories about her early beginnings as a coat-check girl at jazz clubs in New York City and paying homage to the musicians (her first husband Paul Bley and current musical collaborator Steve Swallow) smart enough to offer her an opportunity to create. Amateur comedian and accomplished veteran of the music, “Sweet Papa” Lou Donaldson shared a story of how the evening’s second honoree George Coleman’s playing likened him to an opponent boxing icon Joe Louis once referred to as “danger man.” Coleman didn’t have much to say when he stepped to the podium to accept his award, but when he took to the stage, saxophone in hand, his performance was evidence that the best jokes are rooted in truth. Pianist Kenny Barron offered kind words as he recounted his initial encounter with the evening’s third honoree Charles Lloyd. Acknowledged for the rare feat of selling one million records, Lloyd shared reflections that were both spiritual and based in a renewed appreciation of the creative possibilities available in the present moment. And Jimmy Heath closed out the presentations when he acknowledged the final awardee, AB Spellman award recipient Joe Segal. As the owner of one of Chicago’s most notable jazz venues, Segal has seen the best names in the music walk through the Jazz Showcase doors. Monday night, a few of them took the opportunity to express their gratitude.
The general public nominates NEA Jazz Masters. For more information on the process go to http://www.arts.org.