When it was first announced that changes would be made to the NEA Jazz Masters Ceremony, there was speculation about what that would mean. Gone were the days of free concerts for the public and all access for the press. The 2013 ceremony was all about the honorees.
The ceremony, held for the last three years in the more spacious, acoustically superior Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, was held instead in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s more intimate space, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, and was open to the friends and family of the 2013 honorees along with past honorees and select press only. The performance was available via live webcast for the public as it had been in recent years, but this time the web was as close as the public would get to actually attending the festivities. So, did the changes negatively affect the award’s ceremony? Not for anyone who actually watched.
Mose Allison, Lou Donaldson, Eddie Palmieri, and Lorraine Gordon were recognized on Monday, January 14, 2013, by the National Endowment for the Arts as the newest of the Jazz Masters bunch. As is the history of the program, the title of Jazz Master is only bestowed upon living artists who have made and continue to make an impact on the music and other musicians who have taken up the charge of carrying jazz’s legacy forward. It’s become a way to give those proverbial flowers to those who are still here to receive the gift. For all the controversy that ensued in the recent past over which artists are or are not award worthy, and the view that awards are based more on an artist’s popularity than his/her musical work, the Jazz Masters distinction is still regarded as the highest honor a jazz musician can receive. That was evident during the more than three-hour long program as Jazz Masters past helped inaugurate the 2013 class.
The ceremony was emceed by Jazz at Lincoln Center’s very own NEA Jazz Master, Wynton Marsalis (2011) ,who began the ceremony by introducing “the house band to rival all house bands,” Ron Carter (1998), Kenny Barron (2010), and Jimmy Cobb (2009), who performed a beautiful rendition of the late Dave Brubeck’s (1999) composition, “In Your Own Sweet Way.” Randy Weston (2001) performed his composition “Hi Fly” with the band in tribute to Brubeck—who passed away last month just one day shy of his 92nd birthday—and the other Jazz Masters we lost in 2012: John Levy (2006) and Von Freeman (2011). Jimmy Heath (2003) performed “Sweet Lorraine” while Sheila Jordan (2012) performed “Sheila’s Blues” in tribute to Gordon, who took over ownership of one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs, the Village Vanguard, when her husband Max Gordon passed away in 1989. Paquito D’Rivera (2005) and Dave Liebman (2011) also lent their names and talents to the evening’s musical festivities performing Miles Davis’s “All Blues” in tribute to Lou Donaldson. Musical tributes aside, the 2013 honorees made the evening.
Pianist/vocalist Allison was the first honoree to grace the stage as he performed a tender duet of his composition “Was” with his daughter Amy. As Allison performed the song on piano, Amy lovingly watched her father as she sang the compositions lyrics. It was a reminder that many of the men and women labeled “Jazz Master” do not belong solely to jazz. Many of them have families and loved ones who have sacrificed time while choosing instead to offer their love and unyielding support to those so committed to this musical art form.
Next, A.B. Spellman introduced Gordon’s daughter who was there to accept the award on her mother’s behalf. When Deborah Gordon addressed the crowd, she tempered a funny story about what her mother worried about most when she learned that she’d been selected as an honoree with a beautiful acknowledgment from Gordon of her late husband, Deborah’s father, Max.
Piano legend McCoy Tyner made Palmieri’s night after Tyner introduced the nine-time Grammy Award winning Palmieri as the evening’s next honoree. After telling a moving tale of the impact hearing Tyner play had on his career, Palmieri performed a beautiful rendition of a song he’d composed for his wife, “Iraida.”
The old saying “save the best for last” might have been applicable in the case of Lou Donaldson’s speech and subsequent performance were it not for the equally funny introduction from Jimmy Cobb and the enormity of the talent available in the room. Donaldson’s “tips” for staying young had the Dizzy’s crowd in stitches and probably left the at home audience aghast. It was “Sweet Papa” Lou’s moment, and he wasn’t going to let up that easily. When reverting to the topic of his 2013 honor, Donaldson only half- jokingly stated, “I was beginning to wonder what took so long.” When it came time to perform, Donaldson didn’t take long at all to get into his composition “Blues Walk.” The song was full of as much blues as one would expect from the famed saxophonist who left no room for jokes when it came to the music.
Though change is sometimes difficult to accept, when the integrity of the program and the accomplishments of the honorees remains the priority, it’s hard to go wrong.