NEA Jazz Masters Concert Preserves ‘Sanctity of the Arts’

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The 2017 NEA Jazz Masters at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 3, 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (left to right): Representing Ira Gitler, Fitz Gitler; Dick Hyman; Dave Holland; Dr. Lonnie Smith; and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

(Photo: Shannon Finney)

Since relocating from New York to The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the annual NEA Jazz Masters awards celebration has become a richly rewarding two-day fete. Beginning with a listening party at National Public Radio on April 2, an invitational evening awards dinner later that day, and a free culminating public concert on April 3, “The Highest Honor in Jazz” has been properly elevated, befitting the gifts delivered by these great jazz musicians throughout their storied careers.

The 2017 NEA Jazz Masters awardees included vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, writer-historian Ira Gitler (recipient of the annual A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy), bassist Dave Holland, pianist Dick Hyman and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith.

NEA Jazz Masters
2017 NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland, Dick Hyman, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Dr. Lonnie Smith (not pictured: Ira Gitler) at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Dinner, sponsored by BMI, on April 2, 2017. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

The NPR listening party brought each Jazz Master onstage with an artist from a succeeding generation or a longtime side-person, who selected touchstone recordings to illustrate the honoree’s artistic mastery. Diane Reeves joined Bridgewater onstage; son Fitz Gitler represented his 88-year old father, who couldn’t travel due to illness; saxophonist Chris Potter joined Holland; fellow pianist Bill Charlap waxed rhapsodic about Hyman’s career; and saxophonist Big Chief Donald Harrison emphasized the deep soulfulness of Dr. Smith.

Later that evening, joined by family, friends, and musical intimates the Masters received their awards (including a $25,000 fellowship) from the gracious, charmingly modest NEA Chairman Jane Chu. The heartfelt, unscripted, often amusing acceptance remarks from each Master exemplified the spontaneous nature of their artistry. One of the hallmarks of these fetes is the depth of genuine gratitude and humility with which each recipient receives this honor; an award level not often afforded purveyors of this art of the improvisers.

The culminating awards concert remains this country’s premier commemoration of jazz artistry. For each recipient, the evening includes brief introductory remarks by peer or mentee, a short biographical film, a capsule performance honoring the Master’s career, and the recipient’s acceptance remarks.

As the evening commenced at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, arrivals were serenaded by the woman-centric unit Diva ensemble, cooking up succulent big band appetizers. Fitz Gitler conveyed his father’s sentiment that Bird was half his heartbeat, Dizzy the other half. White-haired, black-clad NEAJM class of ’09 alto sax master Lee Konitz dueted with pianist Dan Tepfer, delivering a relaxed “All The Things You Are,” played around the edges and including Konitz’s scat choruses. Turning around and saluting Diva with “I’ve never seen so many women playing jazz,” Konitz blew “I Can’t Get Started” framed by the big band.

Lee Konitz
2009 NEA Jazz Master Lee Konitz (left) and pianist Dan Tepfer perform in honor of Ira Gitler at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 3, 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Shannon Finney

Hyman’s earliest musical stepping stone came when he copped the prize of 12 lessons from the great Teddy Wilson as a youngster, responding to a radio station contest. “You do have to have a sympathetic relationship with the audience,” he aptly informed, delivering a lesson oft-skirted by millennial musicians. Pianists Charlap and Aaron Diehl played a tribute medley that grew organically from “The Entertainer” through several Hyman gems, all rooted in the classic jazz piano tradition. Hyman celebrated the universality of the music while honoring the root, declaring “this music has been a gift from black Americans to all of us.”

Bill Charlap Aaron Diehl NEA
Bill Charlap (left) and Aaron Diehl perform in honor of Dick Hyman at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 3, 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Shannon Finney

Program remarks repeatedly highlighted the universality and cooperative spirit of jazz, often accompanied by heartfelt admonishments to protect the sanctity of the arts, a common thread in the evening’s remarks, avoiding the overtly political in our current executive branch climate, but making cogent points.

English bassist Holland’s simple declaration, “I am an immigrant,” elicited an appreciative ovation. Kenny Barron (NEAJM ’10) spoke to Holland’s “fearlessness,” and was followed by Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, drummer Nate Smith and bassist James Genus delivering a potent take on Holland’s “Prime Directive.”

James Genus Chris Potter NEA
James Genus (bass), Steve Nelson (vibraphonist), Robin Eubanks (trombonist), Chris Potter (saxophonist), and Nate Smith (drummer) perform in honor of Dave Holland at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 3, 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.) Photo by Shannon Finney

Declaring the organ “an extension of me,” the elegantly white-suited, yellow turbaned Dr. Smith was a striking presence. Preceding his genial, soft-spoken remarks were 16-yeard old wunderkind Matthew Whitaker, who deftly worked the B-3 keys and pedals for Jimmy Smith’s “Mellow Mood.” Illustrating the comfort zone Dr. Smith has often occupied in the crease between jazz and funk, the next artist, organ icon Booker T. Jones, delivered some sophisti-funk grooves with Genus on bass, Harrison on alto, Mike Moreno on guitar and Nate Smith on drums.

Matt Whitaker NEA
Matthew Whitaker (Hammond B-3), Nate Smith (drummer), and Mike Moreno (guitarist) perform in honor of Dr. Lonnie Smith at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 3, 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Shannon Finney

Terri Lyne Carrington spoke to Bridgewater’s tireless mentoring of young musicians, which Bridgewater herself emphasized in her remarks. She cited trumpeter Theo Croker in specific, whose beautiful obbligatos framed Reeves’ classy “I Wish You Love” in tribute to Ms. Bridgewater.

China Moses Diva NEA
China Moses and Sherrie Maricle and the DIVA Jazz Orchestra perform in honor of Dee Dee Bridgewater at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 3, 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Shannon Finney

Bridgewater’s daughter China Moses singing “Undecided,” echoing her mom’s vocal timbre alongside the Diva band. The victim of a recent household accident that severely injured a leg, Dee Dee soldiered on, speaking of her early career mentoring from Thad Jones and declaring, “music has allowed me to persevere.” Continuing to build on her DDB label imprint, Bridgewater invested her NEA fellowship funds in a pilgrimage to her Memphis birthplace to record what she professed will be her first blues album. DB



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