Stanley Crouch, Bob Dorough, Abdullah Ibrahim, Maria Schneider Honored at NEA Jazz Masters Tribute


On April 15, South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim; the late pianist, singer and songwriter Bob Dorough; composer, arranger and bandleader Maria Schneider; and writer, critic and erstwhile drummer Stanley Crouch were honored at the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters tribute.

For the third consecutive year, the NEA’s annual concert seemed as if it were perched on a precipice. The Trump administration’s 2020 budget proposes eliminating the NEA, just as it’s done in the two preceding years. Along with the proposed dissolution of the organization would be the end of a $25,000 fellowship, which started in 1982 and ranks as one of the nation’s highest honors paid to jazz performers.

But during the official concert and induction ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., there was none of the dark cloud or political whispering that dominated previous years. Perhaps there even was optimism afoot: In 2018 and 2019, Congress had overruled the White House proposal, and recent midterm elections have created a new and more arts-friendly field of legislators. Or perhaps it simply was excitement about the year’s unique, wide-ranging class of new Jazz Masters.

“I love this class—they’re so diverse,” Ann Meier Baker, the NEA’s director of music and opera, told DownBeat. “It’s a great example of the diversity of jazz today, and there’s a lot to celebrate.”

Only two of the four honorees were on hand for the tribute, held in the Kennedy Center’s concert hall and hosted by pianist Jason Moran. Dorough passed away at age 94 in April 2018—17 days after learning of his induction. Crouch, meanwhile, was at home recovering from an illness.

Ibrahim and Schneider were both present to accept their honors, which included short film tributes, as well as performances of music associated with each artist.

Ibrahim’s film found the Cape Town-born pianist describing his coming of age during apartheid, developing his swing from listening to the great Harlem stride pianists and playing in dance bands where he put African beats to Irish reels. The performance featured a quintet with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist Moran and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington (the evening’s musical director), along with two frequent Ibrahim collaborators, flutist Cleave Guyton and cellist Noah Jackson, playing absorbing versions of the Ibrahim compositions “The Balance (Moniebah)” and “Tuang Guru.”

“I am deeply honored by this award,” said Ibrahim, dedicating it to his grandmother, “who sent me to the local schoolteacher in Cape Town for piano lessons”; his mother, “who played piano for silent movies”; and the colleagues and mentors who inspired his “quest to strive for perfection.”

Schneider, in her film, recounted her first piano teacher, Evelyn Butler, from her childhood in Windom, Minnesota, and the revelation as a student that a life in music was possible after seeing Toshiko Akiyoshi perform. Subsequently, three of her longtime collaborators—pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and reedist Scott Robinson—joined Carrington to perform a lively version of Schneider’s chipper samba “Choro Dancado.” Acclaimed opera singer—and Kennedy Center artistic advisor—Renee Fleming then took the stage and gave a stately, exquisite rendition of “Walking By Flashlight.”

“How lucky I am,” said Schneider as she accepted the award. “This happened because of many, many people along the way. ... I wonder how many heartfelt dreams out there never see the light of day. Lives are shaped by the encouragement of others, or lack thereof.”

The absent honorees received fitting tributes—and stand-in acceptances as well. Though Dorough is best known for his work on Schoolhouse Rock and such songs as “Three Is A Magic Number,” the tribute instead focused on his jazz career, with vocalist Sheila Jordan leading Dorough’s longtime bandmates on “Small Day Tomorrow,” and Kurt Elling and J.D. Walter singing on “Nothing Like You,” trading raucous scat on “I’m Hip.” Dorough’s friend Patrick Dorian then offered a lengthy acceptance speech.

Crouch got a novel treatment: high-octane performances of Charles McPherson’s “Lynn’s Grin” and David Murray’s “Santa Barbara And Crenshaw Follies”—featuring the two saxophone players along with Blanchard, pianist Sullivan Fortner, Carrington and bassist Christian McBride—tunes from recordings Crouch wrote liner notes for. Music writer and scholar Loren Schoenberg accepted the award, calling Crouch “one of the great agent provocateurs in American cultural history.” DB

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