NEA Inducts 2022 Jazz Masters at SFJAZZ Center Tribute Concert


​Newly inducted NEA Jazz Masters Stanley Clarke (left), Billy Hart and Donald Harrison Jr. at SFJAZZ Center on March 31.

(Photo: Courtesy of SFJAZZ)

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) formally inducted its four new Jazz Masters on the eve of Jazz Appreciation Month with its first in-person tribute concert in three years. Alto saxophonist/cultural activist/educator Donald Harrison Jr., drummer/bandleader Billy Hart, vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Cassandra Wilson and bassist/producer/television and film scorer Stanley Clarke were honored in front of a masked, near-capacity SFJAZZ Center audience.

The March 31 presentation marked the first time the typically East Coast-based event was set in San Francisco. SFJAZZ hosted and produced the festivities in its nine-year-old building. The nonprofit had staged tribute concerts virtually for the NEA Jazz Masters classes of 2020 and 2021. SFJAZZ proved to be an ideal partner for the occasion with its own 700-seat venue, an in-house band (the all-star SFJAZZ Collective octet) and digital expertise that fully exploits Miner’s eight remotely operated cameras.

The night opened with the Collective’s version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” featuring its two lead vocalists, recent Grammy nominee Gretchen Parlato and San Francisco native Martin Luther McCoy, as well as special guest Skylar Tang, an SFJAZZ High School All-Star band member who stood between tenor saxophonists Chris Potter and David Sánchez as fellow trumpeter Etienne Charles played and nodded along approvingly.

Randall Kline, SFJAZZ founder and executive artistic director, followed with opening remarks that included an acknowledgements of Ukrainian refugees and freedom fighters. NEA Chair Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in December, was then introduced and revealed that the tribute concert was one of her first major events in her new role.

As hostess for the night, vocalist/songwriter Dianne Reeves (NEA Jazz Masters class of ’18) was perfectly suited for hosting duties. In her introduction, she brought up the themes of community and continuity and would later illustrate that with her own connections to this year’s Jazz Masters: She and Wilson were longtime Blue Note Records label mates and recorded a duet of “Come Together” on Bob Belden’s 1996 Strawberry Fields Beatles tribute album. Clarke and George Duke, Reeves’ late cousin, enjoyed fruitful collaborations throughout their respective careers.

After performing “I’m All Smiles” with the Collective rhythm section of pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Kendrick Scott, she set the stage for the first award of the night. Harrison received the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy in honor of his dedication to preserving the music and culture of (his native) New Orleans.

Coming up through bands led by the likes of Art Blakey (NEA Jazz Masters class of ‘88) and Roy Haynes (class of ’95), Harrison has extended the lineage by mentoring next-generation talent including multiple Grammy winners Jon Batiste and Esperanza Spalding, Voodoo Threauxdown tour curator Trombone Shorty and trumpeter/Stretch Music label head Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, his nephew.

Following a brief video showcasing his hometown and highlighting his career, Harrison performed a six-number medley that included Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and his own composition “The Magic Touch” with the rhythm section of pianist Dan Kaufman, bassist Nori Naraoka and drummer Joe Dyson.

Hart’s introductory video, which included his uncanny Miles Davis impression, showcased his warmth and humor. Continuing the unofficial theme of through lines, Hart recounted how his grandmother lived across the hall from Roger “Buck” Hill, who was a D.C. saxophone great unbeknownst to both. Hill saw Hart with drum sticks and gifted him two 78 RPM records — one featuring Max Roach’s drumming, the other Buddy Rich’s. Hart was inspired by both and would go on to play with pianist-vocalist Shirley Horn, whom he considered a mentor, and eventually gigged and recorded with Hill himself.

With a performance of his own “Duchess” with his working quartet of tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Joe Martin (substituting for regular member Ben Street), Hart was able to showcase his longstanding band before accepting his award and evoking John Coltrane’s quote that he wanted his music to be “a force for good,” which had inspired Hart’s own musical pursuits.

The sole disappointment of the evening was Wilson’s unexplained absence. In lieu of a recorded performance, Parlato, Simon, Brewer, Scott and guitarist Brandon Ross, a frequent collaborator with Wilson, interpreted the title song from her 2012 Another Country album, which she co-wrote with guitarist Fabrizio Sotti. Prerecorded remarks from Wilson at home in Jackson followed, and her speaking voice is so lyrical and entrancing that it almost made one forget that she wasn’t there in person.

Clarke and Hart had performed together in tenor titans Stan Getz and Pharoah Sanders’ groups before the bass deity went on to work with Chick Corea in Return to Forever and forge his own solo, production and studio recording career. He chose Corea’s “No Mystery,” playing it with band members Ruslan Sirota (piano), Salar Nader (tabla) and Jeremiah Collier (drums).

A saxophone trio version of Duke Ellington’s “Take The Coltrane” with the three new Jazz Masters followed Clarke’s award and comments, and most of the night’s musicians returned to the stage for a final performance of “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

As the crowd dispersed, one of Clarke’s acceptance remarks lingered in the air: “If you love jazz, pass it down.” DB

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