NEA Jazz Masters Induction Ceremony Focuses on Reflection, Education


Chick Corea (left) performs with Stefon Harris during a tribute concert to the 2016 NEA Jazz Masters at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on April 4

(Photo: Shannon Finney/NEA)

Besides producing and streaming a star-studded tribute concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on April 4 for the 2016 Jazz Masters—vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, and Jazz Foundation of America executive director Wendy Oxenhorn—the National Endowment of the Arts held several events last week to promote closer contact between their honorees, audiences and young musicians.

A listening party at National Public Radio on April 3 (open to the public by advance reservation) presented all four Masters, one at a time, onstage with pianist and Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran and a supportive sideman to hear and comment on key recordings from their pasts.

On April 5, Burton, Sanders and vibraphonist Stefon Harris, who performed in Burton’s honor during the tribute concert, held a master class for five music students from D.C.’s Duke Ellington School for the Arts.

In addition, Burton and Chick Corea recorded a Tiny Desk concert for NPR, to be aired at an as-yet unscheduled date, and the NEA hosted a private luncheon for the Masters and representatives from entities such as the Smithsonian Institution.

At the listening party, Burton said modestly of his solo rendition of “Chega De Agua”—selected by Harris, who attended by phone—“I played it too fast.” He explained that musicians often increase the tempo of their regular repertoire “to keep an edge,” and that he’d long wanted to do a retake of that track, though it’s hailed as a breakthrough example of his four-mallet technique.

Burton had no such regrets about a second sample, “Crystal Silence,” his 1974 debut duet with Corea (who was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2006).

With saxophonist David Murray at his side, Sanders told of playing drums in his Arkansas high school and buying his first reed instrument, a metal clarinet, from the band director for $17.50, which he paid off at 20 cents per week.

Sanders is not known as loquacious, but in the listening session and later master class he offered detailed and practical advice about embouchure formation, reed choice and ligature pressure, as well as the value of long tones, arpeggios, interval leaps and tongue techniques for varying phrases.

The Jazz Foundation’s Oxenhorn, who received the NEA’s A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy, is a passionate though not professional blues harmonica player who spoke of gaining her chops by practicing in the New York City subways. She said she was so drawn to music as a child that she’d been devastated to learn, at 10 years old, that she wasn’t black and would never be a Raelette.

Racial issues were raised bluntly by Shepp, too, in response to alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s choice cut, introduced as “Rufus.” Shepp gently corrected him: “The title of that piece is ‘Rufus (Swung His Face At Last To The Wind, Then His Neck Snapped.’) It’s about a lynching.”

In this setting (though not in his remarks during the Kennedy Center concert), Shepp referred to African-American music, including that which he and Sanders learned and practiced with John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry and others, as “so-called jazz,” disdaining the word’s genre connotations.

Shepp also said he believed jazz was an African-American art form, but one gifted to the world, and artistically engaged by non-African-American musicians such as Gary Burton and, for instance, Stan Getz.

Neither Shepp nor Oxenhorn attended the master class, held in the auditorium of Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Noted D.C. jazz educator Davey Yarborough presided, with Burton, Sanders and Harris on chairs a few feet from a group of young musicians playing “Manha De Carnival” and “Satin Doll.” The students demonstrated admirable confidence, considering they were performing for their teachers, NEA staffers, a couple members of the press and a dozen teenagers from a different high school.

“I can say a few things about that,” volunteered Burton, who retired from his 33-year career at the Berklee School of Music in 2003, but still can hone in, encouragingly, on key points for developing musicians.

With this group, he complimented the saxophonist’s sound while urging him to expand beyond playing scales; said it was OK the trumpeter hadn’t wanted to solo, spoke of the rhythm section playing as a united entity and emphasized the drummer’s power to establish feel, groove and dynamics.

Sanders said the saxophonist had a good sound and held his horn well, then asked about his mouthpiece set up, his neck strap length and suggested practices to help him “put more into it.”

Stefon Harris, currently teaching at New York University and an veteran clinician, gave the pianist, bassist and drummer a quick, intense lesson in pitch expressivity and rhythmic focus. Then the students were asked if they had any questions. The pianist started, rather shyly. “Are you Gary Burton?” she asked. “I mean, just realized that you’re that Gary Burton. I’ve been listening to you a lot. I pretty much took my introduction from your recording.”

Burton beamed, “I thought you might have heard it.”

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