December 2008

The 2009 Jazz Masters: Jazz Oscars

An annual celebration since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony & Concert has become the jazz world’s equivalent to the Academy Awards. And while there may not have been any Hollywood-style red carpet arrivals outside Jazz at Lincoln Center for this year’s gala on Oct. 17, the sheer number of living legends assembled inside Rose Theater caused many goosebump moments for the faithful fans, family, friends and past Jazz Masters in attendance.

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Courtesy of JALC

George Benson with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the 2009 NEA Jazz Master induction ceremonies

Six new recipients for 2009—guitarist George Benson, drummer Jimmy Cobb, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, trumpeter Snooky Young and engineer Rudy Van Gelder—each received a $25,000 stipend from the National Endowment for the Arts along with the accolades that come with this prestigious award.

The black-tie affair included brief video biographies of the six recipients that featured rare photos, performance clips and personal testimonies from colleagues. Benson, Cobb, Konitz and Toots also performed individually with the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis. Benson’s fluent blowing on an uptempo big-band rendition of “Stella by Starlight” had guitar aficionados in the house pining for his Prestige and Columbia days while Cobb’s signature swing on a lilting 3/4 version of “Can You Read My Mind” (aka “Love Theme From Superman”) recalled his similarly deft waltz-time groove with the Miles Davis quintet on “Someday My Prince Will Come,” circa 1961. Thielemans turned in a moving rendition of “What a Wonderful World,” one of the tunes identified with Louis Armstrong, his boyhood hero while growing up in Belgium. And Konitz navigated his way through “Body and Soul” with typically freeform aplomb, only alluding to the familiar melody while forging his own highly personal path on that Coleman Hawkins signature piece.

Cobb, sporting a black baseball cap with the name ‘Miles’ across the front, was presented his award by fellow drumming legend and 1995 Jazz Master recipient Roy Haynes. Konitz, glib and wry as always in his acceptance speech, was presented his award by fellow alto sax great and 2007 recipient Phil Woods. Writer-poet A.B. Spellman, who wrote several sets of liner notes for some of the classic Blue Note recordings of the ’60s, presented Van Gelder with his award for jazz advocacy. Thielemans received his award from his old friend and 1988 recipient Dr. Billy Taylor, who used to let the young Belgian guitarist and harmonica ace sit in with his trio at the Hickory House on 52nd Street when he first arrived in the States. Benson was presented his award by trombonist and 2008 Jazz Master Tom MacIntosh, who did arrangements for one of the guitarist’s early commercial breakthrough albums, 1968’s Giblet Gravy.

Young, who turns 90 in February and is still performing with the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band, was called a consummate musician and one of the greatest trumpet players ever by his two presenters and past Jazz Master recipients, the spry, 90-year-old bandleader Gerald Wilson (1990) and 86-year-old tenor saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess (2007). The three charismatic elder statesmen provided some of the lighter moments of the evening by reminiscing about Young’s days in the Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie bands during the 1940s.

The evening concluded with Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra paying tribute to the late Neal Hefti, who passed away on Oct. 11, with a sublime rendition of “Li’l Darlin’” and a rousing “Splanky,” two of Hefti’s best-known tunes.

NEA chairman Dana Gioia, who at the outset of the show boldly chastised the U.S. government for not doing enough to honor its artists, also used the occasion of hosting the ceremony to publicly announce that he will be resigning his position in January to actively pursue his other muse, poetry.

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