Annie Ross & the Jazz Masters

The most startling phone call I ever received was in 2004 from someone I had never met. He began by saying, “This is probably the best message you’ve ever gotten from your government.” It was Dana Gioia, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I had been designated, he said, an NEA Jazz Master. Huh? He had to be putting me on. I had retired my clarinet in my early teens after a stranger, Ruby Braff, two years younger than me, had invited me to a session at his home. As soon as he played, I knew immediately I didn’t have it.

All I’ve been playing for years is the electric typewriter. But Dana Gioia explained that I was to be the first non-musician Jazz Master, the inaugural recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy. Still, as much as I enjoy the company at the annual Jazz Masters lunch, I feel I’m just fortunate to be an invited guest.

The Jazz Masters have been chosen by the NEA since 1982, but it was Dana, as he told me, who decided to “invest in the award and make it into something that was comparable to the Pulitzer Prize or an Academy Award.”

A sense of what it means to most of the musicians who get that call came from Annie Ross this year. “Aside from my American citizenship, which I received in 2001,” she said, “I can think of no greater honor I could receive from my country.”

In the late 1990s, I was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in news commentary, but even if I’d won that, I’d feel the same way Annie does. I couldn’t have imagined being listed among such a company of originals in the music that keeps me going.

Annie was born in London, England, in 1930, but came to the U.S. three years later, and has since been bi-continental as a singer, actress and author. I first heard her grooving vocalese lyrics and frontline swinging on Wardell Gray’s “Twisted.”

There’s been no mistaking her joyous byline since, especially after the international impact (1957-1962) of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. As I wrote at the time, “There were only three of them—Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert, and the wittiest of all hipsters, Annie Ross—but in a club they sounded like a rambunctious big band. Never before or since has there been a jazz vocal group with so much infectious delight in its swinging vocation.” I still believe that. And in the indispensable Jazz Encyclopedia (Penguin) by Richard Cook, now continued by Brian Morton, Annie is heralded for her “rare imagination … a unique figure in her idiom, performing the tricky calling of vocalese with a simple fluency, [while] working the divide between cool and emotive and ‘theatrical’ singing at least as well as any of her contemporaries.”

During an interview with Monk Rowe, creator of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., Annie told of her time in Paris many years ago, getting to know James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie and other perennial jazz masters: “I had just heard ‘Things to Come,’ Dizzy Gillespie’s tune. And that hit me like a freight train. I didn’t know what was going on. I’d never heard musicians play like that. And so I was acquiring knowledge of Dizzy’s band … and all the great musicians in the exodus of black musicians coming to Paris in those years for the acceptance of their music … Kenny Clarke, Don Byas, Rex Stewart, on and on.”

The capacious Jazz Archive is a continually expanding and often deeply illuminating collection of some 300 videotaped interviews, ranging from Jay McShann, Oscar Peterson, Kenny Davern (my nomination for the master of the jazz clarinet), Milt Hinton and Buster Williams to Sherrie Maricle (whose all-women big band should shame Wynton Marsalis into finally having a full-time female member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), Wycliffe Gordon, James Moody and Joe Williams.

Joe was long a committed supporter of the Archive, and on his death, his estate gave Monk Rowe Joe’s private collection of live open-reel recordings. Included in the Archive are interviews Joe himself did with Clark Terry, among others. Hamilton College awarded Joe an honorary degree in 1988, and it is logical that Monk Rowe is the Joe Williams Director of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. Monk would like “to make the collection more accessible, maybe in collaboration with a respected jazz institution/museum.”

As the Archive’s Web site (www.hamilton.edu/jazzarchive) reads, “The interview collection has been fully transcribed and may be reviewed in print, video, audiocassette and DVD. … Researchers, students and writers” can visit the site for access guidelines. To contact Monk direct: mrowe@hamilton.edu, 315-859-4071.

To go more deeply inside this music, nothing beats hearing the musicians themselves talk about what they get out of jazz, as they put their lives into it. I’d like to see JazzTimes publish a whole issue, or maybe even a book, of its interviews with jazz musicians.

Papa Jo Jones put it this way: “An audience may never have heard a man play before, and yet, when he brings his experiences onto the bandstand, he projects his feelings amongst the audience and he can either have them going out of the place smiling or in frowns.” Jo added, referring to both listeners and musicians, “Being such a medium as it is, music can affect all of your life.” Especially when it’s as personal as jazz.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181.

Originally published in April 2010

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