The son of a silent film accompanist, raised in apartheid South Africa; a kid from Arkansas longing to join the hip world of bebop; a young Midwestern woman who dreamed and dared to compose; an avant-garde drummer and poet with a wicked pen and intellect. These four individuals were honored Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as the 2019 class of NEA Jazz Masters. But the remarks offered by pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, composer Maria Schneider, and family friends of vocalist/composer Bob Dorough and critic Stanley Crouch spoke less of their own accomplishments than of all those around them: the teachers, relatives, mentors, and collaborators who helped them, through jazz, realize themselves.
“Jazz music opens you to you,” reflected Ibrahim, a pioneer of bebop in South Africa and the first to be honored during the nearly two-hour ceremony. After thanking the National Endowment for the Arts, he dedicated his award to his grandmother, who sent him to piano lessons with the local schoolteacher in Cape Town, and to his mother, who introduced him to improvised music through her work as a pianist accompanying silent movies in the city’s theaters.
Schneider conjured the spirits of local mentors like Mort Smith, a birdwatcher, and Evelyn Butler, her piano teacher, both of whom encouraged her when she wondered, “Who would I be to come from Windom, Minnesota, and want to be a composer?” The big-band innovator and experimenter concluded her remarks by challenging the audience to take similarly active roles with the young people around them.
Patrick Dorian, distinguished professor emeritus of music at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, sought to condense decades of Bob Dorough’s work into only a dozen minutes, from working with Miles Davis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Lenny Bruce to writing the songs of Schoolhouse Rock! and all the gigs in between. The cool-jazz icon died in April 2018, only 17 days after being notified of his selection as a Jazz Master; Dorian took the occasion to dub him one of the nation’s greatest “edu-tainers.”
Each master’s speech was preceded by a tribute performance of two to three numbers by peers and disciples. Pianist Jason Moran led a collective meditation on Ibrahim’s “The Balance (Moniebah)” and injected some midtown traffic urgency and energy into “Tuang Guru,” alongside a quintet that featured trumpeter Terence Blanchard and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, the musical director of the show.
NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan teamed up with Dorough’s longtime trio—guitarist Steve Berger, bassist Pat O’Leary, and drummer Bill Goodwin—for a wistful “Small Day Tomorrow,” with saxophonist Grace Kelly providing just the right amount of noir fills. JD Walter and Kurt Elling traded off with Jordan for a pair of duets on “Nothing Like You” and an updated version of “I’m Hip,” which featured cheeky references to macrobiotics and Childish Gambino.
A quartet of Schneider’s musical partners, including pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson, and saxophonist Scott Robinson, performed more intimate renderings of cuts like the easy-swaying “Choro Dançado” and “Walking by Flashlight,” which vocalist Renée Fleming transformed into a hymn for Paris and the fire-ravaged Notre-Dame.
The monumental “champion of jazz” Stanley Crouch was the last to be honored. Loren Schoenberg, the senior scholar of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, spoke on Crouch’s behalf; there were also reflections by Christian McBride and Wynton Marsalis. All discussed Crouch’s infamously combative nature—“He came off as a bull in a china shop, but there was no china, just another bull,” Schoenberg said—but they also got at the source of that drive, an unrelenting passion and concern for the arts.
The sextet that honored Crouch—Charles McPherson, David Murray, Sullivan Fortner, Blanchard, McBride, and Carrington—performed songs he wrote liner notes for, like McPherson’s “Lynn’s Grins” and Murray’s “Santa Barbara and Crenshaw Follies.” Along with a rousing finale of Mingus’ “Better Git It in Your Soul,” the music almost seemed to bring together the two parts of Crouch’s intellectual and cultural identity, bridging that once unthinkable gap between his avant-garde history and his more conservationist persona.
“Our music is healing songs,” Ibrahim stated early in the night. “Jazz uses democratic means to achieve utopia,” Crouch reflected in archival footage. Through the performances, tributes, and honors for the four new NEA Jazz Masters, there was a glimmer of that utopic, self-affirming, and curative vision. They challenged us to find ourselves, hopefully the best of our selves, in the music.