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.