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.