For sheer emotional resonance, the highlight of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters ceremony-concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, in October, was probably the opening procession, as past and present recipients of the $25,000 prize marched down the aisles to their seats. Accompanied by a sustained, standing, often roaring ovation, the mostly aged, occasionally halting parade of nearly two dozen musicians was, in the best sense of the term, Fellini-esque: a dreamlike amble of men (the four living women recipients were not present) whom we have enjoyed, admired, respected and venerated all our lives. Their number and the history they represent demanded the salute we too infrequently get to render.
After a radiant blast of Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (arranger uncredited), Wynton Marsalis and Dana Gioia made a couple of speeches, setting up the evening’s plan. This consisted of introducing new recipients for 2009-George Benson, Jimmy Cobb, Lee Konitz, Toots Thielemans, Rudy Van Gelder, Snooky Young-with a filmed salute, an introduction by a past recipient, followed by the current Jazz Master saying a few words and, in most cases, performing a number with the JLCO. All seven of the musical numbers were savory, particularly the concerto arrangement of “Body and Soul,” featuring Konitz, though the audience preferred Thielemans’ “What a Wonderful World.” For comic élan, no one could ace Phil Woods, who introduced Konitz with written comments, because, he explained, “My memory is very good but extremely short.” Marsalis closed the program with “Li’l Darlin'” in graceful tribute to Neal Hefti, who died the previous week, at 85, never having been designated a Jazz Master.