“Ladies and gentlemen, I finally made it into this NEA Jazz Masters program,” said Lou Donaldson, in his high rasp of a voice, alto saxophone tucked under one arm. “I didn’t press it, but I was wondering …” he chuckled, and waited a comic beat, “… why it took so long.” Addressing a roomful of his fellow luminaries during an awards ceremony at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in January, Donaldson played the role of sly old rascal to the hilt. But he was clear about his appreciation for an honor that, as he put it, goes to “a musician who has earned his keep, by paying his dues.”
Donaldson, one of four recipients this year-the others were singer-songwriter Mose Allison, Village Vanguard proprietor Lorraine Gordon and Latin-jazz pioneer Eddie Palmieri-tossed off another comment that stuck with me like a burr. He was outlining the breadth of jazz styles, from ragtime to bebop to “some of this music they play today,” and then he said this: “I don’t know what that is, but young musicians are young musicians. They’re still living at home, with momma and poppa paying their dues, so they don’t ever have to worry about work. But as soon as they have to play for a living, they’ll change their tune.” Amid much laughter, he added: “I guarantee it.”
I probably made a sour face at that moment, for reasons largely circumstantial. The NEA Jazz Masters ceremony was held this year on a Monday evening, replete with splendiferous black-tie dinner. I had spent the previous two nights in far scruffier form at the Winter Jazzfest, a movable feast of band showcases stretching into the wee hours. Both events are important rituals for the New York jazz community, but they couldn’t have been a greater study in contrasts-the one a gilded portrait of bygone glories, the other an Instagram snapshot of unfolding events. And their juxtaposition exposed a jazz-world chasm that I usually do my best to ignore, between the geezers and the punks, between ritual and informality, between languages either established or evolving.
The generation gap is of course a hoary convention in jazz, and one that usually doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny. For every instance of brash new talent rewriting the script, there’s a likely counter-narrative: the old lion who never stops exploring, or the young Turk who pines for a bygone age. Generally speaking, my concept of jazz places greater faith in continuity than disruption. More than almost any other art form I can name, jazz encourages meaningful contact across generations. Of the countless examples we could cite here, why not start with Donaldson, who embodied the strut of youth in the 1960s-well, hello there, “Alligator Bogaloo”-and now leads an organ quartet stocked with players many years his junior?
But there is in fact a vital disconnect between the two worlds I inhabited over that three-day stretch in January, one that Donaldson’s joke merely underscored. The NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, bestowed annually since 1982 by the National Endowment for the Arts, works under the reasonable assumption that jazz is a cultural treasure, worthy of preservation and enshrinement. The paying of dues is an unspoken prerequisite, as is a minimum threshold on the career odometer. And if by pursuing refinement the Jazz Masters program sacrifices a certain spark of engagement with the contemporary rabble, the trade-off seems to have been deemed acceptable. Certainly that’s how it felt this year, during an event so cloistered that it suggested jazz’s answer to an Illuminati meeting.
By contrast, Winter Jazzfest is in principle an accessible catchall, designed to showcase as broad a range of approaches as possible, for an audience at every stage of jazz indoctrination. In practice the event skews strongly toward “this music they play today,” in the words of Donaldson: style-conscious hybridizers, like guitarist Rafiq Bhatia; new-slang fusionistas, like Kneebody; velvet-harmony chamberists, like Bryan and the Aardvarks; nonwestern party-starters, like Red Baraat. There happened to be one NEA Jazz Master in the lineup: alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who appeared with the insightful young pianist Dan Tepfer and the Harlem String Quartet. I couldn’t get into an overpacked Zinc Bar for that summit, but hours later I ran into Tepfer in a different club, and he told me things had gone well.
Depending on whom you ask, today’s young musicians are either overburdened by the jazz tradition, in foolish rebellion against it, or blithely ignorant of its depth and beauty. Of course the truth isn’t that clear-cut, and varies case by case. I’ll simply point out that in my experience, it’s the rare artist who delivers something compelling and vital without first figuring out his or her relationship to the continuum. The most rewarding musical experience of Winter Jazzfest, for me, was a prickly-quiet collective improvisation by bassist Eric Revis, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Andrew Cyrille-musicians respectively in their 40s, 30s and 70s. The music was entangled with an avant-garde tradition stretching back to Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor in the ’60s, but also flush with a sense of discovery that seemed, dare I say, essentially youthful.
Whether Sweet Poppa Lou, as Donaldson is often known, was overstating his case for effect or merely playing fast and loose with his generalizations, there was an accidental retort later on in the evening. Clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, a 2005 NEA Jazz Master, told a story about one of the important mentors he had in the States, pianist McCoy Tyner. “In those days I still was living in my mother’s house,” he said-and it should go without saying that D’Rivera, a Cuban exile, wasn’t pursuing music from a place of entitlement. It should also go without saying that countless others out there are seeking their own path, and will continue to do so. Young musicians are young musicians, as they say, but changing their tune? I wouldn’t make any guarantees.