Join the Club: The 2013 NEA Jazz Masters Ceremony Revisited

A smaller venue brings intimacy, candor to the annual event

It wasn’t just the friends, family and journalists in attendance who were awed by the collection of jazz legends assembled for the 2013 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert on Jan. 14 in New York City. “Man, this is a heavy audience,” singer and 2011 awardee Sheila Jordan said at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, as she stepped up to the mic to perform her trademark “Sheila’s Blues” with a house band of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Indeed, she was performing not only for the current class of inductees-pianist, singer and songwriter Mose Allison, 85; saxophonist Lou Donaldson, 86; pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, 76; and Village Vanguard proprietor Lorraine Gordon, 89 and absent due to illness-but also for a who’s who of mainstream jazz, including more than 20 past Jazz Masters like Jimmy Heath, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Randy Weston, Muhal Richard Abrams and Lee Konitz.

Each 2013 recipient was introduced by a past Master and saluted with a short video as well as a performance, sometimes by a past Master or, in certain cases like Allison and Palmieri, by the awardee himself. Allison, looking every bit of his 85 years, backed his daughter, singer Amy Allison, during a gentle and stark version of his nostalgic song “Was.” Jazz Masters who died in 2012 were also remembered, most notably Dave Brubeck, whom the house band saluted with an evocative rendition of “In Your Own Sweet Way” that left more than a few eyes in the house teary.

When McCoy Tyner presented fellow pianist Palmieri with his award, the Latin-jazz great turned the tables with an emotional thanks to Tyner for his influence and support, followed by a fiery solo performance of “Iraida” that aptly demonstrated Palmieri’s musical debt to his hero with the thundering left hand. Tenorman Heath performed a spunky “Sweet Lorraine” in tribute to Gordon, who received the 2013 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy. In Gordon’s stead was her daughter Deborah and Jed Eisenman, who helps manage the Vanguard on a day-to-day basis.

Breaking through all the idolatry was Donaldson, who gave one of the funniest and most irreverent acceptance speeches this writer has ever heard at an awards ceremony. From wondering why it took so long for the NEA to recognize him to extolling the powers of Viagra, Levitra and Cialis, he had the formally dressed audience doubled over with laughter. After his energetic performance of his “Blues Walk,” another veritable stand-up comic, Paquito D’Rivera, took the stage to recount a funny story of his (and his mother’s) first encounters with Tyner, whom the clarinetist described as one of his first employers in the U.S. D’Rivera then paired with 2011 Jazz Master Dave Liebman (soprano sax) to close out the evening with a performance of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”

In the weeks preceding the event, there was much chatter among jazz insiders about the downsizing of the awards ceremony, which had previously been a more extensive production in Rose Hall, a larger venue that is, like Dizzy’s, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Budget cuts necessitated the change, and the result was a more intimate and informal affair filled with real moments and exchanges and, yes, some glitches and awkward moments-quite different from the carefully choreographed ceremonies of the past.

For most of the musicians, the jazz club has been the venue where they came up and where they connected with each other, a fact mentioned by host Wynton Marsalis and other speakers. Ultimately these awards are about the lives and accomplishments of the recipients, not the pageantry or grandiosity of the presentation. Most of us have no idea what the ceremony is like for the Pulitzer or Nobel Prizes; we merely recognize the honor. For the Jazz Masters, that recognition within and outside the jazz community was and still is the greatest reward.