NEA Jazz Masters Concert 2012

A parade of jazz giants salutes the newest recipients of jazz's highest honor

Frank Wess and Benny Golson at the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters awards
Hubert Laws and Ron Carter at the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters awards
Jack DeJohnette at the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters awards
Jack DeJohnette, Sheila Jordan and Jimmy Owens at the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters awards

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Having made mention of recently departed NEA Jazz Masters Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Foster and Snooky Young, author A.B. Spellman said, “Death is cold. But tonight is the warmest night of the year.” Indeed, the night was January 10, and Spellman, one of many speakers at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, was there to honor the NEA’s 2012 class of Jazz Masters: Jack DeJohnette, Von Freeman, Charlie Haden, Sheila Jordan and Jimmy Owens. This year marks the program’s 30th anniversary.

For health reasons, Haden and Freeman were unable to attend. But Ramsey Lewis, a 2007 Jazz Master, took the podium to recite a long list of other Jazz Masters alumni in the crowd: Ornette Coleman, Yusef Lateef, Jimmy Cobb, Annie Ross, Ahmad Jamal, Gunther Schuller and countless others. After brief remarks from NEA chairperson Rocco Landesman came the first tribute and short film clip of the night, for Jack DeJohnette.

Muhal Richard Abrams (2010 Jazz Master), who met DeJohnette in Chicago in the mid-1960s, came onstage with recollections of the drummer’s “robust mainstream activities,” but also the “personal directions in musical exploration” that made DeJohnette such a good fit for the nascent AACM. In turn, DeJohnette thanked Abrams for helping him through “teenage challenges”-presumably musical and otherwise. He recalled moving to New York in 1966 and sitting in with Freddie Hubbard, getting tested on an extremely fast “Just One of Those Things,” and landing a gig soon after with organ great Big John Patton. “Everything was about change, and everything felt possible,” DeJohnette said of those days. He went on to affirm the responsibility of artists to “contribute to change and peaceful coexistence.”

One after one, previous NEA Jazz Masters came forward and lent a hand. Benny Golson spoke of Von Freeman “pouring himself out like a gift offering” and “probing into the future.” Freeman’s sons, Chico and Mark, also expressed their thanks. Petra Haden appeared in her father’s stead and read aloud his heartfelt and moving remarks. Jon Hendricks, in a sailor hat and shiny indigo suit, brought out the equally irrepressible Sheila Jordan, who reminisced about life-changing experiences: hearing Charlie Parker’s Re-Boppers on the jukebox, studying with Lennie Tristano. And David Baker introduced the recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy, Jimmy Owens, who detailed his career-long efforts to implement pensions and other financial lifelines for musicians.

The musical high points, in brief: Owens, unaccompanied and unannounced, played “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” on rotary valve flugelhorn, in honor of the late Billy Taylor. Ron Carter and Hubert Laws played an affecting duo medley, and Golson and Frank Wess drank deep of the blues with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis on Wess’ “Magic.” DeJohnette swung with full force on Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave,” keeping Owens, Carter and Sheila Jordan on their toes. But “In Your Own Sweet Way,” played by Kenny Barron and Bobby Hutcherson, was brilliance of another order. Hutcherson required the aid of oxygen tubes, yet his solo was Olympian-pure poetry-and could have left some in the crowd needing oxygen as well.

The show is archived at NEA Jazz Masters.