Celebrating All that Jazz: NEA Honors Jazz Masters

Celebrating All that Jazz: NEA Honors Jazz Masters

(L to R) Jim Hall, Herbie Hancock, Luther Henderson, Nancy Wilson, Chico Hamilton, and Nat Hentoff
All photos used courtesy the NEA

Jazz. Whatever sound or image it conjures up, it’s a kind of national art form, the one we claim as distinctly our own, particularly American. But as a society we don’t often devote much time to honoring the musicians that have committed their lives to its preservation and development.

Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts‘s Jazz Masters program has sought to correct that oversight by honoring living jazz musicians for their dedication and advancement of the field. The 2004 honorees, announced yesterday by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, will be honored at televised ceremony in January. Gioia also unveiled plans to “increase public appreciation for jazz through a new touring program, broadcast, compact disc release, and expanded NEA Jazz Masters award categories.”

The 2004 Jazz Masters are:

Each will receive a one-time fellowship award of $25,000.

This is the first time a jazz critic has been honored. Hentoff has long been lauded for his insight as an editor and journalist (He continues to write on jazz and other subjects for publications including The Village Voice, JazzTimes, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal.) and as an author of books such as The Jazz Life, The Jazz Makers, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music, and Jazz Is.

Making the announcement, Gioia noted that the NEA has “enormously expanded our jazz program” in order to “honor this great American art form” and “bring jazz to new audiences across the country.”

To that end, the Endowment is collaborating with the Verve Music Group on a commemorative two-CD set of recordings to be released in January 2004. The discs will feature music by 28 NEA Jazz Masters such as Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, and will include liner notes by 2004 NEA Jazz Master Nat Hentoff. The Endowment is also organizing a national touring component to the Jazz Masters program and is producing hour-long audio profiles of the six 2004 NEA Jazz Masters for radio distribution.

International Association for Jazz Education Board of Directors President David N. Baker applauded the developments and Gioia’s leadership. “The decision to place the NEA Jazz Masters award on a par with the Pulitzer Prize as the highest award our nation can bestow in the jazz field is a courageous act and an historic event,” he said.

The 2004 NEA Jazz Masters (bios courtesy the NEA press release):

Solo Instrumentalist (Guitar): Jim Hall
Known for the warmth, expressiveness, and responsiveness of his music, guitarist Jim Hall turned professional at age 13, playing with an ensemble in Cleveland. After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he majored in theory, and beginning his work on a master’s degree, he left graduate school to pursue his dream of a career as a guitarist. He went to Los Angeles, where in 1955 he immediately attracted attention as a member of the original Chico Hamilton Quintet. In 1957, he joined saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre’s new trio, in an innovative line-up that had Bob Brookmeyer as the third member, on trombone. By 1960, Jim Hall was in New York City, playing regularly with musicians including Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Bill Evans, and Paul Desmond. Still prolifically active, he has released nine new CDs over the past decade and has won critical acclaim as a composer-arranger for his recent pieces for strings, brass and vocal ensemble. He continues to inspire younger musicians such as Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Greg Osby and Chris Potter.

Rhythm Instrumentalist: Chico Hamilton
Born in Los Angeles in 1921, where as a teenager he played with schoolmates including Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, and Dexter Gordon, Forestorn “Chico” Hamilton began his professional career as a teenaged sideman with Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Slim Gaillard, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young and Lena Horne. As the house drummer at Billy Berg’s Los Angeles night club, he became a mainstay of the burgeoning West Coast jazz scene. He first received national recognition in 1952 as the drummer with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s “pianoless” quartet. Then, in 1955, Hamilton stepped out as a bandleader, forming the Chico Hamilton Quintet. A pioneer for its chamber-jazz style – the instruments were drums, bass, cello, flute, and guitar – the Quintet became a hit on recordings and was featured in the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success. Hamilton’s ensembles have launched the careers of many artists, including Eric Dolphy, Ron Carter, Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo, Larry Coryell, Richard Davis, Arthur Blythe, and Eric Person, testifying to Hamilton’s talent as one of the great bandleader-educators in jazz. In 1987, he helped found the jazz program at New York City’s New School University.

Pianist: Herbie Hancock
Born in Chicago in 1940, pianist and composer Herbie Hancock performed as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11 and began playing jazz in high school. At age 20, he joined Donald Byrd’s group and came to the attention of Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records, who hired him as a session player. Hancock’s debut album as a leader, Takin’ Off (1963), included “Watermelon Man,” which became an instant hit as a single on jazz and R&B radio. Also in 1963, Hancock was invited to join the Miles Davis Quintet. The classic recordings he made with that ensemble over the next five years were enough in themselves to secure his place in jazz history. His work for film and television began in 1966, when he composed the score for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Moving full-time into the electronic jazz-funk he had begun to explore with Miles Davis, Hancock released Headhunters in 1973, the first platinum album in jazz history, which produced the hit single “Chameleon.” Since then, his continuing explorations of both acoustic jazz and electronic funk have won Hancock popular claim and critical accolades, including three Grammy Awards for his 1998 recording Gershwin’s World.

Arranger-Composer: Luther Henderson (1919-2003)
Educated at the College of the City of New York, The Juilliard School and New York University, Luther Henderson was for five decades the jazz world’s great ambassador to the Broadway stage. Arranger for Duke Ellington (most notably for the composition Les Trois Rois Noirs, created for Dance Theatre of Harlem), leader of the Luther Henderson Orchestra (with which he recorded six albums), and composer for film and television, Henderson achieved his greatest success on the stage, through his involvement with more than two dozen Broadway productions, beginning in 1946 with Beggar’s Holiday. He was the musical supervisor, orchestrator and original pianist for Ain’t Misbehavin’; musical consultant and arranger for Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music; orchestrator and co-composer for Jelly’s Last Jam (for which he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Score); and brought his talents as an arranger and orchestrator to celebrated shows including Flower Drum Song, Funny Girl, and the revival of No, No, Nanette. His composition “Ten Good Years” (with lyricist Martin Charnin) was recorded by 2003 NEA Jazz Master Nancy Wilson.

Vocalist: Nancy Wilson
Singer Nancy Wilson began her career at age 15, winning her own twice-a-week television show in Columbus, Ohio, through a talent contest and singing in local clubs, where she impressed visiting musicians such as Cannonball Adderley. An early single, the 1961 “Guess Who I Saw Today,” and a 1962 album with Adderley propelled her to national prominence. She attained stardom with a pair of 1963 albums, Broadway My Way and Hollywood My Way. After many guest appearances on television, she became host of her own network program, The Nancy Wilson Show, for which she won an Emmy award for the 1967-68 season. In more recent years, she has recorded an album of lyrics by Johnny Mercer (With My Love Beside Me), which were set to music for the first time by singer-arranger Barry Manilow, and has served as the host of the National Public Radio program Jazz Profiles. Still active in the recording studio, she released The Essence of Nancy Wilson: Four Decades of Music and Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson: Meant To Be in 2002.

Jazz Advocate: Nat Hentoff
No writer has been a greater friend to jazz than critic, historian, biographer and anecdotist Nat Hentoff. Educated at Northeastern University and Harvard in his native Boston, where he became involved in the local jazz scene and hosted a radio show on WMEX, and at the Sorbonne on a Fulbright fellowship, Hentoff began his distinguished career in journalism as associate editor of Down Beat magazine (1953-57). He went on to become co-editor of Jazz Review from 1958 to 1961 and was then A&R director of the Candid label in 1960 to 1961, during which time he produced important sessions by musicians Charles Mingus, Phil Woods, Benny Bailey, Otis Spann, Cecil Taylor, Abbey Lincoln and other jazz giants. Among his many books, which address subjects as diverse as education and constitutional law, are The Jazz Life, The Jazz Makers, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, and Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music. He continues to write on jazz and other subjects for publications including The Village Voice, JazzTimes, The New York Times, The New Yorker (for which he was a staff writer for many years) and The Wall Street Journal.

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