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Jazz, Age, and the NEA

Empowered to endow in more ways than one, the National Endowment for the Arts did its job of bestowing prestige at a lavish event at Jazz at Lincoln Center this past week in honor of five musicians named as NEA Jazz Masters: the drummer Jack DeJohnette, the saxophonist Von Freeman, the bassist Charlie Haden, the singer Sheila Jordan, and the trumpeter Jimmy Owens. All five are jazz veterans with long service records—Owens, the youngest of them, is 68, and Freeman is twenty years older than him—and all are deservedly revered in their musical spheres: DeJohnette and Haden as proponents of post-bop adventurism, Freeman as a proud yeoman of roadhouse swing, Jordan as a bebop vocalist whose improvisations argue for equal status for singers and instrumentalists, and Owens as an educator and advocate for musicians’ rights, as well as a trumpeter and composer.

This year’s honorees join a group of 128 named as Jazz Masters since 1982, and I mean no slight to any of them (nor to their memories, in the case of the many who have died since having been honored) by pointing out a few problems inherent in this honor and others of its sort. As the NEA explains the Jazz Masters program, recognition as a Jazz Master is a “lifetime honor” and “the nation’s highest honor in jazz.” Its purpose is clearly to reward creative achievement over the course of a career. What it honors, though, by definition, is the lifetime— the time spent making jazz during an artist’s life. The longer the life, the more qualified the candidate. This is true of all lifetime-achievement awards, of course. The complicating factor in this case is the Jazz Masters honors’ claim to singularity in their field. It’s fair to ask, with due regard for the value of a long life led well: Should the nation’s higher honor in jazz really have such a link to longevity—as opposed to, say, uniqueness, influence, or sheer brilliance? I love Von Freeman, who plays with precious indifference to vogue and a virtuoso sense of showmanship. He’s been doing something worth doing for more than sixty years. Still, I can’t help but wonder if it was the doing or the years that most impressed the NEA judges. Aesthetic values cannot be counted and compared as easily as days on the calendar.

As it confers respect upon jazz artists, the Jazz Masters program reinforces prevailing standards of respectability, and by focusing on musicians with long careers, it fixes public attention on musical modes of the past. The only musicians under 50 on the entire list of Jazz Masters since 1982 are Jason and Delfayo Marsalis, who were 34 and 46 when they were honored, along with their brothers Branford and Wynton and their father Ellis Marsalis, in 2011. (Both Freeman and Haden were too fragile to travel to New York for the NEA event.)

Lifetime achievement is well worth honoring, along with accomplishment of other kinds: the creativity that comes sometimes in spurts or bursts too intense to sustain. At Jazz at Lincoln Center this week, the NEA acknowledged the role of young talent in the development of jazz by having Jazz Masters honorees perform with a few rising artists such as the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the saxophonist Grace Kelly, though their presence was framed in patronizing talk about their potential. (See fan video of Kelly in a duo performance with pianist George Russell Jr. earlier this year, below.) The past and the future came together on stage. All that was missing was something almost impossible for any big institution to deal with: the present.