The awarding of the 2005 NEA Jazz Masters Awards to a distinguished class of musicians provided some of the highlights of the 32nd annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) held in Long Beach. This years honorees included Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, Slide Hampton, Paquito D'Rivera, Artie Shaw, Shirley Horn and, as Jazz Advocate, George Wein. Additionally, the NEA used the occasion to announce an ambitious new curriculum integrating the study of jazz into American History classes in the nation's schools.
There were several programs honoring the group. First came a press conference at the Center Theater and panel discussion with honorees Burrell, Smith, Hampton and Wein, with A.B. Spellman moderating. Ms. Horn was unable to attend the conference, while Artie Shaw, of course, passed away a week prior to the event at the age of 94. This was a great event to attend; the collective experience and knowledge of the group on stage was staggering, while the irrepressible wits of D'Rivera, Smith & Wein guaranteed that the discussion never became dry. Smith--prompted by audience member and 1998 honoree James Moody--told outrageous tales about moving his Hammond B3 via hearse, Wein had funny stories about Monk, and everybody had a humorous reminiscence of Dizzy Gillespie.
It wasn't all jokes, though; Spellman asked Kenny Burrell to talk about Detroit and its rich tradition of jazz musicians, and Burrell made an interesting and serious point in his answer. Mr. Burrell asked the crowd to name some artists from the Motor City and the crowd responded with several names: Kenny Clarke, John Gilmore, James Carter and so on. Burrell then asked "What about Stevie Wonder & Aretha Franklin?" The audience responded with hearty applause. He then asked if it was "crossing over" to mention them. The crowd replied no. He then observed that maybe next time those names should be mentioned right alongside the others in the first place. Also worthy of serious consideration was the announcement of a new NEA initiative underwritten by Verizon to make a jazz curriculum available for high schools that want to participate. Thanks to a grant from the telecommunications giant, the Endowment is able to offer these materials for free to schools nationwide.
A catered, invitation-only reception was held afterwords in the building's ballroom for the honorees. This year's nominees could be seen mingling with such past winners as Moody, Gerald Wilson and David Baker along with a mix of educators and NEA officials. The stuffed mushrooms, if I may say so, were delicious.
The awards themselves were handed out that night at the Terrace Theater, with Masters Ramsey Lewis & Nancy Wilson presenting. Horn accepted by video, while Shaw's award was accepted by Dick Johnson, who currently leads the Shaw band. Performing in honor of the 2005 honorees were the Geri Allen Trio, joined by Moody and another master, Chico Hamilton, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra with special guest Dee Dee Bridgewater. Additionally, 1988 honoree Dr. Billy Taylor gave a now-rare solo performance at the piano.
The 2005 recipients of the NEA's Jazz Masters awards were a diverse and deserving bunch representing different eras and styles of jazz. Their ranks included: Artie Shaw, the great clarinetist and bandleader active from the 1930s to his abrupt retirement in the 1950s; Slide Hampton, the trombonist who helped build on the big band legacy of Shaw and others; the incomparable guitarist Kenny Burrell and, coincidentally, his frequent partner Jimmy Smith, the powerful organ player; Cuban emigre Paquito D'Rivera, the saxophone and clarinet player whose music has bridged so many cultural and stylistic borders; the elegant vocal and piano stylist Shirley Horn; and promoter extraordinaire (and a pianist of some skill in his own right) George Wein. Of course, the real honorees on the day were those of us in the audience who were graced by their presence.