Talk about bittersweet. The official press release arrived in today’s email, naming the recipients of the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Award, our nation’s highest honor in jazz. Each of the five recipients will receive $25,000 and be feted in January at an awards ceremony and concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall. Those tickets will go fast, because after the 2012 awards, the Jazz Masters program becomes the Museum of Jazz Masters.
This year’s honorees, the Last Masters, are drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, vocalist Sheila Jordan, and trumpeter/educator Jimmy Owens. As of 2012, the 30-year-old program will be defunct, crossed off the NEA’s budget, replaced by the watered-down “American Artist of the Year Awards,” in which jazz artists (like, for example, Dave Holland) will compete for recognition alongside dancers, actors, filmmakers, visual artists, and all kinds of musicians, not to mention basketweavers and quiltmakers. The chances of a jazz artist rising to the top are similar to those of Esperanza Spalding winning the Best New Artist Grammy. True, she won it, but how unlikely was that? Lightning-strike unlikely.
Howard Mandel has much to say about the new Jazz Masters and the end of the program. The press release, on the other hand, says nothing about the end of the program, probably because no one wants to rain on the winners’ parade. That’s understandable. Let’s give them the spotlight, the applause, and the acclaim they all deserve for their hard work, dedication, brilliance, musicianship, creativity, and no doubt plenty of sacrifice and suffering incurred during their many years of service to jazz.
Once a Jazz Master, always a Jazz Master, and there are now 124 men and women who bear that title. And hundreds more who will never bear it. Great artists now in their 40s and 50s, young artists still in their teens, kids practicing their Hanon finger exercises. It matters when a nation honors its artists. And it matters when a nation doesn’t.