NEA Jazz Heroes Celebrated in D.C., Jazz Journalist Assn. Heroes Feted Nationwide
April in Washington, D.C., brings cherry blossoms and an annual celebration of America’s great homegrown musical genre, jazz.
The National Endowment for the Arts will recognize four multitalented honorees -- Stanley Crouch, Bob Dorough, Abdullah Ibrahim and Maria Schneider -- as its 2019 NEA Jazz Masters, the nation’s highest honor in the genre, on April 15.
The four will be feted with a series of free events, including the Jazz Masters Tribute Concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C. The show will be livestreamed on the NEA’s website, arts.gov, among other platforms.
Crouch is a renowned jazz historian, author, critic and co-founder of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Dorough was a vocalist, composer, arranger and pianist. He was also known for his work as the musical director of the animated, educational children’s series Schoolhouse Rock! Ibrahim, a pianist and composer from South Africa, was known early in his career as Dollar Brand. Schneider, a composer, arranger and bandleader, helped launch ArtistShare, one of the first crowdfunding websites for musicians, in the early 2000s.
“This foursome really shows off the diversity of the field,” says NEA director of music Ann Meier Baker. The honoree selection process begins when the NEA opens nominations to the public. Candidates are reviewed by jazz experts (including previously honored Jazz Masters), and the chairman of the NEA makes the final decision. (Mary Anne Carter has been acting chairman since July 2018.) “We’re looking for people who have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of the art form,” says Meier Baker. “That can be through the music or as advocates. We don’t have a hard and fast definition of a Jazz Master, but this is the nation’s highest honor in jazz so it has to be extraordinary. It’s hard to make the cut.”
The tribute concert will feature performances by Kennedy Center artistic director for jazz Jason Moran as well as Jay Anderson, Steve Berger, Terence Blanchard, Terri Lyne Carrington, Kurt Elling, Sheila Jordan, Bill Goodwin, Cleave Guyton, Grace Kelly, Frank Kimbrough, Noah Jackson, Christian McBride, Charles McPherson, David Murray, Pat O’Leary and Scott Robinson.
Dorough will be honored posthumously; he died in April 2018 at age 94, but learned of the NEA honor before his death. He leaves a legacy ranging from collaborations with Miles Davis to Schoolhouse Rock! The show’s soundtrack was among 25 recordings added by Congress to the National Recording Registry in March.
Dorough, an Arkansas native who grew up in Texas, easily crossed racial lines. “He worshiped” African-American music styles, says longtime friend Pat Dorian, who will speak on Dorough’s behalf April 15. Dorian recalled when Dorough was the road manager in the early 50s for Sugar Ray Robinson when the then-retired boxer ventured toured as an entertainer. “Way back when, even in a segregated society, Bob was an includer. His humanity, his humility and his passion for the music made him someone that you’d want to get to know, and he wanted to know what you were up to. He was constantly absorbing and seeing what he could work into his next project.”
Schneider has collaborated with fellow musicians from Gil Evans to David Bowie. She formed the Maria Schneider Orchestra in 1992 and has won five Grammy Awards. “The thing I’ve always loved about writing for improvising musicians is they bring something of themselves to my music,” she says. “I don’t write the kind of large ensemble jazz music where the players stand up and unleash everything they’ve practiced. I try to write music where they contribute to the meaning of the piece.”
Her work with ArtistShare made her a trailblazer and advocate on the business side of music-making. For over two decades she has been releasing albums solely through the online fan-funding platform as a financially sustainable alternative to streaming.
“When most people talk about [the success of] streaming, they’re really only talking about the pop, rock and hip-hop world,” says Schneider. “Classical and jazz musicians have been left out of the conversation. There’s almost no place in streaming for us to have a chance at something that is viable economically.”
As for Crouch, jazz advocacy would be less opinionated, and certainly more boring, without him. Among his many contributions to the genre, Crouch -- who early in his career worked as a professional drummer -- mentored Wynton Marsalis, was a political columnist and contributed to 60 Minutes. His most recent book, published in 2013, is Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker.
“Jazz doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” says Loren Schoenberg, Crouch mentee and Grammy-winning tenor saxophonist and conductor. “The arts need their critics, who can aid and support artists they love and castigate those they don’t -- that’s a function of a serious critic. Stanley has been known for decades as someone with strong opinions and the intellectual and musical knowledge to back them up.” Schoenberg will accept the NEA honor on behalf of Crouch, who is unable to attend the celebration due to illness.
“He’s really unique; there’s no one with his profile. You never had to guess where Stanley stands on an issue. What people who know Stanley know, is that underneath the rough exterior he’s a warm, wonderful friend who’s been supportive of hundreds if not thousands of artists over his career,” adds Schoenberg.
Avant-garde pianist-composer Ibrahim spent much of his early career in exile from his native South Africa. In 1962 in Switzerland, he met Duke Ellington, who produced the Dollar Brand Trio’s album for Reprise Records, then invited the group to the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. “We stayed in exile in New York for 30 years,” says Ibrahim, “becoming U.S. citizens when the South African regime revoked our citizenship.” Ibrahim joined a circle of groundbreaking New York jazz artists that included Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. “New York afforded me the serenity and time to practice and compose my own concept,” he recalls. “There was this urgent energy from musicians to transcend borders.”
As part of the NEA program, Ibrahim will spend the day mentoring a student master class at Howard University in D.C., an event he calls “a great vehicle for shared interaction and discovery.”
Local Jazz Heroes Named
On April 1, the Jazz Journalists Association announced its 2019 Jazz Heroes, described by the organization as “advocates, altruists, activists, aiders and abettors of jazz who have had significant impact in their local communities.”
The 22 honorees include musicians, broadcasters, promoters, educators, publicists, nonprofit directors and more, chosen by the JJA from local nominations. A full list is available on the association’s website, jjajazzawards.org.
“Award winners receive their engraved statuettes at celebratory events in their local communities, mostly in late April,” says JJA president Howard Mandel. Ceremonies are planned in cities and regions nationwide.
The 200-member, nonprofit JJA promotes the use of media to tell the story of jazz and develop new audiences. On May 1, the JJA will announce its Jazz Awards -- given to musicians and recordings in multiple categories -- as well as its honors for outstanding jazz journalism. -- THOM DUFFY