Longtime Jazz advocate Todd Barkan has worked as a record producer, nightclub manager and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York under Wynton Marsalis. But when word reached Barkan that he would be among the NEA Jazz Masters recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, he was working a side hustle.
“I was driving an Uber when I received the call,” the 71-year-old Barkan tells Billboard. “There was an 80-something-year-old lady in the car who was a jazz fan. We pulled up in front of her house, but she stayed in the car to hear the conversation, and at the end she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. It was one of the most soulful moments of my life.”
Fostering soulful moments is a core goal of the NEA Jazz Masters, which in 2018 honors Barkan, pianist/music educator Joanne Brackeen, guitarist Pat Metheny and vocalist Dianne Reeves. Each is recognized for their lifetime achievements and exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz.
Taking place April 16 at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the concert will mark the 36th anniversary of the NEA Jazz Masters. Jason Moran, the center’s artistic director for jazz, will host, and the event will include performances by Terri Lyne Carrington, Nir Felder, Pasquale Grasso, Angélique Kidjo, NEA Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri, Cécile McLorin Salvant and Antonio Sánchez. As in years past, the concert is free to the public and will be livestreamed.
“Jazz Masters fits hand in glove with the NEA’s mission, which is to celebrate our rich and diverse cultural heritage and provide opportunities for all Americans to participate,” says NEA director of music Ann Meier Baker. “It’s one big woven strategy to help raise the visibility of jazz.”
The NEA chairman ultimately signs off on each year’s slate of finalists, but the selection process starts “with hundreds of nominations from the general public,” says Meier Baker. Nominations in the areas of vocals, instrumental performance, creative leadership and education are accepted year-round, and then go to a panel of experts who make their recommendations.
The NEA has awarded 149 fellowships to jazz greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins and Chick Corea. The agency also supports the work of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, which documents the evolution of jazz in the United States. That project has captured the stories and memories of close to 100 NEA Jazz Masters.
“I love to show the diversity that is jazz, and I think we really got it right this year,” says Meier Baker.
Brackeen says that the diverse roster of musicians who’ll be paying tribute at the concert is a sure sign of jazz’s vitality. “There will be artists representing us as young as 22, like piano player James Francis, and I will be 80 this year,” she says.
The NEA offers project grants to nonprofits such as the jazz societies that Barkan has helped create in cities like Atlanta, New Orleans and Buffalo, N.Y., which promote concerts and nurture artists. Ensuring jazz’s future, particularly at a time when the government is not uniformly supportive of arts programs, is top of mind for Barkan, who would like jazz societies to be “strong enough” to thrive without government support.
Jazz musicians “are trading in a currency that has much more value than many people at the top might realize,” says Metheny of political leaders. “Having lived through a number of political ups and downs,” he says he’s confident that “music, and the arts in general, transcends all of that.”