NEA Jazz Masters 2011: Behind The Scenes

By Joe Alterman, 2/20/2011

I volunteered once again at this year’s National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards & Ceremony, and, as excited as I was to write about it, it’s taken me quite a long time to do so; the inspiration just hadn’t yet struck me in quite the right way. Yet. 

But this past Tuesday, while skimming across different jazz sites, I came across this article: NEA Jazz Master Award To Disappear Under New Federal Budget Plan

For some reason, as I processed this shocking and devastating information, what passed through my mind was quick flashes of pictures, people, and smiles –all NEA Jazz Masters- from both the 2010 & 2011 NEA Awards & Ceremonies. I saw James Moody hugging Gerald Wilson, laughing hysterically as they reminisced about their days in Dizzy Gillespie’s band together. I saw Ahmad Jamal laughing with Phil Woods. I saw, just over my right shoulder, one night at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (the night before the 2011 Awards Ceremony), the biggest smile I’ve ever seen – on Gerald Wilson’s face – as he listened to, and danced in his seat, to the music on stage. I saw, in the same frame, Jimmy Heath, yelling something to Wilson, waving his hands in the air, smiling, dancing, and then, when the piano player on stage took a slight stride piano break, everyone yell “Oh!,” and then Heath yell, “Some James P. in the house!”

I saw, above all, a family; a community of smiles among people so happy to see each other, all who have given their lives to this music, all who have contributed so much to this music, all who rarely get to see each other all in one place during the year – except at the NEA Jazz Masters Awards & Ceremony. 

Amidst all of these extremely happy moments, another memory flashed before my eyes. I saw the serious, solemn, grateful and almost shocked look on Yusef Lateef’s face, just moments before he walked out on the Jazz At Lincoln Center stage to receive his 2010 NEA Jazz Master Awards. It gave me the chills. He was finally being given what he deserved, proper acknowledgement in America which was long overdue. This wasn’t just an award; this was so much more than that. This National Endowment for the Arts award represented the acceptance of these special people and their very special music into America, finally. (Watching these Jazz Masters just before being given the award reminded me of what Moody once told me about his own career. “I felt totally worthless for my whole life until I went over to Europe, where they treated us like we deserved to be treated…” To me, this award seemed to represent an end to that attitude.)

Reading the announcement via the NPR article brought me back to day one of this year’s Awards, and I replayed the whole day in my head, realizing in disbelief that such a wonderful bringing together of these people may never happen again. 

I replayed my first memory of the day: Greeting the jazz masters as they arrived at Jazz At Lincoln Center for a panel discussion. I said hello to jazz great Gerald Wilson as he got off the elevator. “Hey!”, he yelled, and approached me with his hand out. He couldn’t get his gloves off in time for our handshake and said to me, “Pardon my glove.” I remember being taken aback by this statement; I’ve never heard something so kind like that before, and via that one statement, I felt welcomed into a long bygone era. 

The two-day event this year was another wonderful experience. There were a few moments that I’ll never forget, that I’d like to share with you. 

I remember, on the first day, going to get lunch in a backstage room at Lincoln Center, just before the dress rehearsal for the following evenings’ concert was to take place. I walked into the room and, sitting at the table was Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, and Ellis Marsalis. A few minutes later, Benny Golson walked in. Everyone said hello and hugged each other, but when Golson got to Marsalis, he introduced himself. Marsalis replied, “Nice to meet you.” They both couldn’t remember if they had met before; if they had met before, they said, it had been quite a long time ago. 

Later that night, the NEA had a sort of party at the 2nd set at Dizzy’s Club that night. Many of the jazz masters came out with their families and had a great time hanging with one another and eating some food. The band that night was saxophonist Walter Blanding’s group –which was great!- and, it seemed to me that many of the songs were progressive/modern type melodies over very conventional, traditional, almost Dixieland type chord progressions. Seated next to me was Gerald Wilson, master composer, arranger, theorist; basically THE man in terms of knowing tunes, chord progressions, and reharmonizations. I tapped Mr. Wilson on the shoulder and asked him if the tune being played was the Cole Porter song, “It’s Delovely.” He smiled. It was, he said, and seemed a bit excited at the mention of that tune. For the rest of the set Mr. Wilson and I had an amazing time throwing song suggestions at one another. He’d tap me when a tune would excite him, and I’d do the same. At one point, he asked me if I knew the tune called “I May Be Wrong.” “I don’t,” I said. He thought for a second and then laughed: “That was the theme song for the Apollo Theater in the early ‘40’s. I guess you wouldn’t know that one.” It was a thrill suggesting different tunes to him. “Oh!”, he’d say, then close his eyes, place his hands on the table as if he were playing the piano, and then he’d hit a few chords. After a few seconds of doing so, he’d confirm the tune for me and then tell me four or five other tunes it also reminded him of.

At the end of the set he asked me what I played. I told him piano, and then he said, “I know you play something because I can tell you’ve got ears.” That meant a whole lot to me. He asked me if I loved it. ‘I do,” I said. Then he looked and me and said something I’ll never forget. “Stay with it. Jazz music will keep you honest.” 

He meant, of course, and went on to explain, that it’s impossible to really play anything but yourself if you’re really playing the music. “You never meet any jazz musicians who are murderers, do you?” he asked. 

A few friends came over and Mr. Wilson began to tell us some wild stories from his past. He told us that Roy Eldridge could play better trumpet (and higher notes on the instrument) than Louis Armstrong could, and he also told us about his crazy days being Redd Foxx’s musical director. He told us about the many times Duke Ellington would call him, in the middle of the night, and ask him to arrange a piece by the following afternoon. He said that he’d stay up all night writing the piece and that his wife would copy the parts (by hand) for the rest of the band. He said that Duke did play Gerald Wilson original songs, but that Wilson felt especially honored when Duke would call him to arrange some of Duke’s famous songs. 

Mr. Wilson then turned his attention to the show we just saw. The band had played a version of the famous waltz “My Favorite Things” that was very similar to the Coltrane version. “You know,” he said. “People always say that Fats Waller wrote the first jazz waltz [he was referring to “Jitterbug Waltz”], but I wrote the first swinging jazz waltz. It was a blues based off of a classical piece [he named the classical piece but I’ve regrettably forgotten it].” I remember being in awe thinking to myself that I am having a conversation with someone who was actually once in competition with Fats Waller!

After we left Dizzy’s Club and helped those Jazz Masters who needed help to the elevators, I had a very sad moment with the great record producer George Avarkian, who is now extremely frail. His wife had misplaced her cell phone and I helped Mr. Avakian take a seat – he was using a walker and was having trouble sitting down -. He thanked me for the help and then asked me to sit down beside him. After asking me about what I did and so forth, I asked him if he was looking forward to tomorrow -the luncheon, the picture with all the masters, and the concert. “Yes,” he said. He wasn’t feeling too well but “I can’t miss being in that picture. That picture is history.” And then after taking a deep breath, he said, “I think I’m going to be history pretty soon too.” 

The following day was the big day. Highlights included sitting next to Jimmy Heath backstage. Mr. Heath was clowning around, telling jokes, and cracking everyone up. There was the threat of snow storm later that night and when the speeches kept going and going, Mr. Heath whispered to me, “They better get the show on the road before Frosty the Snowman comes out to take a peak.” He was laughing, dancing when there was music, listening intently, and poking fun at the speeches made on stage. (When someone onstage said, “Jazz is a uniquely American voice,” Heath said, “No kidding!”) He then pulled out his new digital camera, which he was having trouble figuring out, and took a bunch of pictures of everyone. 

What really struck me was watching Mr. Heath when the NEA launched into the memorial part of the program where they honored the Jazz Masters who had passed away this past year. Those included Abbey Lincon, Hank Jones, Dr. Billy Taylor, and James Moody. I know that Mr. Heath was close with them, especially with Moody. As the memorial video said each Masters’ name, I watched Mr. Heath shake his head very sadly. With all these losses, Mr. Heath has surely had a sad year; his son also passed away earlier in the year too. Looking at his demeanor as the memorial was being introduced, I really realized what a remarkable person Jimmy Heath is. Here he lost his son and best friend in the same year, and he’s still here, so happy to be here, and telling his jokes and making everyone excited and happy too; he’s got such a positive and optimistic energy about him. Here’s someone who’s really grateful to be alive, I remember thinking. His musical is legendary, but Mr. Heath and his attitude are truly remarkable. It was very inspiring to see something like that. 

After the show, I approached Ahmad Jamal – who I’d been helping get from place to place all day. “Hey man” he said. I said, “Mr. Jamal, I’ve got to tell you. I’ve been working here all day and had to act all professional, but now that it’s over I’ve got to tell you. You’re my hero. I’m a pianist and, for me, you’re ‘the guy.’”

It really meant a whole lot to me to be able to express my gratitude to Mr. Jamal, a man whose music I admire so much, and I think it meant something him. He got a big smile on his face and said, “That means a lot. That makes me feel that I’m still in the game.” 

“Mr. Jamal,” I said. “You are the game!” 

It was really a thrill to be around such humble people. These people are so much more than amazing musicians; they are truly remarkable people who radiate such kindness, warmth and knowledge when you are around them. It’s such an honor to be able to spend a little bit of time with them. 

And for them, they rarely get to see one another. And when they do, it’s probably rarely in this type of environment. They’ve been paying their dues all their lives and now, not only are they being recognized as the Bachs and Beethovens of America, but they are also all together and can celebrate with one another. 

It is a huge shame that this event and honor is being taken away because, not only is it a necessary and long overdue honor to bestow upon these deserving people, but the awards' being removed represents the idea that maybe America never really did catch up to the greatness of jazz and it’s creators like we had finally been led to believe. It brings me back to Mr. Moody’s statement and makes me wonder.