NEA Jazz Masters 2010: Behind The Scenes

By Joe Alterman, 1/19/2010

This past Tuesday, January 12, I had the unique opportunity in taking part in the 2010 National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters Presentation Ceremony. 

The ceremony was a day filled with festivities (a banquet in the morning and a concert in the evening), and my part was that of a volunteer. Apparently the NEA contacted NYU to find some students who might want to help out with the day's events. 

I arrived with only a slight idea of what was to come; that is, I knew who was on the guest list, I knew who I'd probably say hello to, but I had no clue how long I'd speak to the guests, how much actual contact we would have, or who would actually show up. 

The lunch banquet took place at 12PM. I arrived at 11AM and was given the job of greeting everyone who arrived off of the elevators and pointing them in the right direction. Every jazz master would walk off the elevator; that meant that I would greet all of them. 

The banquet took place on the third floor. I can't describe how exciting it was to watch the arrows on the elevator rise from floor 1 to floor 3, watch the doors slowly open, and eventually be revealed to me who it was on the inside. 

I was greeted by some truly charming and gracious individuals. I recognized nearly everyone, but didn't want to make them feel that way. I greeted them with a smile and a "welcome," sometimes an "I'm Joe." 

"How you doin'? I'm Ramsey Lewis," one man said. 

Another, "I'm Annie. Nice to meet you." (Annie Ross, a 2010 NEA Jazz Master). 

Dr. Billy Taylor and I had a nice conversation as I greeted him and reminded him of some lessons I took with him at his summer jazz clinic, Jazz In July, a few years back. It was quite an honor that he seemed so interested in what I was up to, who I was studying with and what I was studying, even as people like Candido and James Moody were walking by. 

I watched and greeted Yusef Lateef, Kenny Barron, Jimmy Heath, Nat Hentoff, Cedar Walton, George Avakian, Billy Taylor, Randy Weston, Candido, Joe Wilder, Gerald Wilson, the ultra-hip Roy Haynes, Dan Morgenstern, almost anyone you could think of. 

James Moody greeted me with a hug and a kiss on each cheek (apparently a sign that he really knows you and likes you, so that was very special). 

I watched as these giants greeted each other, so happy to see one another. For some it had been a very long time. 

I watched as these giants became humans too. I'd show them to the restroom ("I need to see Mr. Pickle," Jimmy Heath said.) I saw some of them struggle to take off their coats, struggle to walk, use the bathroom more than three times during the meal...I saw them have conversations, take seating assignments, listen to speeches, look for their jackets, walk around looking for someone to talk to...

As the bruncheon neared it’s end, I was greeted quite enthusiastically by Cedar Walton, with who, just a few weeks prior, I had had a nice conversation in the Village Vanguard bathroom. Having just come from the library where I had been studying, I had my book-bag on. After we had talked for about ten minutes, one of the Vanguard’s employers came in the bathroom looking for Cedar. Immediately seeing my book bag, he yelled something to Cedar about us being up to no good (he must’ve thought we were doing drugs). Cedar told him to get out; that we were just talking. 

As people started to exit, I helped two of my heroes to their town cars: Nat Hentoff and Billy Taylor. 

During a restroom visit I introduced myself to Nat and reminded him of whom I was (he had recently listened to my album, loved it, and might want to write about my upcoming Preservation Hall performance - but we had not met, since then, in person). He seemed excited to see me and was very thankful for my helping him to his car. On the way down he spoke to me about going to see "the most happy sounding musician he's ever heard" at Preservation Hall long ago. His enthusiasm for the music is really inspiring. 

When I asked him if it was nice to see everyone today he said, "It's really like a family reunion." 

He reiterated what he has told me before: to write everything down. He’s interested in reading what a young musician like myself would make of playing in such a historic venue like Preservation Hall. (He previously mentioned that he might want to write a piece about me writing a piece on it). 

As Mr. Hentoff got in his car I asked him if I’d see him at the show that night. “No,” he said. “I’ve got to work.” 

Next was Dr. Taylor. Ever since our first run-in that morning, we really formed a bit of a rapport, greeting each other with loud "Hey's" and big smiles every time we'd run in to each other. 

As my friend and I walked Dr. Taylor to his car, I asked him if he still participated in Jazz In July. 

"No," he said. He had been having some issues with the program and thought there was some things that needed to be worked out involving the process with which things were run. Either way, I took that as an opportunity to really develop a conversation with him. 

I told him that I really learned a lot from the program. It was the first time I had realized how hard playing duo piano could be. He agreed and I told him that I love his duo piano stuff, especially the videos on his website. 

He seemed to really be enjoying the conversation and went on to tell me how much he enjoyed playing duo with people like Ramsey Lewis and Tommy Flanagan. 

"Dick Hyman," I suggested too. I had recently been watching some of their duo videos. 

"Oh yes," he said. 

As we waited for his car to pull up, I mentioned something about his amazing three-piano video that featured him, Duke Ellington, and Willie "The Lion" Smith. 

"That really was one of the highlights of my life," he said. "I mean they really just laid it down for me. I mean listen, they didn't really even solo you know. They were just mostly playing chords and letting me solo. It was really such a thrill." 

I mentioned how I thought the introduction was hilarious, when Duke Ellington pretends to forget Billy's name. 

"Oh yes," Billy said, laughing. He told me the story of how that came to be: Basically Billy brought Duke on this show, kind of a strange show, and when Duke arrived he couldn't believe that Billy had persuaded him to coming to such a show. So, in a sort of funny retaliation, Duke acted like he forgot Billy's name in the introduction to the piece. 

Dr. Taylor's car was lost or something and hadn't yet come. We walked back inside as the wind was almost unbearable outside.

"You know who I've really been listening a lot to lately?" I asked.


"Dave McKenna."

Dr. Taylor's face lit up. "Oh yes, Dave had it all. And he was one of the most melodic players..."

I asked if he'd read the new Thelonious Monk biography, knowing full well that Dr. Taylor was all over that book. 

"Yes," he said. "I'm in it."

"Oh I know, I've been reading all about you." We laughed. Hoping that he'd tell me personally one of the coolest stories in it, I told him I'd just finished the part about where he played at James P. Johnson's house. Easily my favorite story I’d read thus far in the book, I hoped Billy would tell it to me. 

Lucky me. He did. And what a version he told! Whereas in the book, I could only imagine the feelings of shock and embarrassment Billy must’ve felt when he realized what he’d been conned into, in person, I could see Billy’s enthusiasm, his shock, and the humor with which he looks back on it all now. To paraphrase the story, Billy had been playing piano in a restaurant soon after arriving in New York. A family friend introduced him to a man who said he loved Billy’s playing and offered to take him to a friend’s house who, the man told Billy, loved piano jazz and would certainly love Billy’s playing. The man took Billy to a man’s house in Harlem. There were about fifty people in the room and the man introduced Billy to the room as a pianist. “Oh playing something for us,” they yelled. “So I got up there and started playing all my Teddy Wilson shit, trying to show off, you know,” Billy put it to me. “I got through about 8 bars before a man tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘That’s nice. Let me try.’” To put it lightly, the man proceeded to build on what Billy played, but just knocked him out. That man was Willie “The Lion” Smith, and before long Billy realized that everyone there was a pianist, and everyone there was a famous pianist whose playing he knew; he just didn’t know their faces because he hadn’t seen picture of them before! In fact, he had been taken to James P. Johnson’s house! 

Billy said that they just knocked him around and tore him up. “They had such unbelievable left hands. I couldn’t play like that, and neither could Monk, and that’s how we bonded and got so close.” 

“There’s only a few recorded instances of such – you can hear it on some of his versions of ‘Round Midnight’”- but for the most part it wasn’t recorded,” Dr. Taylor said. “But Monk could really play like Tatum. He really had all the technique and he could really play like Art.” 

He told me about learning from Art Tatum. One of Tatum’s protégés – Oscar Peterson being one of the others – he told me about sitting down at the piano with Tatum. Tatum showed him a pattern or a piece and Billy went home and learned it, copying it note for note. When he went back to Tatum and showed it to him, Tatum simply said, "Man, I've already heard that. I played that. Now do something with it." 

A few minutes later Billy’s car arrived and he was whisked away into the car. I got the feeling he could’ve gone on and on, and how I wish he did!

(It reminded me of the days of Jazz In July, when sometimes he’d tell us stories for an hour or so after class ended. Once such story: Billy had recently started working with Atlantic Records, who were, at the time, looking for some sort of new sound. Every day Billy would come in and they’d give him some music and he’d play it, and they’d say, “No, that’s not it.” This went on for a while until one day when he walked in and they told him that they’d found the sound they were looking for. When Billy asked who it was, they said it was a blind pianist named Ray Charles.)

“See ya tonight!,” he said as he got in his car. 

After the brunch ended, us volunteers were given a little break. We were told to meet back at the Sheraton Hotel at 5PM where we would help the Jazz Masters board the bus to Lincoln Center around 5:30. 

When we walked into the hotel lobby, it seemed that every jazz master was already there, just sitting around and hanging out. The bus ended up being about an hour late, which worked out great for me, because it really gave me a chance to really talk with some of my heroes. 

As I walked to the bathroom, I saw Mr. Moody sitting down with his wife and I yelled out, “Mr. Moody!” He quickly got up and started conversation with my friends and I. 

“You been practicin’ he asked?” 

“I have, Mr. Moody.” 

“Good.” He said. “It seems that the more you practice, the more you realize you don’t know. You know what I mean?” 

He said, “As a matter of fact, my wife called Hank Jones the other day and he didn’t answer. He called back a little while later and apologized for missing her call; he had been practicing, he said. Now Hank’s 93 and if he’s still working on getting better, that’s really saying something.”

And then in his classic Moody tone (which can only be described as pure Donald Duck) he said, “Pwactice, pwactice, pwactice..” 

Getting to know Mr. Moody a bit this past year through the Blue Note internship I’ve realized that many of the things he says may sound funny at first – you may even laugh at them-, but when you take a second and really think about what he just said, you realize just how deep what he said truly is. 

“Beware of those people who call a television set an air conditioner.” We laughed. He stopped us. “No, seriously,” he said. “Think about it.” We all stopped and thought, and then Moody explained: “People can give labels to anything, but always try to find the truth.” 

He then gave me another thing to think about. “Think about this,” he said. “Imagine that every time you play your instrument for the rest of your life you can only play ‘Happy Birthday’. Now that song is not happening, right?” 

“Right,” I said.

“But I guarantee you, that if you only play ‘Happy Birthday To You’ for the rest of your life you are gonna find some good shit on it.” 

I asked him if it was nice to see everyone today. “Oh yes,” he said. “But man, I mean it's kinda depressing too. I mean look at Candido, right there. He used to have these big, bulging muscles, and he was a real tough guy. It's sad watching him, and a lot of these guys. It makes me want to go home and bend over and lift some weights. I don't want to get like that."

Somehow the topic turned to race relations. Moody told us about many of the hard times he’d been through. He said he did a tour down south once where he was on the bandstand and the dance floor was divided in half. He said he would never hurt an American or America, but he doesn’t pride himself on the flag. America’s hurt him. He didn’t get treated with respect until he went to Europe, where he lived for three years, in Paris. He said that he has learned to take each person as an individual, not as a part of a group. He did say that racism still exists. Even though it’s much subtler that it used to be, he said it still hurts. He said that he often goes out with his wife (who is white) and often, the waiter or waitress will bring the meals’ check straight to her, or ask if the two are together, or ask, “separate checks?” 

Right about then Gerald Wilson came over and the two embraced. It seemed like they hadn’t seen each other in a while and they began reminiscing, including my friends and I in the stories. 

Moody started cracking up. He looked at my friends and I and said, “Man. Dizzy used to mess with me. He used to do this to me (Moody sat down and ran his fingers slowly up his legs - imitating Dizzy, who would run his fingers slowly up Moody’s legs), and ask me, ‘Moody. You nervous?’ I’d push him off and say, ‘Diz, get off of me!’ Then I’d try to get him back and do the same to him. I’d say, ‘Diz, you nervous?’ And he’d quickly say ‘No!’, and spread his legs wide open.” Moody and Wilson were cracking up. 

Moody then stood back up. He asked my friends how old they were and then he asked me. 

“21,” I said.

Then he looked at Gerald Wilson. “How old are you?”

“92,” Wilson replied. 

Then Moody looked me in the eyes and said, “Boy, you may be 21 today but you’ll be 92 tomorrow. Make it count.” 

We talked for a few more minutes before being called over by our boss for the afternoon. We helped him for a minute before joining in conversation with Jimmy Heath. 

Jimmy was telling a story about having recently gone out to dinner with Randy Weston and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Now both Weston and Abdul Jabaar are both at least close to seven feet, while Jimmy may be somewhere close to 5. He said, “Someone asked to take a picture of us. Now listen,” he said. “I'm standing next to Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Randy Weston, right in the middle of them. It's like I'm standing next to the twin towers. And I’m like, damn, I thought they tore those down already."

I asked him about my teacher Don Friedman, with whom I knew he played. He said he had a funny Don Friedman story. "I'll never forget we were on one of those cruises and Don starts playing "How Deep Is The Ocean," (Jimmy starts cracking up) and I'm Iike, "Don, we're in the middle of the ocean and I can barely swim. I don't want to know how deep it is from out here.”

As we began to slowly make our way to the busses I watched as Moody, Gerald Wilson, and Jimmy Heath reunited with Roy Haynes. Roy approached Moody from behind, grabbed his shoulders and started singing into his ears, first very quietly and then louder and louder, the word’s to Moody’s hit, “Moody’s Mood For Love.” “Where I go where I go where I go now,” he started singing. Before long they all joined in and eventually ended in full-fledged laughter. 

We started walking to the bus when I noticed 93-year-old Yusef Lateef walking with one or two horns on his back and a suitcase on the ground that he was also carrying. I asked if he’d like some help. He laughed, thanked me, and said, “I’m okay as long as my wheels don’t break. 

We helped the jazz masters board the bus, and then, with a few extra seats in the back, my friends and I hopped in. Jimmy Heath and James Moody greeted us loudly. Moody pounded my fist as I walked back. I sat right behind Randy Weston and right by Roy Haynes. It was most definitely the coolest bus ride in my life. 

When we got to Lincoln Center we helped the artists get up to the “Jazz” level, the fifth floor. Myself, a few of the volunteers, Randy Weston, and Gerald Wilson’s beautiful granddaughters got off at that wrong floor. We were lost for about ten minutes before someone showed us the way. We walked in to the room where all the Jazz Masters (2010 and previous years) who were in attendance that evening were being photographed all together. What a joy it was to watch this. I’ve seen pictures like this before, but there’s nothing like being there, realizing that they’re all just clowning around. Frank Foster kept making funny faces and everyone was yelling things at one another. It was quite a scene. 

After a thirty or so minute dinner where I shared a few words with Kenny Barron, we went backstage to where we’d watch the show. We opened the backstage doors and were greeted by a loud trumpet blowing fast scales – obviously warming up – in a room where the sound of the room made the trumpet echo beautifully. The sound was unmistakable. Wynton Marsalis. 

His whole band was warming up. They were all walking down this large hall blowing their instruments. They were laughing and joking with one another. 

We made our way backstage and Wynton came up to us, starting some conversation, asking us our names and such, and made a few jokes here and there. As the concert was about to start, the MC for the evening told Wynton to get on stage. Wynton said jokingly “Fuck you. I don’t want to go on.” The M.C. told him to go on stage; the show was being broadcast on the radio. Wynton kept saying “Fuck you man. Not now.” They were joking around and before long the M.C. basically grabbed Wynton and told him to go on stage. It was a funny bit. 

The actual show was very long. I think it ran nearly four hours. For each honoree a video was shown, an introduction speech was given by a previously named Jazz Master, then the honoree spoke, and then he or she performed a piece. While it was very long and did bore many in audience after a while, it was proved to be fascinating to me, sitting backstage. 

What really proved to be fascinating were the things that the audience didn’t get to see, the things that only I and a select few could see from backstage. I looked into Cedar Walton’s eyes as a video was being shown about him in front of the entire audience at Lincoln Center. I wondered if he was contemplating just how far he’d come; if he was pondering the significance of this moment. I watched as Kenny Barron prepared to go on stage and receive his award. I watched as Annie Ross prepared her makeup and took deep breaths before taking stage.

It was interesting to me to look into the faces of these newly named jazz masters just before they took the stage, as their own heroes were speaking about them, honoring them. It was interesting to watch, say Kenny Barron’s facial expression as James Moody spoke so highly about him in front of the entire audience. “I’ve never heard Kenny make a mistake,” Moody said. It was amazing to me how straight they kept their faces, never smiling at the accolades that were being spoken about them, only laughing at the funny stories told about them (Mr. Moody talked about rooming with Mr. Barron during a stint with Dizzy Gillespie and said, “I remember he used to wake up every morning in his underwear and make a big peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then eat a banana.” After a long pause, Moody said something like, “I don’t know why I told y’all that.”). It was fascinating to watch these artists collect their thoughts. It was hard to tell if Cedar Walton was focused on or even paying attention his accolades, the video, the speech before-hand; he looked utterly serious and focused, yet I couldn’t tell at all what was on his mind. 

One of the most poignant moments of the show, for me, took place just before Yusef Lateef walked on stage to receive his award. 

Each honoree was led to the stage door about a minute before they were supposed to walk onstage, accept the award, give a speech, and perform. 

Mr. Luteef, 93 years old, an extremely mysterious man, walked to the stage door very slowly. Then he stopped and stood very still, arms crossed, eyes closed, face down. 

While it is impossible for me to know what he was truly thinking of that moment, something hit me hard. 

They always say that right before you die your life flashes before your eyes. I got this strange feeling that, Lateef was reflecting over his entire life at that exact moment, not dying at all, but feeling some sort of strange relief. He seemed to be inside his mind replaying how he had gotten from A to B and from B to Z. 

It seemed that, just possibly, he was thinking that, somehow, everything he had fought for all his life had arrived; everything he had worked for throughout his entire existence had been building to that one moment. Finally, he was being honored by the United States Government for a music that he - and countless others who hadn’t the chance to receive the proper recognition- spent his whole life fighting to legitimize (especially in the United States, the land of jazz’s creation!). I watched him stand there, overwhelmed with emotions, knowing full well where this man must have been and knowing too where he had arrived, and also very thankful that he, and especially he (an often underappreciated and under-recognized, yet more than deserving jazz master) specifically received this award before it was too late. 

Whether or not that’s how it actually happened to him, that’s how it hit me, and it was a really powerful emotional experience. 

The show ended eventually and we were led out to a reception where everyone mingled. A good friend of mine introduced me to Marc O’Connor, the fabulous violinist, and we had a wonderful conversation. What a truly wonderful guy he is. Throughout the day, it hit me hard that these giants are just people, and O’Connor was really exemplar of that. When I asked him how last week’s Blue Note gig went after telling him I would’ve been there (being the Blue Note intern) had I not been home for break, he said, “We missed you.” 

The reception eventually ended and we made our way down the elevators where many of the Jazz Masters boarded the bus to take them back to the Sheraton. 

A friend of mine was on the elevator with Jimmy Heath, who apparently had something to say about the no-shows. "Ornette Coleman didn't show up. George Coleman didn't show up. Heck, even Coleman Hawkins didn't show up."

I had been on the elevator before that one. Standing behind me was Cecil Taylor. Not really a fan of his music, but in the presence of such an icon, I knew I had to say something. 

When the time seemed right, just as we were about to exit the Lincoln Center doors onto Columbus Circle, I approached him. “Mr. Taylor,” I said. “I don’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to tell you that I’m a pianist and that your music has been very inspiring over the years.” 

In response (or I should say, in lack-of response), Mr. Taylor just looked at me, dead serious, right in the eyes for about ten seconds. Finally he broke the silence by asking in a deep and heavy, yet totally fake, British accent, “What is your name, Sir?” 

As strange as it was, I realized walking home that night that, after getting to know Taylor’s music, that is exactly how I’d expect Cecil Taylor to react. 

The case was the same with nearly everyone I met: 

Yusef Lateef, even in conversation, seemed mysterious and even a bit protective. You could never tell what he was really thinking, but you could always tell that he was thinking. And James Moody is extremely happy and he quickly draws you into the conversation, which can turn from absolutely hilarious to very deep, emotional, and even dark at times, in a matter of seconds. 

It’s true what Charlie Parker said about one’s music being the sum total of one’s experiences. Being behind the scenes at the NEA Jazz Masters Awards day really showed me that this is absolutely true. 

It was an honor to spend the day with my heroes and to watch them receive the deserved recognition that they’ve been denied for way too long.