The NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert Transcends Its Fraught Political Moment

Apr 4, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dee Dee Bridgewater found a moment in her acceptance speech at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert, on Monday night at the Kennedy Center, to sound a note of thanks for the NEA itself. “They have provided the possibility for artists to dream,” she said, “and to share their art and their creativity with people all around these United States, and all around the world.”

Dee Dee Bridgewater at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 3, 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Credit Shannon Finney

“That’s something,” she added. “It’s something to protect.” The stress on her last word was unmistakable, and it sparked a round of applause.

This was the 35th edition of the NEA Jazz Masters program, this nation’s highest honor for living jazz musicians, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts. The anniversary, under normal circumstances, probably would have been the headline.

But in recent weeks, following a proposed presidential budget that would eliminate the endowment outright, the conversation has awkwardly shifted. The New York Times put it succinctly: “NEA to Honor Jazz Masters Under a Cloud of Uncertainty,” in a story that posted on Sunday, just as the honorees were receiving their accolades at a gala dinner here.

Along with Bridgewater, 67, a singer and bandleader as well as an accomplished actress and longtime host of WBGO and NPR’s JazzSet, this year’s class of Jazz Masters spans almost every conceivable style and subgenre of the music. The honorees include pianist, composer and historian Dick Hyman, who turned 90 last month, and soul-jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, who is 74. Bassist, composer and bandleader Dave Holland, 70, is also in this year’s distinguished ranks. And the recipient of the 2017 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy is Ira Gitler, the prolific critic and historian.

Notwithstanding Gitler, 88, who was recovering from an illness and unable to travel, every honoree delivered his or her own remarks at the concert, which according to custom was an affair at once sprawling and clipped, engaging and longwinded. And it was hard not to notice an undercurrent of political will in the speeches, despite an overall tone of grace and gratitude. (Gitler had a well-spoken surrogate in his son, Fitz.)

2017 NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland, Dick Hyman, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Dr. Lonnie Smith (not pictured: Ira Gitler) at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Dinner, sponsored by BMI, on April 2, 2017.
Credit Yassine El Mansouri

Holland, who grew up in England, recalled moving to New York at the invitation of Miles Davis: “I came as an immigrant,” he said, in another line that elicited applause. He also spoke up in favor of more childhood arts education, and added that “the positive energy of this music” is precisely what’s needed in our polarized and divisive age. “It represents the best of who we are as human beings,” he said. (More applause.)

Hyman sketched an eloquent appraisal of jazz as an American enterprise — “historically, a gift from black Americans to the rest of us.” Extending a familiar metaphor of democracy and collective action, he was folksy and insightful, and his words are well worth chronicling:

That the music has been fundamentally more or less improvised is also a very American attitude, it seems to me. A “Let me figure this out and see how you like it” attitude. And an “If you want to fix something, let’s work it out” attitude. It goes with the best impulses we have, to appreciate each other in the moment; to support each other; to delight in each other’s inspirations, each other’s differences, each other’s combinations of materials, and each other’s grooves. It seems to me that to improvise together is American, because it announces that what you have going is the most remarkable, the most ingenious or charming thing you can say at a given moment — but on the other hand, who knows what might happen in the next chorus, when you combine what you’re doing with someone else? And who knows what marvelous thing might occur when your inspiration is supported by his or her performance, and the two or three of you then go on to create something never imagined before?

Most of the other speeches were delivered extemporaneously, which had its upside and downside. Given that every honoree was warmly introduced by a peer or protégé, and also profiled in a crisp video short, the discursive sprawl of their remarks became a liability. (There was apparently no “WRAP IT UP” prompt, nor should there have been.)

But if the speeches often had an unfocused muchness, the evening’s musical performances were largely tight and on point. The bar was set high from the start, as alto saxophonist and 2009 NEA Jazz Master Lee Konitz ambled through “All the Things You Are,” in tribute to Gitler. The bright warble of Konitz’s alto was a beautiful sound in the room, and his rapport with pianist Dan Tepfer, a regular duet partner, made an exploratory impulse feel approachable and natural.

Another duet — featuring Bill Charlap and Aaron Diehl at a dovetailed pair of grand pianos, in honor of Hyman — pushed the limits of dexterity without tipping into empty exhibitionism. There was balance and flair in their performance, which trotted through a medley of Hyman’s tunes, including a rumbling finale linking two far-out inventions, “The Minotaur” and “Rap #3.”

Dianne Reeves, toasting Bridgewater, sang a version of “I Wish You Love” with some new lyrics customized for the occasion, including this couplet: “All of your friends and I agree / That you are jazz royalty.” It was both personal and regal, and because Reeves was backed by a band including trumpeter Theo Croker and drummer Kassa Overall — musicians whom Bridgewater has mentored — it made sense on multiple levels.

The same could be said for a swinging take on “Undecided” sung by Bridgewater’s daughter China Moses, even though it wasn’t the best fit for her style. (Moses, who typically sings a stylish mix of dance tracks and torch songs, was ably backed by the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, which had also played a tune with Konitz.)

For the portion of the show honoring Dr. Lonnie Smith, a Hammond B-3 organ and Leslie speaker were brought to the center of the stage. It was played first by the young turk Matthew Whitaker, who chose to carve up “Mellow Mood” in a trio with Mike Moreno on guitar and Nate Smith on drums. That’s a tune by Jimmy Smith, an indisputably great organist and an NEA Jazz Master besides — but also, unless I’m missing something, the wrong Smith.

The top-billed organist in the tribute was Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. & the M.G.s fame. His playing on “It’s Changed,” a track from Lonnie Smith’s 1977 crossover album Funk Reaction, was chirpy and crisp — and so was the alto saxophone of Donald Harrison, and Moreno’s guitar. Still, this moment was one of several that highlighted an irresolvable craving at this event: It was hard not to desire Dr. Smith himself at the console, working the foot pedals.

James Genus (bass), Steve Nelson (vibraphone), Robin Eubanks (trombone), Chris Potter (saxophone), and Nate Smith (drums) perform in honor of Dave Holland at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert on April 3, 2017 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Credit Shannon Finney

A similar issue might have bedeviled the Dave Holland musical tribute, were it not for the granite authority of his stand-in, James Genus, and the established chemistry elsewhere on the stage. Beyond the bass swap, it was a reunion of Prime Directive, the quintet that Holland led from the late 1990s into the mid-‘00s, with Chris Potter on saxophones, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibraphone and Nate Smith (replacing Billy Kilson) on drums.

The band played a medley of “Prime Directive” and “Make Believe,” moving from dreamy flow to funky chop, and demonstrating the flexible strength of a well-proven crew. There was spectacular concentration among the ensemble, especially when, in the middle of the second tune, everyone dropped out but Eubanks and Potter.

They kept the beat and the fury going, in a syncopated crosstalk, punchy and exhilarating. It evoked a two-man juggling act on a high wire, a perfect expression of the cooperative energies and improvisational genius that the evening had been designed to elevate. It was the sound of human transcendence, unconcerned with any issue beyond the onrushing moment at hand.