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NEA Jazz Masters Program Morphs into Museum of Jazz Masters

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By Fradley Garner

It's happened every year since 1982, but it won't again after 2012, when the honors- loaded gravy train arrives at its 30th and last stop. The National Endowment for the Arts' Jazz Master Awards, America's highest honor in its own music genre, then goes the way of the space shuttle.

For three decades, the arts endowment has honored living legends that have made vital contributions to the music. With this new class, 124 awards will have been made to American galleon figures on the order of Count Basie, George Benson, Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Herbie Hancock, John Levy, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and The Marsalis Family.

“It is saddening to bear witness to the end of the Jazz Masters program," granted Dan Morgenstern, himself a winner of the A. B. Spellman NEA category for Jazz Advocacy. “One could rightly say that 30 years is a respectable run, but also question why it has been terminated."

The director of the Institute of Jazz Studies was involved in the NEA program from its modest beginning, when all the winners shared a $5,000 pot. Morgenstern served as a panelist and, with bassist Milt Hinton, as panel co-chair for many years, and later as a consultant. He did his part in making the pot grow to more than $2 million in the event's final year.

Any speculation about why the party's over, however, “should not put a damper on the 2012 partying," Dan said in an e-mail, adding, “Congrats to the incoming Masters!"

In alphabetical order, they are:

Jack DeJohnette, 69, a dynamic modern jazz drummer whose wide-ranging style since the 1970s also showcased his talents as a composer and pianist. DeJohnette studied classical piano for 10 years, graduating from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago before turning to the drums. He has worked and recorded both as a leader and sideman with some of the best.

Von Freeman, 88, is a founder of the “Chicago school" of tenor saxophonists, with a husky and melodic sound. Freeman worked mainly in small clubs around Chicago. “For technical brilliance, musical intellect, harmonic sophistication, and improvisatory freedom," wrote the Chicago Tribune, “Von Freeman has few bebop- era peers."

Charlie Haden, 74, started performing as “ 'little two-year-old Charles Edward ... the youngest cowboy singer and yodeler on the air,' on the Haden family's Midwest radio show," according to The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. Haden, a master of the upright bass, has worked on and off with Keith Jarrett, as well as with Tony Scott, Red Norvo, Mose Allison and others. A dedicated teacher who is fascinated with the spirituality of jazz, Haden founded the Jazz Studies program at California Institute of the Arts, in 1983.

Sheila Jordan, 81, a jazz and scat singer of the highest order, is also a songwriter of note. She covers the vocal spectrum from scat choruses to moving ballads. From the mid-1960s, Jordan performed jazz liturgies at churches and college chapels, including Cornell, Princeton and NYU. She has recorded, among others, with George Russell and Carla Bley.

Jimmy Owens, 63, an educator, trumpeter, composer-arranger in New York, was tapped for the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy. His championing of the rights of jazz artists led to the founding, in 1990, of the Jazz Musicians' Emergency Fund, a Jazz Foundation of America program to help musicians in urgent need of medical, financial and housing assistance. Owens has recorded, among others, with Duke Ellington and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.

“These artists represent the highest level of artistic mastery and we are proud to recognize their achievements," said NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, when the awards were announced in June. “Through their contributions, we have been challenged, enlightened and charmed, and we thank them for devoting their careers to expanding and supporting their art forms."

Masters must be living at the time they're selected from publicly-submitted nominations. Each award carries a one-time “fellowship" of $25,000.

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