Left-Right: Gary Burton, Wendy Oxenhorn, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Linda Oh, Catherine Russell, Jimmy Heath, Karriem Riggins

Left-Right: Gary Burton, Wendy Oxenhorn, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Linda Oh, Catherine Russell, Jimmy Heath, Karriem Riggins


Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.
 
2016 marks the 50th year of the National Education Association’s annual Jazz Master Fellowship Awards, and the traditional tribute concert, held on April 4 this year at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, paid homage to the new honorees in style as they joined a select group of figures from the illustrious history of the music.
 
The awards grew out of NEA’s support for jazz, which started in 1969 with a grant to George Russell and the realization that despite its central cultural role in the US, jazz as a form had fallen on hard times in the 1960s with diminished audiences and little support. The Jazz Master Awards themselves began in 1982 to formally honor musicians who have achieved a particularly high level of achievement. Nominations can actually be made by anyone, though the awardees are selected by a panel of jazz experts.
 
This year, saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders, vibraphonist Gary Burton, and Jazz Foundation of America executive director Wendy Oxenhorn were awarded Jazz Master Awards.
 
It was special for us at Suga’ in My Bowl because of the amount of former guests on our radio show represented at the ceremony. We interviewed Archie Shepp this month and Pharoah Sanders, Gary Burton, David Murray, Randy Weston, Billy Harper, Lakecia Benjamin, and Catherine Russell are all former guests.
 
The concert which is streamed live over the Internet (and will be archived online soon) featured arrangements of signature compositions by the honored musicians played by ensembles made of former jazz masters and younger musicians. The format highlights the continuity of the music and also provides the opportunity for interesting combinations that might not otherwise happen.
 
Shepp was the first of the new awardees profiled and the ensemble played a medley of his pieces ending with “Blues for Brother George Jackson” from the Attica Blues album. Shepp’s funky, soulful tribute to the Black Panther Party member killed by California prison officials.
 
Pianist Jason Moran (also the event’s host), trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Karriem Riggins, conguero Pedrito Martinez, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and David Murray interpreted Shepp’s work for a big band, which Shepp himself revisited with new ensembles years later.
 
David Murray played Shepp’s part, while the robust rhythm section handled the strong backbeat the piece is known for. Although piano wasn’t part of the original, Moran’s part added welcome texture to the piece.
 

Archie Shepp: What is the relevance of jazz music if it reaches no further than middle class homes that can afford musical instruments and music instruction?

Shepp’s brief acceptance speech mirrored the politically engaged themes of the chosen song and much of his work, calling for the need to reach out to poor communities and engage them with the music:
 
“Finally we might ask ourselves what is the meaning of the arts and humanities if they are only available to a class of people. What is the relevance of jazz music if it reaches no further than middle class homes that can afford musical instruments and music instruction? It is essential that our schools universities and institutions reach out to the ghettoes the wretched communities which frequently languish outside their doors. They must create hope where there is despair, lest this world become what you see a virtual reality show.”
 
Shepp’s comments clearly reverberated among the performers and audience, with several others on stage acknowledging or echoing his points. He also had kind words for Pharoah Sanders. “We go back a long way”, said Shepp, “and he’s really like a brother to me”.
 

2016 NEA Jazz Masters Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp

2016 NEA Jazz Masters Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp


 
Vibraphonist Gary Burton was the next recipient introduced. Pianist (and Jazz Master) Chick Corea and vibraphonist Stefon Harrris were tapped to recreate Burton’s “Crystal Silence”, which he and Corea recorded together.
 

Gary Burton: “This generation that Chick and I were part of was around when the pioneers [of jazz] were still around. I feel that we’re in a unique position to carry on and pass on what we’ve learned”.

The meaning wasn’t lost on Burton, who joked that it was strange to actually hear his own work being played. “I’ve been playing that song with Chick for over 40 years”, he recalled.
 
Burton also reinforced the idea of social responsibility in his remarks. “This generation that Chick and I were part of was around when the pioneers [of jazz] were still around. I feel that we’re in a unique position to carry on and pass on what we’ve learned”.
 
Pharoah Sanders was introduced next. Jason Moran handled the introduction, pointing to the innovative work that came from Sanders’s collaboration with John Coltrane, especially on the latter’s groundbreaking Ascension album.
 
Pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Billy Harper rekindled their collaboration for their Roots of the Blues project to honor Sanders. While most of the musical selections interpreted songs composed by the recipients, Weston instead selected something from his own catalog with “The Healers”. It was an appropriate choice, given Sanders’s heavy focus on spirituality in his work.
 
After Weston introduced the melody, he was joined by Harper and the duo went through the introspective piece that was a reminder that although Sanders is remembered for his fiery compositions of epic length and virtuosity, there’s a contemplative side to him as well.
 
Sanders, generally a humble man of few words, appeared overjoyed at the honor. “All I can say is the creator has a master plan”, he quipped, referencing one of this classic songs. “I just want to say thank you with a lot of peace and life to all of you — and to my family”. With that, he looked at Harper and Weston, who he suggested were his musical family.
 
Wendy Oxenhorn was the last recipient introduced and received the NEA’s A.B. Spellman Award for jazz advocacy. Several video tributes stressed the important role the Jazz Foundation of America has played in supporting musicians who cannot work or need financial help.
 
The program ended with Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free” performed by saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Lakecia Benjamin, pianist Justin Coughlin, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Kareem Woods, and Catherine Russell’s vocals. The interplay between Heath and Benjamin highlighted the intergenerational nature of the event with the elder sax master generously encouraging Benjamin to take solos, seemingly pleased with her playing.
 
The event also kicks off the Smithsonian Museum’s annual Jazz Appreciation Month, meant to teach, highlight, and create excitement around the music. Lots of resources and educational material is available at the Smithsonian’s jazz website.
 
—-
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

Advertisements