Reconciliation at the NEA Jazz Masters 2014 Ceremony

The ceremony honoring 2014’s NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship recipients was held Monday evening at Lincoln Center and was streamed live. I generally don’t make a habit of watching or listening to the actual ceremony, but I was home and had the time. And while I don’t want to go into a lengthy exposé, I do have a few thoughts on the event.

(The NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship is the US’s highest federal honor for jazz musicians. That’s great, though it’s curious that such prestige for “America’s classical music” amounts to a $25,000 grant for cultural titans in our homegrown art. Anyway…)

It’s of course interesting to see who receives such awards, and I had an increased personal interest in the class of 2011 which included Dave Liebman. (2011 also curiously included the entire Marsalis family. Cute. It prompted this response from Phil Woods.) This year’s class also piqued my interest beyond general curiosity. The recipients are:
Jamey Aebersold – Renowned jazz pedagogue (I bet a number of you reading this have used his play-along sets as I have)
Anthony Braxton – Saxophonist, composer
Richard Davis – Bassist, educator
Keith Jarret – Pianist

He hasn’t received as much attention on this blog as some other figures/topics, but Keith Jarrett looms large in my life. (As I alluded to in a recent interview.) He’s one of my favorite musicians, and I’m fortunate to be alive at the same time as he. I can’t claim to have all of this albums, but I can at least say that I have a strong majority of his ECM output, and he’s a significant part of my collection. As far as “traditional” jazz is concerned, he’s often a bit of an outsider, despite his stature as being one of the most listened to pianists in the world. So his being recognized as a “Master” was of strong personal interest. That, and I was curious to see him give a speech – something that almost never happens – and wanted to see how he handled the performance portion of the evening. (Aside form classical works, he plays extended solo concerts or with his trio. That’s it.)

Jarrett was warm and sincere, all things considered. Humorous, even. (His speech was rough around the edges, but people don’t flock to his concerts – myself included – because of his charm and pleasant demeanor.) And it was nice to see Manfred there with him. For his “performance,” fellow ECM artists Jason Moran and Bill Frisell performed his “Memories of Tomorrow,” which he seemed to genuinely enjoy.

For me, the highlight of the night was Anthony Braxton‘s portion. It was quite compelling and one of the reasons I tuned in to begin with. If Jarrett is somewhat removed from the historical neo-Bop “heads” of the jazz elite, then Braxton is from another universe entirely, something Braxton acknowledged in his speech. Among other things, he, along with Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker, pioneered the solo saxophone aesthetic in improvised music. He’s since become renown as a composer, writer, and educator, as well as a strong technician of the instrument. While I’ve not really written about Braxton on this blog, I have discussed his Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) colleague Roscoe Mitchell. When I tuned in, I wanted to see both what he would say/do and what the reaction of his peers and audience would be.

I’ll admit, Braxton rambled and his speech was all over the place (and long), but he spoke a great truth: that musicians must reconcile their aesthetic differences and celebrate creativity and progression. He was heartfelt, joyous, and soft-spoken. Also, he acknowledged that his being considered a Jazz Master is a solid leap in that direction of reconciliation. Three key quotes, the first coming from his opening:

“For the last 50 years, my worked has been viewed as not jazz, not black, not contemporary classical music. My work doesn’t swing. After a while I got used to that. I got used to those perspectives and accepted it. In the end, I just wanted to do my music. And suddenly, with the beautiful passage of time, there would be a change.”

“Before Charlie Parker played his music, it didn’t exist.”

“We need to have a reconcilement in our music… We need to reconcile the polarities.”

He cited influences including Dave Brubeck, Cecil Taylor, Arnold Schönberg, Iannis Xenakis, John Philip Sousa, and the MSU and UofM marching bands. He also discussed music and aesthetics in the prism of cultural nationalism, politics, and theory. Yes, he droned on and on, but it was obvious that he was just as surprised to be receiving the award as others were to watch him receive it. Although the other three recipients were humbled and gracious, they’re still easily considered jazz musicians and they know it. Braxton, on the other hand, has spent his life and career in the wilderness doing his own thing and creating his own art. And the fact that he was acknowledged alongside Jamey Aebersold for anything is news in and of itself.

Braxton didn’t himself perform, but rather an excerpt of one of his operas, Trillium J, was performed by some of his associates and students. Yes, a contemporary/avant-garde opera excerpt was performed at the NEA Jazz Masters ceremony. And not only that, but it was performed well.

Unsurprisingly, Braxton’s speech and performance received a supportive but unenergetic applause. At least it got that, I suppose.

I could drone on and on about my thoughts on various other details, but a few things stick out:
• It’s curious that the two most technically advanced musicians of the recipients – Jarrett and Braxton – were the two recipients who did not perform live. Aebersold, a giant of jazz education who hasn’t made a career out of performing, did. (Which was nice to see, by the way, since it’s a rarity.) And Richard Davis started playing an interesting solo bass piece that quickly devolved into an arco trainwreck. (The bow, like the Ring of Power, is tempting and does more harm than good.)
• Despite the above point, the performances of Braxton’s and Jarrett’s music were the strongest of the recipients, and arguably the strongest of the night if judging purely on technical merits (and not subjective matters of taste).
• Wynton Marsalis and Soledad O’Brien needn’t co-host again.
• The forced collaborations for performances had an awkward, Grammy-like quality to it. Furthermore, why did some of the collaborations by jazz musicians seem so uncomfortable?
• The neo-Bop army was a little too smug when they gave a rousing applause to Richard Davis’s insistence that one can’t play “free” without the requisite fundamentals. (I agree wholeheartedly, but the audience reaction seemed like more of a slam against Braxton, who preceded Davis, than a support of instrumental technique.) This happened a couple other times.
• Many of the next-day write-ups have downplayed if not outright ignored Jamey Aebersold’s presence at the ceremony. Not only is he 25% of the program, but he’s arguably responsible for everyone under 40 on that bandstand. Considering how much those in the arts like to “celebrate” education, I take that as a slap on the face that one of the giants of jazz pedagogy was written out of so many articles. Simply look at this title. [Note: This entry is largely about Braxton and some Jarrett, and not an overall report. So I can get away with it.]

That about sums it up, at least for this post. Will I be tuning into the live stream in 2015? Let’s wait and see the recipients list first.


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