There are many ways to enjoy the latest NEA Jazz Masters class

Jon W poses

Recently I received a press release from the National Endowment for the Arts, a follow-up to the agency’s initial notice a few months ago announcing the NEA Jazz Masters Class of 2022. The four recipients are bassist Stanley Clarke , saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., drummer Billy Hart and singer Cassandra Wilson.

This is the 40th year of the prestigious program which nominates a handful of artists and a dedicated jazz ‘advocate’ each year. This advocate award is known as the AB Spellman Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy; Spellman, born in 1935, worked his entire life in the field as a poet, author, music critic and arts administrator.

This year’s selection for this award surprised a number of people, myself included. That’s because the recipient – Harrison – is seen as a veteran musician rather than a jazz advocate. In nominating the Crescent City native, the selection committee noted Harrison’s importance to New Orleans, citing his ongoing community work.

I guess the panelists felt that such activity, including during apocalyptic events like Hurricane Katrina, was as important, maybe more, than his measurable musical accomplishments.

Being named the NEA Jazz Master is tantamount to receiving a lifetime achievement award. It is the country’s highest honor for jazz artists. The recipient must be alive and preferably currently working. There have been those who have been recognized but are essentially inactive. However, like everyone else, the AEN prefers to make itself known and have its laureates recognized as such.

Harrison Jr. is “only” 61, while drummer Hart is now 81. But Hart, one of jazz’s most creative percussionists, continues to perform and record regularly. Vocalist Wilson is now 66 and bassist Clarke will turn 71 in June. Since 1982, the NEA has nominated 170 Jazz Masters who, in addition to the nomination, receive a cash prize – currently set at $25,000.

Cassandra Wilson

Surprisingly enough, there were few instances where a person was named in the fall announcement but died before the award presentation, public ceremony and concert the following spring.

This brings us back to the recent announcement. After two years of virtual celebrations, this year’s event — which for many years has been held at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, but is now being held in San Francisco at the SFJAZZ Center complex — is scheduled for March 31.

For those who live nearby or fancy traveling and attending in person, you’re pretty much out of luck already. The SFJAZZ Center website posted the following notice:

“In-person ticket reservations for this event are currently being filled. We anticipate that more tickets will become available before the concert date, so please check the website often for returned tickets. A limited number of walk-in tickets will be available on the evening of the concert on a first-come, first-served basis… via the ticketing waiting line.

Interestingly, by law, the NEA is not allowed to charge admission to its events. It’s no wonder, then, that the 700-seat auditorium – which put tickets “on sale” on March 2 – “sold out” within 24 hours.

However, all is far from lost. Indeed, the NEA, which was previously the sole provider to broadcast the event, has greatly expanded its accessibility. Part of the increased opportunity to enjoy the event is due to COVID and the rise of virtual programming. Billed as the NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert, the event is now available across multiple sites and platforms and kicks off at 9:30 p.m. Missouri time.

Among the many views and listeners are the NEA’s site, which will also archive the event for future viewing, and as well as Facebook.

Many more will share the live webcast: All About Jazz and Jazz Near You; music publishing giant BMI; DownBeat magazine; Herbie Hancock Jazz Institute; Jazz Times Magazine; National Museum of African American History and Culture; and National Museum of American History.

Radio stations broadcasting the event include NPR Music, SiriusXM Channel 67, Real Jazz; WBGO-FM (Newark, NJ); WRTI-FM (Philadelphia); WZUM-FM (Pittsburgh); WDCB-FM (Chicago): and WPFW-FM (Washington DC); as well as numerous Voice of America outlets located on several continents and countries covering most of Europe and much of Africa.

Singer Dianne Reeves, herself the 2018 NEA Jazz Master, hosts the event which aims to showcase the recipients’ “jazz contributions through performances, video tributes and remarks.”

Sometimes the winners take part in the live music part. This year, three of the four recipients – Clarke, Hart and Harrison – will be. Some additional performers Colombians might recognize include: pianist Ethan Iverson, a former longtime Bad Plus member; bassist Ben Street; as well as some members of the SFJAZZ collective including bassist Matt Brewer, trumpeter Etienne Charles, saxophonists Chris Potter and David Sanchez, drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Edward Simon and vibraphonist Warren Wolf.

In addition to the centerpiece of the celebration, the NEA and SFJAZZ will host “Meet the NEA Jazz Masters – A Virtual Conversation.” This direct interaction with the tales of the 2022 winners takes place the week before the concert, with both entities making the interaction available on demand through their respective websites. The winners will discuss their lives and careers, while others will comment on their respective impact on jazz.

Jon W. Poses is executive director of the “We Always Swing” jazz series. Contact him at [email protected]

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