Saturday, May 23, 2009

Jazz Masters (The NEA Version)

The eight recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2010 Jazz Masters Awards have now been announced:

  1. Kenny Barron
  2. George Avakian
  3. Annie Ross
  4. Yusef Lateef
  5. Muhal Richard Abrams
  6. Bobby Hutcherson
  7. Bill Holman
  8. Cedar Walton

If nothing else this list reinforces the judgment of those who planned the SFJAZZ Spring Season, since Bobby Hutcherson performed with McCoy Tyner about a month ago at the Palace of Fine Arts and Kenny Barron's trio appeared last night at Herbst Theatre. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of these selections that leave me lukewarm at best.

I suspect that my discontent is strongest when it comes to Avakian. Since he is a producer, rather than a performer, his award is for "jazz advocacy," primarily for his efforts to promote jazz through Columbia Records. My own opinions, however, have run towards the conclusion that, to paraphrase an old saw, with an advocate like Columbia, jazz had no need of enemies. Last August I went so far as to call the Columbia enterprise a "necessary evil," concerned more with "making jazz 'intellectually respectable' to those who would not be inclined to listen," rather than doing justice to serious jazz listeners and those who were at their best when performing for such listeners. Miles Davis was the primary case in point. There is no questioning the value of many of the sides he recorded for Columbia; but, in the overall progress of his career, it seemed is if there came a time when the "Columbia product" began to take priority over Miles' performances. Yes, Miles was adventurous enough to pursue directions not usually associated with jazz; but it seemed as if each of those adventures resulted in a new domain of sameness, rather than a preference for experiments, not all of which would necessarily work out as planned.

Ironically, a similar problem of sameness seemed to occupy Barron's performance last night. As I wrote in my account for, his approach to Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop" was on the brink of "easy listening," if not over that brink. What sense of adventure there was for the serious listener seemed to come mostly from bassist Kyoshi Kitagawa, and even Jonathan Blake's drum work was relatively tame. This leaves me wondering whether, at least by NEA standards, a "jazz master" is one whose work has "arrived at the innocuous," more suitable as comfortable background than as provocative foreground. This would be depressing since it suggests, if not implies, that any jazz for serious listening is now more suitable for the museum than it is for the performance stage.


lutherblissett said...

At last, glad to see Muhal Abrams is on this list and about time too, only one AACM great has been nominated for this award ?
a major pioneer in American music, composer/pianist, still active and still making creative, contemporary music, definitely not some cosy old vet for the museum, a worthy choice for jazz master.

Stephen Smoliar said...

The point about the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (for those who did not get the abbreviation) is well taken. I wrote a bit about this
last January
when Mosaic released their box of the complete Arista recordings of Anthony Braxton (one of which consisted entirely of duets with Abrams). However, I know better than to assume that the NEA would read this blog!