NEA Arts Magazine

Celebrating NEA Jazz Masters

Greatness was in the air and on the red carpet at the Hilton Ballroom on January 23, 2004. And the audience was on its feet, experiencing the thrill of the parade of 27 NEA Jazz Masters. Nancy Wilson, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, Percy Heath, Frank Foster, Randy Weston—legend after legend was announced into the Hall to thunderous applause. Thus began the 2004 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Concert—an evening celebrating the 2004 recipients of America’s highest honor in jazz and the backdrop for an unprecedented reunion of America’s greatest jazz artists that took place at the annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education.

In 2003, the NEA Jazz Masters program turned 21. Chairman Dana Gioia used that milestone to expand the awards and greatly raise their profile through a series of changes and new ventures. Beginning in 2004, awards were given in six categories: solo instrumentalist, percussionist, arranger-composer, pianist, vocalist, and, for the first time, jazz advocate.

The 2004 NEA Jazz Masters honored in New York included guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Chico Hamilton, pianist Herbie Hancock, arranger-composer Luther Henderson (1919-2003), music critic Nat Hentoff, and vocalist Nancy Wilson. (Luther Henderson, sadly, passed away after he was notified of having been named an NEA Jazz Master.)

2004 NEA Jazz Master Nancy Wilson accepts her award

2004 NEA Jazz Master Nancy Wilson accepts her award. Photo: Tom Pich.

The NEA Jazz Master award is well known and highly regarded among jazz artists. Each newly named NEA Jazz Master receives a one-time fellowship award of $25,000, but according to the winners, the honor of being included with the greats of the past and present means the most.

“The women and men who have received this NEA award previously have creatively spread peace, joy, and friendship among all of humanity—something the world would do well to emulate. It is a privilege to join these peacemakers,” guitarist Jim Hall said.

“Since I was 11 years old, I have been nurtured by the life force of jazz musicians. Deeply honored as I am by this award, it could not have come to me but for these creators of this quintessential American language that has become international. As the Constitution—very much including its Bill of Rights—is the orchestration of our liberties, jazz is 'the sound of surprise' that is the anthem of our freedom,” said Nat Hentoff, the first to win the award in the newly established category of jazz advocate.

“For my name to be added to the prestigious array of artists who have received this award is truly an honor. The NEA is one of the few organizations that has been there for jazz, and for that I am truly grateful. This art form does not garner the recognition it so rightfully deserves. May the NEA and its support be there to foster and provide assistance for generations to come. I thank you,” said vocalist Nancy Wilson.

Enhancing the prestige and expanding the public awareness of what is arguably America’s most original art form—and the artists who create it—is also being achieved through:

  • An increased NEA Jazz Master Fellowship award of $25,000
  • A commemorative two-CD compilation, NEA Jazz Masters, produced with Verve Music Group, featuring two-and-a-half hours of music (in stores now)
  • A digital-only Verve release, available exclusively through the iTunes Music Store, of downloadable classic selections by NEA Jazz Masters Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Sarah Vaughan
  • A 50-state concert tour by NEA Jazz Masters
  • Broadcasts of the NEA Jazz Masters Awards Concert on BET and BET Jazz networks as part of Jazz Appreciation Month
  • A new NEA publication profiling all NEA Jazz Masters since 1982
  • A series of radio profiles of the 2004 NEA Jazz Masters to be aired on public radio stations nationwide.

Chairman Gioia addressed the audience of more than 3,000 by saying, “We need to reawaken a new generation to the greatness of this truly American art. We need to recognize jazz, to celebrate jazz, to reward jazz and jazz artists for their dedication and contribution to American culture.” Gioia, who has a life-long love of jazz and brings a personal and professional perspective to this goal, said, “With my chairmanship of the NEA, I have a chance to do all that, and I’m going to take that chance. With all of you as partners, we’re going to succeed.”

Left: Jazz impresario George Wein presents a 2004 NEA Jazz Master award to Nat Hentoff. Right: 2004 NEA Jazz Master Chico Hamilton receives his award from 1995 Jazz Master Roy Haynes.

Left: Jazz impresario George Wein presents a 2004 NEA Jazz Master award to Nat Hentoff. Right: 2004 NEA Jazz Master Chico Hamilton receives his award from 1995 Jazz Master Roy Haynes. Photos: Tom Pich

That marked one of many great moments in a night of celebration, including 1999 NEA Jazz Master Dave Brubeck performing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with two of his 19-year-old students from the Dave Brubeck Institute in Stockton, CA, and 1991 NEA Jazz Master Clark Terry conducting a trumpet-flugelhorn dialogue—with himself—while performing 2003 NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy.”

The unbridled emotion that greeted the NEA Jazz Masters as they were announced into the ballroom began building that afternoon, when the NEA hosted a reunion luncheon that marked the largest gathering of jazz greats since Art Kane’s classic photograph A Great Day in Harlem was taken in 1958.

“It was great work,” said Chairman Gioia, “and January 23, 2004, was certainly a great day for jazz.”