NEA Arts Magazine

A Hot Time Up North

NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony in Toronto


David Baker leading the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra

NEA Jazz Master David Baker (far left) leading the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra during the NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony and concert. Photo by Tom Pich.

The mild temperatures outside in Toronto, Canada, in January were just an indication of how much the NEA Jazz Masters were heating up the place inside at the annual awards ceremony and concert occurring during the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) conference. Each year, the NEA Jazz Masters festivities bring together current and past recipients of this lifetime honor, creating an assemblage of some of the United States' greatest jazz musicians and advocates.

The NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships are the main component of the Arts Endowment's Jazz Masters initiative, which since 2004 has grown to include an NEA Jazz Masters tour with performances and educational activities, Jazz Moments radio segments on XM Satellite Radio, a two-CD compilation of NEA Jazz Masters' music produced by Verve Music Group, and the NEA Jazz in the Schools program, an educational resource for high school teachers. Each year, members of the public are invited to submit nominations for the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, which honors individuals who have made significant contributions to the development and performance of jazz, and for the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, given to an individual who has fostered the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of the American jazz art form. For information on how to submit a nomination, please visit

In 2008, the NEA was proud to honor percussionist Candido Camero, pianist Andrew Hill (who unfortunately passed away before receiving the award), bandleader Quincy Jones, composer and arranger Tom McIntosh, trumpet player Joe Wilder, and writer and composer Gunther Schuller, recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy. These NEA Jazz Masters -- along with eight honorees from previous years -- gathered on Friday, January 11, 2008, to commemorate the occasion with a group photo. The past recipients then took their seats in the audience as the class of 2008 participated in a panel discussion, led by jazz writer and advocate A.B. Spellman, formerly the NEA Deputy Chairman for Guidelines & Panel Operations.

The common theme throughout the panel discussion was the decades-long relationships among the NEA Jazz Masters. As Jones said, “I'm so filled with emotion today. I've known most of these guys since before electricity!” For his part, McIntosh went around the room, describing what he had learned from the other musicians: Roy Haynes had taught him “don't play a note if it's not driven by a rhythm impulse,” and Jon Hendricks had shown him that in composition, “before you write a note, say it in words first. The audience will sense a story unfolding.”

And there were stories to unfold. Wilder told of touring on a bus with Luther Henderson while Camero described how a misunderstanding with Dizzy Gillespie led to a year and a half contract at the Downbeat Club in New York City. Schuller shared the reactions he caused with his efforts to compare jazz and classical music, and Jones explained how jazz enabled him to tour around the world.

In another panel discussion, the NEA brought together three recipients of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy -- John Levy, Dan Morgenstern, and Gunther Schuller -- as well as the man for whom the award is named, A.B. Spellman. Panel moderator NEA Chairman Dana Gioia described the advocates' importance, saying, "[Jazz's] health and vitality depends on the people who champion it."

For writers Morgenstern and Schuller, jazz was a discovery and obsession that began at a young age. In Denmark, Morgenstern's mother introduced him to jazz by taking him to a Fats Waller concert. Although he was only eight, Morgenstern said he was amazed by the "vitality" of the art form. Schuller, who was already studying classical music, heard jazz on the radio as a high school student and immediately began his career as an advocate. Schuller has continued to compare the two genres throughout his career, listening to every jazz record -- more than 30,000 recordings -- in order to compare the tools, techniques, and craft of jazz with classical music and see how a jazz composer/arranger develops his craft and skill.

For Levy, the path to becoming a jazz advocate was quite different -- he entered the jazz world as a musician, playing bass for the George Shearing Quintet. As the group toured, the need for a manager became more evident, and Levy took on the role, eventually becoming one of the first to move from musician to manager of a jazz group. As a manager, he has promoted jazz musicians for more than 55 years, including NEA Jazz Masters Herbie Hancock, Shirley Horn, Ahmad Jamal, and Nancy Wilson.

The 2008 NEA Jazz Masters celebrations culminated on the evening of January 11 with the awards concert, featuring guest artists Oliver Jones, Kurt Elling, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, directed by NEA Jazz Master David Baker. In addition to individually honoring each 2008 NEA Jazz Master, the NEA partnered with the Canada Council for the Arts to pay special tribute to Canadian jazz pianist and composer Dr. Oscar Peterson, who passed away on December 23, 2007. Canada Council for the Arts Chairwoman Karen Kain and Chairman Gioia jointly recognized Peterson's immense contribution to jazz, describing him as "an artist who works from the calm, high summit of creativity, and who li[s us up to his level." Peterson's former student, Oliver Jones, performed a musical salute to his mentor and Peterson's wife and daughter accepted the honor on Peterson's behalf.

As David Baker led the band in a grand finale, 2005 NEA Jazz Master Paquito D'Rivera and 2008 NEA Jazz Masters JoeWilder and Candido Camero all took the stage. In the middle of performing a dynamic solo on the conga drums, the 87-year-old Camero yelled to the audience, "You want more?" The answer was a resounding "Yes."

In the following pages, you can find out more about the NEA Jazz Masters initiative, including information and interview excerpts on each of the 2008 NEA Jazz Masters, NEA Jazz in the Schools, and Jazz Moments. Complete transcripts of the interviews with 2008 NEA Jazz Masters can be found at