NEA Arts Magazine

NEA Jazz Masters

Celebrating the Nation's Highest Honor in Jazz


Wayne Brown

Music and Opera Director Wayne Brown. Photo by Kevin Allen.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has supported the jazz field for almost 40 years. The first grant for jazz was awarded in 1969 -- a $5,500 composition grant to composer, arranger, theoretician, pianist, and drummer George Russell -- who would later receive an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 1990. By 2007, the NEA's financial support of jazz reached nearly $3 million.

In 1982, the NEA created the fellowship program to recognize outstanding jazz musicians for artistic excellence and lifelong achievements in the field of jazz. With the appointment of Chairman Gioia in 2004, the NEA Jazz Masters initiative was expanded to foster a higher awareness of America's jazz legends. The number of awards was increased to six and individual fellowship stipends rose to $25,000. In addition, a new award category was established: the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.

To maximize public awareness of the NEA Jazz Masters initiative, new radio and television programs were launched: Jazz Moments, a series of radio segments broadcast first on XM Satellite Radio, and Legends of Jazz, a television series presenting jazz artists. In 2005, an arts education component, NEA Jazz in the Schools, was created in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center. In addition, a nationwide touring program for NEA Jazz Masters was created jointly with Arts Midwest in 2005 and continues. Rounding out the NEA's jazz program is a recent collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution focusing on the compilation of oral histories of NEA Jazz Masters.

In 2008, the NEA Jazz Masters initiative celebrates a major milestone: 100 American jazz legends have been honored with this award over a span of 26 years -- including legends such as trumpet virtuoso and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie (1982), tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (1983), and singer Ella Fitzgerald (1985). The agency's contribution to the 2008 Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) in April will be a rollout of the enhanced and expanded NEA Jazz MastersWeb site ( Please join us in the continued celebration of America's music -- jazz.

Wayne S. Brown
Director, Music and Opera