NEA Arts Magazine

Making an Impression

NEA Jazz Masters Live Initiative


NEA Jazz Master Hank Jones on the Main Stage Opening Night of the 2009 Detroit International Jazz Festival. Photo by Ara Howrani

According to the National Endowment for the Arts' 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the number of people attending jazz performances is decreasing and its audiences are growing older, causing Wall Street Journal critic (and National Council on the Arts member) Terry Teachout to ask, "Can Jazz Be Saved?" His article set in motion engaged discussions—including letters to the editors, blogger postings, and newspaper and magazine articles—reflecting that jazz is still an important part of the nation's cultural life. This does not negate the importance of continuing to promote jazz and introduce new audiences around the country to this uniquely American art form. "We all need to be exposed to young people who are interested in our music," said NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath. "And if we don’t get younger audiences to come out, we’re going to lose our hold on our culture."

The NEA has been addressing the need to give jazz more exposure with its NEA Jazz Masters Live initiative. Started in 2008, NEA Jazz Masters Live provides opportunities for audiences to hear jazz but with a focus on creating more intimate opportunities for audiences to get to know these great American artists through multiple-event, extended engagements. Terri Pontremoli, executive and artistic director of the Detroit International Jazz Festival, an NEA Jazz Masters Live grantee, said, "The NEA Jazz Masters themselves really do embrace the notion of reaching people through education and their stories and the things they have to say. And the fact that people have access to these artists, where they’re actually able to shake their hand and have them sign an old record or a CD, is really meaningful and you don’t always get that in performance situations."

NEA Jazz Masters Live is a continuation of the successful NEA Jazz Masters on Tour program that was started in 2004 in partnership with Arts Midwest. Between 2005 and 2007, 28 NEA Jazz Masters toured around the country, resulting in 193 performances, plus accompanying education and outreach programs. More than 165,000 people saw a jazz performance— many for the first time—as a result of this program, including more than 40,000 youth, creating new audiences for this American art form. Already, in its first year, NEA Jazz Masters Live has reached more than 47,000 people, including 3,800 youth.

NEA Jazz Master Gerald Wilson (right) conducts the world premiere performance of his composition "Detroit," commissioned for the 2009 Detroit International Jazz Festival. Photo by Jeff Forman

As part of NEA Jazz Masters on Tour, Jimmy Heath performed at nine different venues between 2005 and 2007 in locations from Seattle, Washington, to Fargo, North Dakota, to Huntsville, Alabama. "As a Jazz Master, we've been underrepresented in this country since the beginning," said Heath. "And to be a Jazz Master that's not visible...well, it doesn't mean anything unless we have performances, and the support of those performances is crucial." Heath has gone on to perform as part of NEA Jazz Masters Live, including Detroit International Jazz Festival's 30th anniversary in September 2009.

Pontremoli described NEA Jazz Masters Live as a "perfect fit" for Detroit's festival. Taking place over four days, the festival not only includes performances, but a Jazz Talk Tent, where audiences can become more educated about the performers they hear and the history of the music. For 2009, the festival’s 30th anniversary, the free festival included six NEA Jazz Masters: Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Jimmy Heath, Hank Jones, Wayne Shorter, and Gerald Wilson. Getting such talent isn’t easy financially, but the support of an NEA Jazz Masters Live grant made it possible. Pontremoli said, "It helps us as an organization to be able to say, 'Hey, we have NEA Jazz Masters support.' That’s meaningful in leveraging other funding."

With this support, the festival was able to have Wayne Shorter both perform and appear at the Jazz Talk Tent, a rare appearance according to Pontremoli. In the Detroit News, an article about the festival stated, "The festival has scored some coups this year and getting saxophonist Wayne Shorter is one of them. At age 76, he may be a gray eminence but, trust me, the emphasis is on eminence." Such opportunities are exceptional for tried and true jazz fans, but it also goes a long way in creating bonds with new jazz audiences. "Truly, for the kids that come to play at our festival, all the high school band kids and college band kids, to come and to have that kind of access to the Jazz Masters is really special," said Pontremoli.

NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath (second from left) at a discussion of Cannonball Adderley with (from left) Christian McBride, Louis Hayes, and Bob Porter at the 2009 Detroit International Jazz Festival’s Jazz Talk Tent. Photo by Ara Howrani

Another hallmark of the NEA Jazz Masters Live program is creating opportunities for multiple NEA Jazz Masters to appear in a presentation. Many of the NEA Jazz Masters' histories are entwined and bringing them together creates unique and unforgettable experiences for the audiences. At the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, they are planning for their June 2010 Discover Jazz Festival. With their NEA Jazz Masters Live grant they have arranged for both Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins to perform. Artistic Director Arnie Malina describes how this unique experience came about: "Jim Hall performed on Sonny Rollins’ famous recording The Bridge. So Sonny agreed to have Jim Hall come and perform a duet with him. I don’t think they’ve done that for a really long time, so that will be an extra dimension to the residency."

In addition to the special connections between artists, Malina’s festival also provides opportunities for audience members and students to interact with the NEA Jazz Masters through workshops and Meet the Artist sessions. Local musicians will also have the opportunity to work and perform with Hall. "It's like a community project," said Malina. "The players that we have are excellent, and it's an opportunity for local professional players to interact with major artists and it gives them further opportunities."

At both the Detroit International Jazz Festival and the Discover Jazz Festival, the NEA Jazz Masters play an important part in diverse lineups that include both established and emerging artists. By engaging these NEA Jazz Masters as part of their events, the grant recipients are making a commitment to supporting the future of jazz and those who helped develop the art form. Heath sees value in performing at such festivals where there’s a range of musicians presented. He describes the younger musicians as "just super performers. And they will eventually bring in some of their younger audiences. And if we happen to be performing at the same time, we’ll be exposed as the veterans or, in some cases, the creators of the music."

At the heart of the NEA Jazz Masters Live program is the opportunity to not only bring greater visibility to the NEA Jazz Masters’ incredible artistic skill, but also to give audiences new and exciting insights into the history and culture of jazz as only these artists can provide. And, as a result of these events, the NEA hopes to create a new generation of jazz fans. As Jimmy Heath says, "Every time you make an appearance, you make an impression."

NEA Jazz Master Wayne Shorter performs with his quartet on the Carhartt Amphitheatre Stage at the 2009 Detroit International Jazz Festival.