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Live from New's the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters!

New York, New York

2011 NEA Jazz Masters Panel. (l-r) A.B. Spellman, Orrin Keepnews, Hubert Laws, David Liebman, Johnny Mandel, and Ellis Marsalis, Jr. Photos by Ayana Hiso/Frank Stewart, courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center

Today is Day Two of our 2011 NEA Jazz Masters celebrations here at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Yesterday’s main event was a panel discussion---moderated by A.B. Spellman (poet, former NEA deputy chairman, and jazz guru)---with the 2011 honorees. Onstage and ready to chat were Orrin Keepnews, Hubert Laws, David Liebman, and Johnny Mandel. Ellis Marsalis represented the Marsalis Family though Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason, all seated in the front row, weren’t shy about occasionally chiming in.

Ellis Marsalis, Jr.

The discussion revolved around ideas of community and technology. The general opinion seemed to be that while in many ways technology was a boon to helping to spread jazz around the world, in other ways it seemed that it also presented barriers to forming the types of close-knit communities earlier generations of jazz musicians experienced. The Jazz Masters also spoke about the fact that jazz was more accepted as a fine art in contemporary culture, and shared anecdotes of formative experiences.

Here are some quotes from yesterday's discussion that really stuck with me. (There’s an archive of the panel discussion webcast available on UStream, and you can also look under the hashtag #NEAJazz on Twitter.)

A.B. Spellman, Orrin Keepnews, Hubert Laws, and David Liebman.

Ellis Marsalis

“We've lost our sense of community. Musicians don't function communally.”

Johnny Mandel

“If you’re talking about quality [in music]  you have to dig to find it because you’ll always be blanketed with crap. But you’ll find a Stevie Wonder or a Count Basie….”

Orrin Keepnews

(in response to “how do you inject more ‘soul’ into popular music) “Easiest answer is it's got to get there again the same way it got there in first place---through individual effort.”

“To me the real division is between people we can call artists and the people we can't. The trappings are far less important than emotion.”

David Liebman

“Art is supposed to be for the people, and that’s a function of the government.”

Hubert Laws

“This music has allowed me to make many relationships and that's been the focal point for me. These relationships bring joy.”

“We all need to answer that question of the purpose of music for ourselves and that's our framework. “

Johnny Mandel

SPOILER ALERT! I was able to sit in on the rehearsals for tonight’s concert, and I'd like to share something that really struck me. As part of the rehearsal, each of the 2011 Jazz Masters stepped up to the podium to give brief remarks. Even though it was only a run-through, Johnny Mandel was visibly choked up. As the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played his "The Shadow of Your Smile," Mandel stood off to the side, one hand in his pocket, the other hand conducting the band. He then conferred with one of the saxophonists and then the guitarist, making notes on the score and tweaking the arrangement even as the orchestra kept playing. At the end of the song, Wynton Marsalis, who was playing trumpet yelled out, “Hey Johnny, do you just want to conduct us through this for the concert?” With that, Mandel took his place front and center, slowed the tempo down a bit, and got busy doing what he does so well.  "Yes," I thought, "that is the stuff that legends are made of.”

Don’t forget to tune in tonight for the live webcast of the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Concert and Ceremony starting at 7:30pm ET. I’ll also be live blogging again under the hashtag #NEAJazz.

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