NEA Jazz Moments

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      Chico Hamilton playing drums

In 2004, NEA Jazz Master Chico Hamilton performed as part of A Salute to NEA Jazz Masters, a White House concert in celebration of Black Music Month. Photo by Vance Jacobs, courtesy of the NEA.

Award-winning radio producer Molly Murphy first started interviewing NEA Jazz Masters for the Art Endowment in 2003. Since then she's spoken with everyone from Nancy Wilson to Buddy De Franco to Quincy Jones.

Since 2007, clips of these interviews have appeared as NEA Jazz Moments on XM Satellite Radio. (Listen to the NEA Jazz Moments or read selected excerpts from the interviews on the NEA Web site.) Full transcripts of some of the interviews with selected audio clips are also featured as part of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program available at www.smithsonianjazz.org/oral_histories/joh-start.asp.

In the interview below, Murphy talks about the importance of preserving the voices and stories of these living legends and shares some of her favorite moments.

NEA: Why is it so important to capture the voices of these NEA Jazz Masters?

MOLLY MURPHY: I find jazz musicians to be some of the most engaging people I've ever encountered. And this select assembly of NEA Jazz Masters offers a remarkably deep well of experiences. I never tire of hearing stories about being on the road, playing for and relating to different people throughout the world. I never tire of hearing why these musicians love music and how it affects them. I always walk away from interviews feeling inspired and often with some new practical knowledge about how to listen to jazz and even how to live life. And that's exactly what I hope is conveyed in these radio segments. They provide invaluable historical, social, and emotional context within which to appreciate jazz--and all the admirable qualities its practitioners embody.

I'm privileged to have interviewed so many NEA Jazz Masters over the past five years. I've caught up with them backstage, at hotels, conferences, and in their homes. The spectrum of experiences ranges from pretty comical to profound.

NEA: What are some of your favorite stories from your interviews with NEA Jazz Masters?

MURPHY: It's always a challenge to simulate a recording studio sound quality. While talking with guitarist Jim Hall at his apartment in New York City, we were continually interrupted by his beloved little dog Django (named for the great Belgian-born guitarist Django Reinhardt) who kept whimpering to get up on Jim's lap. We repeatedly started and stopped the tape until Django was comfortable--once so that Jim could feed him an apple! We finally had to give Django his walking papers, but he did make it into one of the pieces. Anyone can be a star.

Sometimes a story will catch me off-guard emotionally. I asked trombonist Curtis Fuller to recall a pivotal early experience with music that propelled him down his chosen life path. A very quiet man, he explained that he lost his mother at the age of six and was consequently placed in an orphanage. He was one of three Black kids in a group of some 250 orphans. He described himself as painfully shy, often taunted, with little sense of pride. One day, a Catholic nun from the institution, who was very fond of Fuller, decided to take him on an excursion. As he described in the interview, "She said I was so sad, sitting by myself all the time and, ‘I will take you so you can see your people and what they do.'" The excursion was to a theater in Detroit where the great trombonist J.J. Johnson was appearing with the Illinois Jacquet band. Fuller described how thunderstruck he was by Johnson--not just with his musical prowess, but more so, perhaps, with Johnson's sense of dignity onstage. He said, "I was at an all-time low as a kid, you know. There was no such thing as Black pride or anything then. The only thing we saw if it was Black it was, like, going to see a Tarzan movie and you see the Africans, you know? It was always something meek or inferior. And just to see that man stand there proud and dignified, playing that beautiful music … I said, Wow! and I honed in on that as a kid."

I spent an afternoon filled with both humor and a little discomfort sitting in on one of drummer Chico Hamilton's weekly jazz ensemble classes at New York City's New School. That afternoon an awkward young student was struggling terribly with both his technique and ability to express himself within the group. I'm sure my microphone didn't help. Everyone in the room could feel his pain. Chico did not coddle him, but laid out a simple argument that, as a jazz musician, you cannot express yourself unless you have a command of your instrument. Once you have that down, you must have the courage to make a statement. If you don't have anything to say musically, what's the point? Those kids just soaked up everything this 80-odd year old man had to say. And none of it was delivered pedantically. Chico gave it to them straight, cracked jokes along the way, and made that awkward kid try and try again until he'd conquered his fears and gelled with the group. The student beamed with pride afterwards.

It was very inspiring to see such a lauded performer as Chico Hamilton spending his time in a dimly lit practice room with kids who may or may not pursue music professionally. There was nothing glamorous about it. Chico is simply dedicated to passing along his knowledge and experience to the next generation. And he's not alone in this endeavor. So many of the NEA Jazz Masters work with youngsters to inspire and shape a new generation of jazz musicians. Lucky students.

Read more about the NEA Jazz Masters initiative in the latest edition of NEA Arts.