Standing on their Shoulders

By Ann Meier Baker

The phrase "standing on the shoulders of those who've gone before" has always resonated with me.  Throughout my career in the arts, I've been grateful for the opportunity to build upon the work of my predecessors, which is again the case as I begin my tenure as the Arts Endowment's new director of Music and Opera.   

First in the queue of projects awaiting me at the Endowment is the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor that our nation bestows upon jazz artists and advocates. The four individuals selected as 2015 NEA Jazz Masters are Carla Bley, George Coleman, Charles Lloyd, and Joe Segal. We're busy planning a celebration of these four remarkable individuals during a special free concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Monday evening, April 20.

My first encounter with NEA Jazz Masters came long before I arrived at the NEA, thanks to my upstairs neighbor in an apartment my husband and I moved into shortly after we were married.  I first crossed paths with Joel E. Siegel in our parking lot and, after a short conversation and my introduction to his high-strung Hungarian Vizsla named Grace (after writer Grace Paley), my "Midwestern-nice" instincts told me that this brilliant but prickly music producer and film critic was someone to be admired—but only from afar!  My husband, however, befriended him immediately and thus he became a fixture in our family, introducing us to all kinds of jazz artists until his untimely death in 2004. 

Joel was a colorful character with strong opinions.  He knit together a career as a film critic (he was fond of French movies and Kim Novak); a teacher of English and film at Georgetown University (he prided himself on never once attending a faculty meeting); and a music producer (for him, the music of Mozart was like listening to math, but hearing Eva Cassidy sing was pure heaven). 

Joel was also the manager for NEA Jazz Master and Grammy Award winner Shirley Horn, and he co-produced several of Shirley's albums, including Here's To Life, 1992's top-selling jazz album arranged by NEA Jazz Master Johnny Mandel. A Grammy winner in 1993 for his collaboration on the liner notes for the 10-CD set The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, Joel loved to pen lyrics and his credits include songs recorded by Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Claire Martin, and Shirley Horn with Jazz Master Wynton Marsalis, among others.

Our apartment often became Joel's annex and we hosted people like singer/pianist Patti Wicks and composer/pianist Richard Rodney Bennett as our dinner and houseguests. Once Joel brought Audrey Morris from Chicago as a surprise guest to my husband's birthday party and she sang the night away at our piano on an evening that I'll never forget.

Artists like these, and especially the 136 NEA Jazz Masters, spend their lives blazing the jazz trail so that tomorrow's artists can chart the future of the art form.  I can't wait to see where the next generation takes us.