Chairman's Corner: December 17, 2020

Jo Reed: I'm Josephine Reed from the National Endowment for the Arts with The Chairman's Corner, a weekly podcast with Mary Anne Carter, Chairman of the Arts Endowment. This is where we'll discuss issues of importance to the arts community and a whole lot more.  Two podcasts ago we featured several recipients of the National Medal of Arts, two individuals and an organization that continue to do outstanding work and have their own stories to tell about our COVID-19 times. Well, today we’re bringing that spotlight to another group of exceptional older artists who are still producing wonderful music despite the pandemic. Mary Anne, take it away.

Mary Anne Carter: That’s right, Jo. This week I’m talking about our NEA Jazz Masters, recipients of the nation’s highest honor in jazz, those living legends who have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of America’s music, and to start us off is pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim. Abdullah combines the rhythms of his native South Africa with the improvisation of jazz to create his spiritually rich music. Abdullah has been intimately involved in the cultural and civic life of South Africa so it makes perfect sense that he would participate in an event honoring the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. That event developed by cellist extraordinaire and National Medal of Arts recipient Yo-Yo Ma is called A New Equilibrium. Part one included three virtually accessed concerts with Abdullah appearing in the first to perform his well-known composition “Soweto.” He wrote the piece in 1965 and it has this wonderful swaying rhythm and a defiant, joyous sound that I think speaks of hope and community, qualities championed by the UN.

Jo Reed: I had really the good fortune to interview Abdullah and he told me that he first heard jazz on Voice of America-- Willis Conover was the programmer on VOA-- and he said he could hear the resonance of African music in that jazz and it speaks to the universality of music. Who’s next?

Mary Anne Carter: I am moving on to trumpeter and jazz celebrity Wynton Marsalis who is both an NEA Jazz Master and a National Medal of Arts recipient. Jazz at Lincoln Center where he is managing and artistic director has developed a number of virtual programs. These include “Live from Dizzy’s Club,” the nightclub space at Jazz at Lincoln Center, online classes from Swing U, and an upcoming big-band holiday concert, but my favorite has to be a new album and concert video of, quote, “A Swingin’ Sesame Street Celebration” that was released in October. I mean come on. Who doesn’t love “Sesame Street”? And in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the program Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra welcome Big Bird, Elmo, Ernie, Kermit and others to the stage to share some truly swingin’ songs including an upbeat rendition of yep, you guessed it, “Rubber Duckie.”

Jo Reed: That sounds fabulous.

Mary Anne Carter: And finally, Jo, I want to highlight two of our Jazz Masters, Maria Schneider and Carla Bley who have released albums this year. Maria Schneider is a composer, arranger and bandleader known for her highly original and provocative big-band compositions. She is also one of the select few to receive Grammy awards in the jazz, classical and rock genres. Maria released “Data Lords,” which has been named one of the best jazz albums this year by several different magazines and entities. Interesting in this time when we are all tethered to our devices more than we ever have been before, Maria explores the dangers of giving ourselves over to the data lords, those who manage the digital platforms that we all depend on, and losing our connection to nature and to others and to ourselves. And the album was produced through ArtistShare, the first fan-funded or crowd-sourced online platform, and through crowd sourcing Maria has more control over her artistic production, not relying on record companies or touring to pay for her recordings, and given this year where most performing has been canceled this creative process has been even more important. 

Jo Reed: Agreed, and especially for a musician like Maria who works with big bands creative independence is crucial. And you mentioned Carla Bley. What’s she been up to? She’s another musical polymath.

Mary Anne Carter: That’s right. Carla Bley is a composer, arranger, bandleader and a keyboardist. In addition to producing an album that has garnered accolades as one of the best of the year, Carla has given her sense of humor full expression during the pandemic in what can only be called a madcap website. You can visit it at <laughs> and you will be directed to the floor plan of the prison where you can visit various cells such as booking and library and solitary confinement where you can gather information and have a good time doing it. However, if you want to visit Carla’s cell you’ll have to ask the warden.

Jo Reed: She is such a funny woman. When she was young she used to work as a cigarette girl at Birdland and she did that so she could hear the music but she would berate customers who would try to buy cigarettes when the band was playing. She said, “I don’t know how I wasn’t fired because I’d look at them and I’d say, ‘Will you listen to the music? Just listen to the music.’” Somehow she kept her job. She always had that passion about the music.

Mary Anne Carter: Oh, yeah. I think it’s safe to say they all share that passion for music and for creating from celebrating global peace to inviting our felt and feather-made friends to sing along, to producing new albums, to designing imaginative web homes. Our NEA Jazz Masters have not stopped composing, performing and of course creating and during this time of social isolation as well as holiday spirit they continue to give.

Jo Reed: Mary Anne, thank you.

Mary Anne Carter: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was Mary Anne Carter Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.  Keep up with the arts endowment by visiting the website or follow us on twitter @neaarts.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.

Music Credit: “Renewal” composed and performed by Doug Smith from the cd The Collection.

The chairman shines a light on some of the current projects of our NEA Jazz Masters.