National Endowment for the Arts Announces the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters

By , Columnist
There is no higher honor for a jazz musician than to be dubbed a "Jazz Master" by the National Endowment of the Arts, which announced its 2012 awardees this morning. Because of a 12% slash in federal appropriations for the NEA, this cohort probably comprises the final class of the 30th year of the program, which has operated under a mandate to "recognize lifetime achievements and significant contributions to the development and performance of jazz." In its place, the NEA will introduce an "American Artists of the Year" designation, bestowing awards to artists representing a broad palette of genres, including jazz, opera, and folk music.

If 2012 is the swan song for the the NEA Jazz Masters, it is perhaps some consolation that each new member - who will receive a $25,000 stipend - is a worthy designee. All are hardcore individualists who have resolutely followed their own path through the decades.

Drummer Jack DeJohnette, 68, Chicago-born, made his name with Charles Lloyd, whom he joined in 1967, two years after arriving in New York, and cemented it over a two-year run with Miles Davis. His c.v. over the ensuing 40 years includes a constantly morphing ensemble called Special Edition, the Keith Jarrett Trio, and countless freelance projects. Circa 2011, he's a universal influence on the drum community, but doesn't rest on his laurels: In his golden years, as I wrote a few years ago, "he seems to grow ever more hungry for new sounds to assimilate, digest, and incorporate into his next step, which always appears to be imminent."

At 89, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman is a singular voice on his instrument, blending old-school values of tonal expressiveness and focus on melody with an expansive harmonic palette. He's a deep influence on such modern saxophone avatars as Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Ron Blake, and Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Internationally known since the end of the '50s, when he came to New York to play the bass with Ornette Coleman's pathbreaking quartet, bassist Charlie Haden, 73, has led the Liberation Jazz Orchestra and Quartet West, and sidemanned with a host of luminaries, attracted to his mellow gut-string tone, unerring time feel, and the melodicism of his basslines.

Born in Detroit, singer Sheila Jordan, 82, is deeply respected for her ability to get to a lyric's essence while remaining true to the spirit of improvisation.

Out of New York City, stalwart trumpeter-educator Jimmy Owens, a distinctive stylist whose employers have included Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie, received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.

All of them will perform in a combined ceremony-concert with the Jazz at Lincoln Orchestra next January.

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