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01/15/2012 03:33 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2012

The Real Celebration at the NEA Jazz Masters Awards

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This past Tuesday, the National Endowment for the Arts celebrated the quintessential American musical art form with their 30th Annual Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert. The event, produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center, began with a performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra of "Things to Come" by Dizzy Gillespie, a member of the 1982 inaugural class of NEA Jazz Masters. As Ramsey Lewis, a 2007 NEA Jazz Master, welcomed the guests to the concert, he explained, "Tonight is a night to say 'Thank You' for giving us this opportunity to pass on the torch, for it is a night of saluting our past while embracing our future and it truly is a night to celebrate."

This is a memorable event, not only for the opportunity to hear, see and meet some of the living Jazz legends but, also to be part of the group as the Jazz Masters greet one another. I asked drummer Jimmy Cobb (Jazz Master 2009) with whom he enjoyed playing. He looked around the room and said, "all of them". Jimmy Heath always looks like he is having a good time but it is the reunion-like conversations that are a treasure trove of the history of Jazz.

The 30th anniversary celebration actually began the night before at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Clayton Brothers played a great set and the room was host to many of the NEA Jazz Masters. I spoke with Hubert Law about the spontaneity of his upcoming performance for the next evening's Jazz Masters Awards Concert (wasn't he nervous and wasn't he all set? No, Jazz evolves kind of like painting I thought). I had conversations about the fluidity of Jazz and similarities with my medium in painting, watercolor. And yet with both, the rigors of training and years of study are the backbone or springboard for the creation (last year a Grammy award-winning Jazz musician performed a piece in concert while reflecting on my 'Nocturne' series of paintings). I watched 90-year-old drummer Chico Hamilton stomp his cane to the Clayton Brother's music and savored the exuberance and spirit of Jazz Masters enjoying jazz. We listened to one piece that was so compelling the music hushed the room and touched souls, again a reminder of the power of music. The performance was not only on stage but spilled over into the room. The interactions and conversations are fascinating and I realized that the NEA Jazz Master's might not be all about the award, it's about the event and the opportunity for these Jazz greats to come together and connect, celebrating a piece of American history. It is more of a family gathering than perhaps is experienced in any other field in the arts. These musicians know each other, play in each other's bands, support each other, and love their music in a way that needs to be experienced in a live show. Wynton Marsalis (Jazz Master 2011 and Artistic Director, Jazz at Lincoln Center) said of the Tuesday night awards and performance, "The show flowed like a perfect arrangement, in performance and production. There was complicated harmony and counterpoint, dense moments handled deftly and with precision. The most lasting components of the arrangement were allowed the proper space to breathe and to blossom. They will become timeless memories. More succinctly, Tuesday night was swinging."

American Jazz has had a global impact -- people coalesce and are brought together around the music, jazz transcends borders. I remember walking over the Charles Bridge in Prague and hearing a very good jazz combo playing on the bridge; in Honfleur, France I happened upon a wonderful outdoor jazz concert; and Berlin has it's many jazz clubs. I bet we don't even know the extent of the reach of this.

The 30th Annual Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert can be viewed online, the National Endowment for the Arts also has an excellent collection of interviews with previous Jazz Masters -- it is a treasure trove and archive of a slice of true American history and an American art. It was a privilege and a joy to have been a part of this event and to have worked with the National Endowment for the Arts to continue our support of this very special program. I'm particularly proud of the NEA Jazz in the Schools initiative. I can't wait to see what the next thirty years will bring.

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