Jarrett, Braxton, Davis Receive NEA Jazz Honor

Pianist Keith Jarrett accepted the nation’s highest jazz honor by ironically noting he was being recognized as a Jazz Master even though he got kicked out of the Berklee College of Music and fired from his first trio gig after someone asked him to “play something bouncy.”

At a Monday night ceremony at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room, the National Endowment for the Arts presented its 2014 Jazz Masters Awards to Jarrett, saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton, bassist Richard Davis and educator Jamey Aebersold.

Jarrett said creating music takes a lot more than being educated about scales and chords.

“Music is either in the air and you find it or it is in the air and you don’t find it,” said Jarrett, who is known for his improvised solo piano recitals and long-standing trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock. “You can be educated about everything there is to do with music, and you are still zero until you let go of what holds you back. My job in my opinion is to let it out, but I don’t believe there are any rules.”

Braxton, whose works range from saxophone solos to large-scale musical projects, said he was surprised to be named a Jazz Master.

“I mean for the last 50 years my work has been viewed as not jazz, not black, not contemporary classical music. My work doesn’t swing,” said Braxton. “And after a while I got used to that … and accepted it. I just wanted to do my music.”

Though he’s considered an avant-gardist, Braxton said his influences include everything from the University of Michigan marching band and R&B singer Frankie Lymon to the Dave Brubeck Quartet and modern jazz pianist Cecil Taylor.

Braxton, a professor of music at Wesleyan University, welcomed recognition as a Jazz Master, saying he felt honored “to go from the spy who’s out in the cold to a guy whose work can be brought back to the family.”

Photo: National Endowment for the Arts/AP
Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room, NEA’s Jazz Masters Awards.

Davis was recognized as one of the premier bassists in jazz history and an “eclectic musician” who has performed on some 3,000 recordings, including albums by Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. In his acceptance speech, the bassist noted some career highlights, including working with jazz legends Sarah Vaughan and Sun Ra, performing with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Aebersold, who introduced a new form of jazz education with his “Play-A-Long” recordings, said he was accepting his award on behalf of “all those jazz educators around the world who have devoted their lives to awakening the sleeping musical giant that lives within each person.”

Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, who co-hosted the ceremony with TV journalist Soledad O’Brien, put together a musical program that he said recognized “the timeless intergenerational quality” of jazz.

Some performances paired past Jazz Masters, saxophonists Dave Liebman and Jimmy Heath, with recent winners of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition – saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Kris Bowers and drummer Jamison Ross.

Two Jazz Masters, trumpeter Jimmy Owens and pianist Kenny Barron, offered a moving performance of Frank Wess’ ballad “Placitude” dedicated to the seven Jazz Masters who died in 2013: saxophonist and flutist Wess, guitarist Jim Hall, trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianists Marian McPartland and Cedar Walton, and drummer Chico Hamilton.