Charles Lloyd, Carla Bley, George Coleman Receive Jazz Honor

The newly minted 2015 Jazz Masters – Carla Bley, George Coleman and Charles Lloyd – let their music do most of the talking as they accepted the nation’s highest jazz honor from the National Endowment for the Arts.

They all performed on stage at Monday night’s NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.

Bley, 78, one of the leading modern jazz composers, recalled how she left high school and traveled from Oakland, California, to New York as a teenager to take menial jobs at jazz clubs.

“I’ve come a long way since working at the cloak room of the Jazz Gallery hanging up people’s coats while straining to hear every note that came from the stage,” said Bley, also known for her work as a bandleader, arranger and keyboardist.

Bley then sat at the piano to play her composition “Ups and Downs,” a witty piece with an oscillating melody dedicated to a friend who died of cancer. Her quartet featured long-time collaborator, bassist Steve Swallow, with whom she recorded the tune on their 1988 Duets album.

Coleman, a soulful Memphis-born saxophonist who appeared on classic albums with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock in the early ‘60s before focusing on his own groups, noted he had just turned 80, thanked the audience and then picked up his horn.

He played the standard ballad “You’ve Changed” and then his own bebop-inspired tune, “Lo Joe,” in a quintet that included saxophonist Eric Alexander and pianist Harold Mabern.

Saxophonist Lloyd, 77, whose 1966 recording Forest Flower: Live at Monterey became one of the first jazz albums to sell a million copies, recalled his early years growing up in Memphis where he attended the same high school as Coleman.

“I couldn’t play as well as … George at the time, but I still persevered because I loved music so much,” Lloyd said. “The beautiful thing is that I get closer to what I’m looking for but it still eludes me.”

Lloyd performed an excerpt from his new album, Wild Man Dance, a six-part suite reflecting his longtime interest in blending modern jazz with world music and sounds from antiquity. His quartet was augmented by Greece’s Sokratis Sinopoulos on lyra, a bowed string instrument, and Hungary’s Miklos Lukacs on the cimbalom, resembling a mallet-hammered dulcimer.

The evening closed with the presentation of the Jazz Masters Award for jazz advocacy to Joe Segal, 88, who since 1947 has been presenting jazz performances in Chicago, most notably at his Jazz Showcase club.

Welcoming the audience to the “Jazz Showcase North,” Segal introduced an all-star sextet – including drummer Jimmy Cobb and saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Ira Sullivan – that played Charlie Parker’s bebop tune “Dewey Square.”