The NEA Jazz Masters are from New York—for now

By Howard Mandel

A cadre of estimable musical elders convened Jan. 12 at Rose Theater of Jazz at Lincoln Center for the National Endowment of the Arts’ 2010 Jazz Masters ceremony and concert. And a majority of them were New Yorkers. Will that always be so? Is this city the place to be for jazz to come?

Of this year’s inductees, pianist-composers Muhal Richard Abrams, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, singer Annie Ross and record producer George Avakian are locals. Plus, vibist Bobby Hutcherson and reeds player Yusef Lateef put in serious Big Apple time. Only Bill Holman is indelibly of elsewhere, a leading West Coast arranger whose band has never even played New York. Besides them, previously inducted masters from nearby—including Toshiko Akiyoshi, Candido Camero, Jimmy Cobb, Paquito D’Rivera, Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath, Chico Hamilton, Lee Konitz, Dan Morgenstern, Cecil Taylor, George Wein, Frank Wess, Randy Weston and Joe Wilder—made appearances. And let’s not forget that Buddy DeFranco, James Moody, Gunther Schuller and Dr. Billy Taylor, who made appearances, have lived in and out of town (as well as Chicagoan Ramsey Lewis and Gerald Wilson, an Angelino). In long-due acknowledgment, the widows of late masters Tommy Flanagan, Andrew Hill, Milt Jackson, Luther Henderson and Ray Barretto—all of this area—were introduced at the Rose Theater show. That NEA chairman Rocco Landesman (most recently the co-owner of Broadway’s Jujamcyn Theaters) emceed the evening with Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, reinforced the NEA’s New York jazz bias. That’s all good, but is it justified? And, more importantly, can it last?

Looking at the NEA’s entire list of 114 Masters, so-designated since the title’s invention in 1981, some artists have come from far away—such as pianist Jay McShann from Kansas City, guitarist Danny Barker from New Orleans and Sun Ra from…Saturn. They, too, validated our claim as Jazz Capital of the World by having been here at decisive turns or for significant stretches of their careers. New York City is where they made their names.

The jazz masters to date, however, all got started before 1960. They’re masters because they created, learned and survived all market forces they faced, thriving by dint of determination, discipline and energy without much reference to popular culture norms. They organized their careers around where they could work best—typically in New York. That’s hardly necessary anymore.

Musicians today need only to live near an international airport. They don’t come to New York to meet each other—they do that online—or to record, which is easily accomplished using a laptop computer. They might like to play in the big league to peerlessly sophisticated audiences, or they might prefer to tour like a jam band, playing colleges and indie fests, posting MP3s and digital videos, skirting urban centers as no more relevant than record labels.

Of course, the number of places live jazz is played in New York is not what it was. Gunther Schuller has talked about how in the early 1950s—when he worked with ensembles including Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool band—he and his wife would walk Uptown after work from 42nd to 57th Street, stopping for 10-cent beers at music clubs all the way. That strip at those prices is gone. The number of fair-to-good-to-great jazz venues in Manhattan still tops the number in any other city on earth, but each joint here should be cherished and understood to be as vulnerable to shifts in global economics, regional real estate and flighty entertainment preferences as the number of Starbucks on a busy corner.

Rents may have stabilized, but housing costs in NYC take a bigger bite of most aspiring artists’ monthly incomes than was the case when the John Zorn generation (now 50-somethings) staked out its place Downtown. Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs, now 87 years old, has lived on Seventh Avenue South forever and asserts that cheap rents are the sine qua non of the avant-garde (jazz in all its forms is so marginal as to be “financially avant-garde”). The enrollment in the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music program, NYU’s jazz department, the Juilliard School’s jazz courses and other civic conservatories has steadily increased, but can the students find and/or afford places in which to crash and rehearse within a short throw from regular gigs? Can they experiment with outlandish sounds and unusual concepts, build an audience, have a life? It’s tricky.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood—which shall remain nameless, but it’s not a cool one—thirtyish jazz players have arrived from Toronto, California, Rome and elsewhere for the large, affordable apartments with appliances. They drive to gigs but ride the subway for daytime commutes and most errands. They play where and when they can, often out of town, have friendly parties, have started raising kids. Maybe they’re here for the long haul—or maybe New York should figure out how to nurture and hold them. Otherwise the NEA might find jazz masters spread across the country: Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., Chicago, New Orleans, Austin, Alaska or Hawaii. Mustn’t be smug about our place in the jazz universe.