Tuesday, June 03, 2008

NEA Jazz Masters

The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has named the recipients of its 2009 Jazz Masters Award. The winners are: guitarist-singer George Benson, 65; drummer Jimmy Cobb, 79; alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, 80; harmonicist-guitarist Toots Thielmans, 86; and trumpeter Snooky Young, 89. Veteran recording engineer and studio owner Rudy Van Gelder, 83, has been awarded the 2009 A.B. Spellman Award for jazz advocacy.

The criteria for the Jazz Masters Award are excellence, impact and significant contributions to keeping jazz alive.

Clearly, some excellent choices here – particularly the nod to Young, a fine player who is often overlooked because he chose a route other than as a high-profile bandleader. Good to see Cobb and Konitz cited, as well. Van Gelder? A no-brainer.

The odd man out, of course, is Benson – not just for the fact that he's a generation younger than the others, but for the fact that there are dozens of others his age who are arguably as worthy. Does impact merely equate to commercial sales? Does one keep the jazz tradition alive by finding success in the pop mainstream? Benson is, of course, a fine guitarist, but there are a score of instrumentalists his equal. His citation highlights his "innovative practice of playing a florid guitar melody accompanied by an identical, scatted vocal line." Thin gruel there; questionably innovative given how widespread that practice was among blues guitarists and others well before Benson. Perhaps of more significance is one other fact his citation notes: "Winner of ten Grammy Awards." As usual, these things often come down to nothing more than popularity contests.

The winners of the NEA Jazz Masters Award receive a $25,000 grant. The awards will be presented in October in conjunction with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and will include a performance saluting the artists' work by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.


DJA said...

I'm surprised to see this reaction. Benson's unquestionably at least as worthy as Snooky Young, and I love Snooky Young. Hell, he deserves it for his playing on "Paraphernalia" (from Miles in the Sky) alone, let alone all those smokin records with Lonnie Smith, which are hugely influential. (Ask a guitarist!) Benson's jazz bona fides should not be in doubt, regardless of his later career trajectory.

Joanne said...
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James Hale said...

I dig Benson with Miles as much as anyone, and yes, GB can smoke – I fondly recall the John Hammond tribute TV show where he did his best Charlie Christian impersonation jamming with Bennie Goodman. But a Jazz Master? Over all the people of his generation who haven't been recognized? I remain unconvinced.

The Jazz Master Award is meant to honour a full career with distinction from end to end – that isn't Benson in my books.

DJA said...

[shrug] It's an award. Anytime you start handing out awards, you're gonna miss sometimes. (Ordinary People over Raging Bull, etc.) I can think of a lot of people who have already gotten NEA Jazz Masters who are a lot more questionable than George Benson. I'm not feeling the outrage.

Dan said...

Every year that goes by that Von Freeman isn't acknowledged by this award is a travesty, in my opinion. He epitomizes everything you would hope for in a so-called "Jazz Master."

Anonymous said...

George Benson's career is hardly distinguished enough to merit the NEA Jazz Master award. There are plenty of older musicians far more deserving, including Bud Shank, among others.

Who's next, David Sanborn or Kenny G?