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.