July 18, 2011
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has recently presented what may well be one of its last rounds of NEA Jazz Masters grants, the nation’s highest honor in jazz. These went to the Marsalis Family, Hubert Laws, Johnny Mandel, and David Liebman. Since 1982, the grants have been awarded annually by the NEA to honor living legends that have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz, and offer audiences the unique opportunity to share the artists' expertise in performances, master classes, clinics, lectures, and short-term residencies. The awards, presented publicly are accompanied by a $25,000 fellowship award. To date 123 individuals have received the coveted prize. This pantheon of jazz has included Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Hank Jones, Sarah Vaughn, Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and scores more.
The Jazz Masters program has been augmented by a competitive grant award, NEA Jazz Masters Live, which is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, to festivals and performance venues. These awards help to subsidize the fees of the Masters and to bring in-depth experience of their work into communities nationally. Since its inception, The Jazz Masters Live program has produced 193 performances, with accompanying education and outreach programs. More than 165,000 people have seen a jazz performance -- many for the first time -- as a result, including more than 40,000 youth, creating new audiences for this authentic American art form. Since 2008, NEA Jazz Masters Live has reached more than 108,000 people, including more than 7,200 youth. So far, 34 NEA Jazz Masters have participated with performances and educational activities. Sadly, when President Barack Obama submitted his 2012 budget to Congress, it included a 13% budget cut for NEA. The agency itself proposed to meet this fiscal challenge by cancelling the Jazz Masters Program, replacing it with a single “American of the Year” award honoring artists across the spectrum of arts.The jazz field was understandably dispirited by the news. Dave Liebman a 2011 awardee said, “Whatever enthusiasm people have for jazz in going to be sapped because there’ll be no way to pay for it. For musicians it means less playing, more looking at the wall.” Dave Brubeck, in a letter to the Litchfield Jazz Festival’s founder, Vita Muir, said, “The abolition of the Jazz Masters program is a terrible thing to do to our American heritage. The award in money was not as important to the recipients as recognition of jazz by the “official” US government…It gave work to “masters” but more importantly it made it possible for some presenters to launch an entire series.” Other musicians said it is a reminder that jazz has long gotten most of its recognition from foreign countries rather than our own.