Hubert Laws was actually in the program as performing with the New York Voices, but thankfully chose not, playing piccolo with the their rhythm section of Reid, Alon Yavnai (piano), and Mark Walker (drums). Billy Taylor’s trio performance with Winard Harper (drums) and Chip Jackson (bass) provided another musical highlight of the evening. Some people play as good, if not better, than they ever have and Taylor – even through the adverse situations he has had to endure over the last few years in particular – represents such an example whether on upbeat tempos or softer ballads alike (Ahmad Jamal and Vince Guaraldi are players that immediately came to mind, after listening to Taylor’s set, who simply must have been influenced by – if not at least have had tremendous respect for – Taylor’s playing).
The other major musical highlight was Dave Brubeck’s trio performance of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with quite confident student accompanists, Joe Sanders (bass) and Justin Brown (drums). The trio then went into a subtle and tender rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” which was introspectively played by the leader in particular. Brubeck showed off his amazing blocked chords and exquisite note flourishes.
The new Four Brothers group (featuring Jon Hendricks, Kurt Elling, Kevin Mahogany, and Mark Murphy; with pianist James Williams, bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Ben Riley) was a super group of sorts. Hendricks unfortunately, though, lost his voice before coming on stage, and so the three remaining Brothers compensated for his part through “Moody’s Mood for Love”. Hendricks instead showed off his adversity by resorting to blues inflected whistling and his inimitable vocalizing bass solo chops which were still in tact on the Oscar Pettiford tune (which Hendricks also wrote the catchy lyrics to), “Swinging ‘Till The Girls Come Home”.
Each of the 2004 NEA Jazz Masters were first introduced by someone appropriately connected to them as close musical associates if not actual close friends. Before coming up to accept their respective awards, they and everyone in the crowd were treated to a special video retrospective dedication of their career. Presenting the first award for the evening to Chico Hamilton was fellow drummer Roy Haynes, who actually preceded Chico as Lester Young’s rhythm provider. Hamilton’s gracious acceptance included a memorable saying (as he said something to the effect of a “quote of a quote from a quote someone told me about a quote that quoted..... et. al.” You get the picture), that “One who dares to teach should never stop learning”.
When Nancy Wilson came up to accept her award from Bill Strickland, her first words were, “I love that (referring to the video tribute)...Very well put together.” One of the most gracious and well-spoken of all the NEA Jazz Masters, she went on to reveal that she’s been with the same manager, John Levy, since October 1959 and without a contract the whole time. Simply unheard of, especially in this day and age, and certainly a compliment, revealing one of her biggest character traits of sincerity. She seemed to be the crowd favorite. After all, she was only second to The Beatles in record sales at one time!
Ron Carter presented Jim Hall with his award. Hall, in acceptance, said something quite outrageously off-the-wall which received several chuckles, “I feel like Lou Gehrig without the disease!” He did go on to say that he, “is proud to be among the peacemakers”. George Wein then presented Nat Hentoff his award, and Hentoff graciously accepted and then deferred the attention to the JFA (Jazz Foundation of America) by sharing their background of assisting musicians, not to mention JFA’s mailing address and phone number, too. Hentoff realizes the significance he’s played for musicians and First Amendment rights, and obviously continues to do what he can to plug others who similarly help in those departments as well.
NEA Chairman Dana Gioia then came out and profoundly stated a fact that kids today only know the names of the hundred top NBA and hip-hop stars. It’s a hard road ahead that jazz faces, but Gioia proudly shared his commitment as head of the NEA, “We aim to change that!”