For 36 years, the National Endowment for the Arts has honored the best of jazz through its Jazz Masters Fellowship, and this year was no different.
The 2018 class includes club owner, producer and artistic programmer Todd Barkan; pianist/educator Joanne Brackeen; guitarist Pat Metheny; and vocalist Dianne Reeves. The NEA Jazz Masters are honored for their lifetime achievements and exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz. Each receives a $25,000 award.
“Since 1982, we have named 149 NEA Jazz Masters,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “The NEA Jazz Masters represent the very pinnacle of talent, creativity, innovation and vision.”
NEA collaborated with the Kennedy Center, Howard University and National Public Radio for three days of free events where admirers were able to celebrate and learn more about the influences for the 2018 Jazz Masters. There were a few connective threads for Barkan, Brackeen, Metheny and Reeves. All were exposed to different types of music at a very young age. They all were encouraged by their families. They all started performing in public during their teens and today, they all teach and mentor college students studying jazz.
Barkan, who received the 2018 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, is best known as the owner of Keystone Korner in San Francisco, a popular club where anyone who was tops in jazz performed.
In his remarks, Barkan jokingly thanked jazz greats Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones for performing together as a group to help buy the liquor license for the Keystone Korner.
“My recognition as a 2018 NEA Jazz Master both deeply humbles me and inspires me to redouble my efforts to take care of the music so it can take care of all of us,” he said. “The universal language of our music, born of both deep sorrow and wide-eyed wonder, of great pain and inextinguishable joy, it is also a prayer of thanks for the gift that gets us here and the grace that lets us stay.”
Metheny started out playing the trumpet like both of his parents before taking up the guitar. At age 18, he entered the University of Miami, where he was immediately offered a teaching position. He was the youngest teacher ever at the university. He was soon recruited by jazz vibraphonist and fellow Jazz Master Gary Burton to be a part of his group.
Metheny is known for his improvisational, contemporary-but-traditional approach to playing and composing. He has won 20 Grammys and is the only artist to win Grammys in 10 different categories. He has led his own groups as well as been a sideman to artists such as Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Jim Hall, Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes, Milton Nacimiento and Steve Reich.
“As musicians, we find ourselves trading in a currency that has way more actual value than the people at the top might realize,” Metheny said. “Politicians come and go. Great music has a way of lasting a really long time.”
Metheny’s comment received thunderous applause, as many audience members probably remembered that NEA was threatened with elimination, but the fiscal 2018 Omnibus budget was signed, giving the agency a slight funding increase.
A piano prodigy at age 11, Brackeen was performing professionally at age 12, playing with the likes of Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Bobby Hutcherson, Scott Lafaro and Charles Lloyd. She would play in the clubs until 3 a.m., go home, then get up early to go to school. She joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1969, becoming the first and only female member of the group, staying until 1972. Brackeen then performed extensively with Joe Henderson (1972-75) and Stan Getz (1975-77).
Brackeen describes what she heard when exposed to jazz musicians Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins and Don Cherry.
“What I heard was the sound of heaven and earth put together,” she said. “The best musical experience can be when you are playing by yourself, but it doubles, triples or quadruples if you are playing with a group of people and all of a sudden, it’s one person playing. There’s something very pure that’s available.”
At a young age, Reeves was influenced by her family’s love of many genres of music, from the blues to spirituals to jazz. In her first stage performance, she sang the Edwin Hawkins song, “Joy.” Reeves competed in vocal competitions which led to her working with NEA Jazz Master Clark Terry. In her 20s, she worked with Sergio Mendes and Harry Belafonte. As a solo artist, Reeves had several albums produced by her cousin George Duke.
When acknowledging the importance of being named a 2018 Jazz Masters, Reeves spoke of what she has received from jazz.
“When this music first called to me and I said ‘yes,’ the most incredible things started to happen, and the most incredible people started to show up,” she said. “This music has always nourished my soul. It’s a music that involves respect and humility.
“Art confirms the truth in all of us and is part of the essence of our humanity,” Reeves said. “The arts help us to build a place to express our thoughts, our opinions, our desires and our dreams in a way to make the impossible possible.”