The NEA has announced the 2015 Jazz Masters: Carla Bley, George Coleman, and Charles Lloyd. (Joe Segal, founder of the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, is the recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award, but I’m focusing here on the musicians.) It’s not that one wants to argue with these choices; it’s just that, as usual, many a free-jazz giant has been overlooked. Indeed, how about this quote from the always bizarrely witty Carla Bley in the NEA Jazz Masters press release: “To receive the NEA Jazz Masters award is a great and unexpected honor. I can think of many musicians who deserve this award, and won’t be getting it. Luckily, I’m not one of them.” Yes, there are many in the jazz avant-garde who deserved this award and who have passed on, which is to say they won’t be getting it. Nevertheless, from an avant-garde jazz perspective, these 2015 selections must be considered something of a triumph, since the avant-garde is present and accounted for. Tenor saxophonist George Coleman is the reliable mainstream choice, of course, but not only does fellow tenor Charles Lloyd—in a career that has been all over the place, from massive popularity to total obscurity—have one foot left of the mainstream, pianist/composer/arranger and bandleader Carla Bley, in addition to being a woman and not a singer, which already puts her in very select jazz company, boasts major a-g cred.
She’s probably best-known for Escalator Over the Hill: an ambitious, wildly eclectic 1971 three-LP jazz opera that was described by the Guardian as one of the “50 great moments in jazz” and “the Sgt Pepper of new jazz.” The work featured the a-g likes of Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry, Rowell Rudd, Leroy Jenkins, Karl Berger, and Charlie Haden as well as the voices of Linda Ronstadt and Warhol superstar Viva. Bley was also closely involved—along with among others Michael Mantler, her eventual husband—in the near-utopian experiments known as the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (and its related Jazz Composers Orchestra Association) and the New Music Distribution Service. The JCO grew out of Bill Dixon‘s short-lived Jazz Composers Guild and the 1964 October Revolution, one of the milestones of jazz avant-garde Bolshevism.
Incidentally, Paul Bley, the avant-garde piano giant and Carla’s previous husband, was also involved in the Jazz Composers Guild. Bley is now 81, but Jazz Masters honors are not an issue in his case—though a longtime resident of the U.S., he’s Canadian by birth, a Montrealer. In fact, he was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2008, an honor also bestowed on the late Oscar Peterson (also a Montrealer) in 1972, whose keyboard style may not be diametrically opposed to Bley’s but it’s a close call. Not that this has anything to do with the Order of Canada, which honors Canadians of all stripes, commercial success sometimes trumping artistic achievement, it would seem. For instance, Winnipegger Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive was one of Bley’s fellow inductees in 2008.
But I digress northward. To get back to Bolshevism, Charles Lloyd’s wild biography includes his 1967 tour of the Soviet Union (and subsequent live record release), not arranged by the State Department but by “invitation of the Soviet people,” as it has been Wikipedia‘d around the web. To get back to Jazz Masters, here’s the 2015 selection panel, compliments of Elizabeth Auclair, NEA public affairs specialist—the NEA knows how to do transparency: The layperson—the panel always includes an “outsider,” though I have yet to inquire how this person is chosen—was Luis Alvarez, president/CEO of the Alvarez Technology Group, Salinas, Calif. The academic/arts panelists were Laura Johnson, interim director of education/arts consultant, New York City Ballet, and Ellen Rowe, chair of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan. The working musicians: Ramsey Lewis, Mr. “In Crowd,” who is 79 and a 2007 Jazz Master; Tia Fuller, a saxophonist and at one time a member of Beyoncé’s all-female band, who more recently toured with jazz-pop sensation Esperanza Spalding; and, get this, Mr. “Cecil Taylor is total self-indulgent bullshit” himself (see Ken Burns’ Jazz and Ka-ching), Branford Marsalis, who is a 2011 Jazz Master, part of the Marsalis Family (male musician members only) JM general induction of that year, one of the more inscrutable moments in the history of federal jazz policy.
Perhaps the Carla Bley selection has something to do with the number of women on this panel. At any rate, it’s all well and good that the NEA is honoring these particular musicians as they approach their 80s; Lloyd is 76, Bley is 78, Coleman 79. But Sunny Murray is 77, Andrew Cyrille is 74, and Milford Graves is 72—and that’s just to name three worthy a-g drummers. Hey, maybe their Jazz Mastership is coming, they’re young yet.
Addendum: Not long after the JM 2015 announcement, Charlie Haden, a 2012 Jazz Master, who’d been struggling for some time with the degenerative effects of post-polio syndrome, according to Nate Chinen’s New York Times obit, passed on to that great Liberation Music Orchestra in the sky, as someone on Facebook put it. Indeed, the Haden obits usually noted Carla Bley’s essential collaborative role as Liberation Music Orchestra composer-arranger, and this is a band that lived up to its name, whose last record was pointedly titled “Not in Our Name.”
Left politics and Jazz Masters don’t cross paths all that often; in the case of Haden and Bley, these paths cross most distinctly in their names, the record title notwithstanding.
As Chinen’s obit notes,
The Liberation Music Orchestra, which released its debut album in 1969, was Mr. Haden’s large ensemble, and an expression of his left-leaning political ideals. The band, featuring compositions and arrangements by the pianist Carla Bley, mingled avant-garde wildness with the earnest immediacy of Latin American folk songs. Mr. Haden released each of the band’s four studio albums during Republican administrations; the most recent, in 2005, was “Not in Our Name,” a response to the war in Iraq.
Mr. Haden, who liked to say he was driven by concern for “the struggle of the poor people,” hardly restricted his opinions to the Liberation Music Orchestra. While playing a festival with Mr. Coleman in Lisbon, in 1971, he dedicated his “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.
Another addendum: On April 10, 2015, Karen Mantler, Carla Bley’s daughter, posted on Facebook a scan of the presidential Jazz Masters congratulations letter, presumably a form letter, with the announcement, “My mother just got a letter from President Obama! — feeling proud.”
While the writer of this presidential letter is presumably making an effort to be uncontroversial about jazz, the phrasing, one will note, is fundamentally jazzocratic—which, of course, in the federal policy mindset is being uncontroversial about jazz.
“A uniquely American art form that echoes across generations, jazz gives voice to our experiences as a people and continues to be a defining part of who we are. By creating complex, soulful sounds in a spirit of artistic exploration, you have played a role in expanding horizons and breaking barriers . . .”
A strange piece of boilerplate, indeed. The bit about “complex, soulful sounds,” etc., could just as easily have been written on behalf of, say, Arnold Schoenberg. Perhaps this is not the standard Jazz Masters congratulations letter but rather the standard Jazz Masters avant-garde jazz congratulations letter?