[JPL] NEA Jazz Masters Announced...The "campaigning" thing

Larry Appelbaum jumpmonk at hotmail.com
Wed Oct 11 17:13:04 EDT 2006

>Now that we know where to go and how to nominate that is good.  Who knows
>the process for making the final decisions and who are the decision makers
>in that process?  Knowing the process and who is involved would be very
>helpful in constructing a nomination.  Thanks  ALOHA  Tom

I interviewed Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, about this program for the 
Nov. 2004 issue of JazzTimes. Below is an excerpt from that interview:

Q: Tell me a little more about the Jazz Masters Program. In this last year, 
the Jazz Masters included Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Hancock, Luther 
Henderson, Nat Hentoff and Nancy Wilson. If you can, take us behind the 
scenes and talk about the process and criteria for deciding who is a Jazz 
Master and who is not, why this musician and not that one?

A: I can't talk about the specifics of the prize deliberations. But we put 
together a fairly small panel, and it consists of about half the former jazz 
masters, and half are people who are practicing musicians, educators, or 
critics who are deeply knowledgeable about jazz. And we take nominations 
from the general public. So anybody can nominate a jazz musician on our 
website (www.neajazzmasters.org). We've just chosen the ones that will be 
announced in January, although they will remain secret until then. So, we 
get a list of all the nominations and basically people discuss and 
deliberate. Now, I changed the nature of the award in two, you might even 
say three ways. Because traditionally, we'd given two or three awards each 
year, in a kind of unspecified way. What I felt is that jazz is terribly 
under recognized in our society. I mean, I cannot believe that in the year 
2004 there is still not a Pulitzer prize for Jazz. That is an indictment, I 
think, of the lack of the imagination of the Pulitzer Committees. We wanted 
to take the NEA Jazz Masters, which is pretty much the greatest honorific in 
Jazz, and to raise it to the level of prominence of the Pulitzer Prize or 
the Academy Award. Major awards tend to be by category; you know, best 
actor, best director, best screenwriter, best novelist, best poet, best 
American music, which for the Pulitzer never means Jazz. It's only meant 
Jazz twice in its entire history. And so we decided to expand the number of 
awards and do them by category. And those are the two big innovations. So we 
went from two or three awards to six awards. And we did them in categories: 
keyboard, solo instrumentalist, composer/arranger, vocalist. And finally, 
because I believe the health of an art not only depends upon the practicing 
artists, but the critics, the producers, the champions who make that art 
available, we created a special award called Jazz Advocate, which went in 
the first year to Nat Hentoff. And I think its important because arts exist 
in a kind of ecology and we should honor the critics and the producers and 
people like that. And so what happens is that people go back and forth and 
it usually would get down to two or three finalists in each category. And 
that's when the arguments get really heated. But I think everybody feels 
that going from two or three awards to six awards allows us to honor a lot 
of people while they are still around. Because these have to go to living 
masters. Now unfortunately this year we gave it to Luther Henderson while he 
was still alive. We were able to communicate it that he had won the award. 
But he was quite literally on his deathbed, and very shortly thereafter he 
died. He died in fact before he received the award and his son Luther 
Henderson Jr. received it on behalf of his family. If you look back on the 
history of the NEA Jazz Masters you see this incredible list of jazz greats, 
but you also see the people we didn't get around to honoring, and I want to 
make sure there are fewer regrets in the future.

Q: I would love to be a fly on the wall just to hear some of the 
deliberations. Here's a question for you as a critic: How does one measure 
aesthetics? How do make a value judgment about who is and who isn't a 

A: Well, that is a general problem for everything the NEA does. Because we 
really make our decisions in terms of artistic excellence, and there is no 
one simple formula for what artistic excellence is. I mean, the way we do 
it, and I think it's the best way, is you get a relatively diverse panel of 
people who have dedicated their lives to an art, that are living immersed in 
the art. We usually put one lay person in there, just to have some outside 
sanity operating in there too. And people essentially make those difficult 
qualitative judgments. But when you look at a list of the winners, you can 
see that the level at which we're operating is really quite Olympian.

Larry Appelbaum

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