N.E.A. to Honor Jazz Masters Under a Cloud of Uncertainty
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOAPRIL 2, 2017
The organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, with Jonathan Kreisberg in background, at the Jazz Standard in 2015. Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
The National Endowment for the Arts will hand out prizes to five jazz luminaries on Monday in the 35th annual N.E.A. Jazz Masters award ceremony. But a thread of anxiety is likely to run through the proceedings at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
President Trump’s budget proposal last month called for eliminating the endowment entirely — the first time any president has proposed such a step. While some members of Congress in his own Republican Party have opposed the move, it is a reminder of the agency’s vulnerability.
Dee Dee Bridgewater sings the number “A Foggy Day in London Town” from the Billie Holiday musical “Lady Day,” which had a run at the Little Shubert Theater in 2013.
By Erik Piepenburg and Robin Lindsay on October 21, 2013. . Watch in Times Video »
“It would be foolish for us to pretend like we have a crystal ball,” said Ann Meier Baker, the endowment’s director of music and opera, adding, “The president’s blueprint was Step 1, and there are many to come” before a budget is passed.
“We continue to do our work,” she said.
Created in 1965, the endowment provides funding to arts organizations, including jazz projects that are supported with dozens of grants each year. It also sends nearly half of its funding budget to regional arts organizations that disperse funds themselves.
This year’s Jazz Masters — the vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, the organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, the pianist and composer Dick Hyman, the bassist Dave Holland and the jazz historian Ira Gitler — each received their award’s $25,000 cash portion last year.
The jazz historian Ira Gitler at the 33rd annual International Association for Jazz Education Conference in New York in 2006. Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
In many cases, their careers have been affected by the endowment in ways that stretch back much further.
Ms. Bridgewater, a three-time Grammy winner, is known not only as a musician but also as the host of “JazzSet,” a program on NPR that ran for over 20 years and often received endowment funding. The show was canceled in 2014, partly because of difficulties finding funds, Ms. Bridgewater said — two years after it received its last endowment grant.
The endowment also backs festivals across the country, including the Savannah Jazz Festival in Georgia, where Mr. Smith will perform this year, and the Alcorn State University Jazz Festival, in Mississippi, where this month Ramsey Lewis, a 2007 Jazz Master, will perform and teach a class.
Dave Holland, performing with the Dave Holland Trio at the Village Vanguard in February 2016. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
“It’s not just an academic thing,” Mr. Smith said of receiving an award from the agency. “Because they not only help us, but they help schools, and everything else.”
Each year since 2004 the endowment has awarded an A. B. Spellman N.E.A. Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy to one nonmusician. Last year it went to Wendy Oxenhorn, who runs the Jazz Foundation of America. Her group supports elderly or infirm jazz musicians, often in the form of free health care or financial assistance. It relies partly on endowment funding.
The endowment has given the Jazz Foundation grants of up to $50,000 a year. When she received her award last year, Ms. Oxenhorn noticed an influx of interest and support from donors.
The composer Dick Hyman at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual gala in April 2015. Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images
“I saw a huge difference in that people knew of us that had never known,” she said. “People wrote to us saying, ‘We had never known about you, and I saw your speech, and we realize now that it’s wonderful, and we want to help.’”
The foundation has assisted a handful of Jazz Masters, along with hundreds of other musicians.
Between 2005 and 2016, the agency gave about $2.8 million a year in direct grants to jazz-related projects across the country. That does not count the jazz-related awards from state and regional agencies funded partly by the agency.
In recent years the endowment’s annual congressional appropriation has hovered just under $150 million — lower than the median allotment over its 51-year history, when adjusting for inflation. By international standards, it is not especially high. The budget of the Paris National Opera alone is higher.
Especially since the 1980s and early ’90s, when conservatives led by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina put the agency in the cross hairs, the endowment has worked to ensure that its funding is spread throughout the 50 states and not concentrated on the coasts.
And it has worked in recent years to support smaller and less institutionally recognized organizations and artists.
But the agency does not necessarily lift all boats equally. Some notable musicians outside the New York spotlight — say, the Chicago saxophonist and organizer Fred Anderson and the Los Angeles pianist Horace Tapscott — died without receiving recognition as a Jazz Master.
What’s more, of 145 Jazz Masters thus far, fewer than 20 have been women.
But for this year’s round, the award is a welcome affirmation from an organization that connotes a vote of public confidence.
“There’s a respect for human dignity that goes along with the N.E.A., NPR, PBS, because the people that work for these institutions are publicly supported,” Ms. Bridgewater said. “They’re providing resources for people across these United States.”