Tuesday, October 10, 2006

NEA Jazz Masters: Ramsey Lewis?

Ramsey Lewis, the pianist popular for '60s chart hit "Wade in the Water," an adaptation of an old spiritual, is a nice guy, a talented player and an A-grade spokesman for jazz.

But is he a certifiable jazz master, according to the criteria implied by the other talent designated as NEA Jazz Masters (see the list below)?

I think not.

His albums, over the years, have featured less and less of his occasionally inspired playing and more and more of the kind of over-produced, vaguely funky instrumental pop-rock soup that had a major impact on the creation of the smooth-jazz "genre." Gee, thanks, Ramsey.

Few musicians or jazz aficionados take Lewis seriously, in terms of his work as a jazz artist: There's very little depth, or even emotional heft to be found in Ramsey's playing. His CDs make not-unpleasant background music -- no more, no less. That's not much of a legacy.

Jazz radio people are already grumbling about Lewis's selection, and rightly so. Indeed, his name looks out of place when viewed alongside the other NEA Jazz Masters.

Those selected as Jazz Masters will be honored in January, during the IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) meeting in New York.

Here's the official word on the selection of the NEA Jazz Masters, from the New York Times:

Masters of Jazz

The big-band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi, the pianist
Ramsey Lewis and the vocalist Jimmy Scott are among
seven musicians who have been designated Jazz Masters,
the nation's highest jazz honor, by the National
Endowment for the Arts, The Associated Press reported.

The others are the hard-bop trombonist Curtis Fuller;
the tenor saxophonist and influential flutist Frank
; the alto saxophonist Phil Woods, who was honored
in the composer-arranger category; and Dan
, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies
at Rutgers University, who was chosen in the jazz
advocacy category.

They are to receive their awards,
including a $25,000 fellowship, at a ceremony and
concert on Jan. 12 in New York.

The story from the Washington Post:

Ramsey Lewis Tops List of NEA Jazz Masters

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006; Page C02

Ramsey Lewis, the pianist whose jazz, gospel and classical influences crystallized in an instantly recognizable style, and Jimmy Scott, the romantic vocalist who has influenced singers from Billie Holiday to Madonna, were named last night as National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters.

The national award for lifelong contributions to America's distinct music is also going to bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi, trombonist Curtis Fuller, flutist Frank Wess and alto saxophonist Phil Woods, a prolific composer and arranger. The NEA is also saluting a person who has made a difference in education and writing. This year that citation goes to historian, writer and educator Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

This year's selections were announced during the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, where Paquito D'Rivera and Roy Haynes were scheduled to take the stage last night at the Lincoln Theatre. Both D'Rivera and Haynes have been honored as NEA Jazz Masters, a national tribute now in its 25th year.

"This is a broad-ranging group. We go from great bebop artists to an incredibly lyric composer in Phil Woods, who plays the long sax solo on Billy Joel's song 'I Love You Just the Way You Are,' " said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia.

Lewis, 71, started playing the piano when he was 4 and was a well-known gospel pianist in his native Chicago by the time he was 15. Then he was introduced to jazz and went on to a breakthrough commercial career. His solid-gold hits in the 1960s included "The In Crowd," "Hang On Sloopy'' and "Wade in the Water." Lewis has won three Grammy Awards, seven gold records and three honorary doctorates and was recognized internationally as an ambassador for jazz.

In the early stages of his career Scott, a native of Cleveland, was called Little Jimmy Scott -- the name Lionel Hampton gave him. In 1950 he made the hit parade with "Everybody's Somebody's Fool, " a song he remade in 2001. For years, when his popularity declined, he held other jobs, but he was rediscovered by much younger rockers. Scott, 81, enjoyed a resurgence through his work with Lou Reed and Red Hot Chili Peppers. "He shows just how hard it is to be a jazz musician in this country. He had to quit for years, and for the last 15 years he's been back on the road," said Gioia.

Akiyoshi, 77, a native of Manchuria who was raised in Japan, has worked for 60 years as a pianist and bandleader forging a unique approach to big-band jazz and Japanese culture. In 1952 Oscar Peterson discovered her and opened the door for her studies in the United States and dates at such legendary clubs as Birdland and the Village Gate. In 1972 she started the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra with her husband, saxophonist-flutist Lew Tabackin. Her band has ranked first in the Downbeat poll for big bands, and its albums have received 14 Grammy Award nominations.

Fuller, 72, a native of Detroit, started his career in the U.S. Army Band, along with the great Cannonball Adderley. After 1955 he was a favorite for recording sessions and is believed to be the only trombonist to have recorded with John Coltrane, Bud Powell and Jimmy Smith. For four years in the early 1960s, he was a mainstay of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, along with Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. After a full career working with Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Clarke, and the Count Basie Band, Fuller turned to master classes and has taught in jazz studies programs at Duke, Stanford and Harvard universities.

Wess, 84, made his mark as a tenor saxophonist, an alto saxophonist and a flutist. A native of Kansas City, Mo., he spent his teenage years in Washington, meeting Billy Taylor and playing in a 17-piece military band during World War II. He played with Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Clark Terry, Ronald Hanna and fellow NEA honoree Akiyoshi. His career also includes stints as a staff musician for "The Dick Cavett Show" and "The David Frost Show," along with Broadway bands.

Woods, 75, has specialized in the alto saxophone since he was 12 but has also composed 200 songs. A native of Springfield, Mass., who studied at the Juilliard School, he has worked with Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones and Benny Goodman. His collaborations with Michel Legrand and Billy Joel have won Grammy Awards.

In the last three years, the NEA Jazz Masters program has been expanded to include a concert tour by the honorees, school programs and broadcast projects, as well as recordings. The $25,000 fellowships will be given at a ceremony and concert in New York on Jan. 12 during the International Association for Jazz Education convention.

As mentioned, many of the jazz-radio programmers are miffed, to say the least, about Lewis's selection, as demonstrated by a volley of messages on the Jazz Programmers List (JPL).

Mike Schwartz of KSJS offered a list of several pianists more deserving than Lewis:
-Cedar Walton
-Junior Mance
-Kenny Barron

I agree with those picks.

Several others suggested the currently ailing Andrew Hill, which makes sense, too.

Which other veteran pianists are more deserving of being named an NEA Master than Ramsey Lewis?

How about Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Larry Willis, Ellis Marsalis,

The complete list of musicians named as NEA Jazz Masters:

1982: Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Sun Ra
1983: Count Basie, Kenneth Clarke, Sonny Rollins
1984: Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Max Roach
1985: Gil Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Jonathan "Jo" Jones
1986: Benny Carter, Dexter Gordon, Teddy Wilson
1987: Cleo Patra Brown, Melba Liston, Jay McShann
1988: Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton, Billy Taylor
1989: Barry Harris, Hank Jones, Sarah Vaughan
1990: George Russell, Cecil Taylor, Gerald Wilson
1991: Danny Barker, Buck Clayton, Andy Kirk, Clark Terry
1992: Betty Carter, Dorothy Donegan, Harry "Sweets" Edison
1993: Milt Hinton, Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams
1994: Louie Bellson, Ahmad Jamal, Carmen McRae
1995: Ray Brown, Roy Haynes, Horace Silver
1996: Tommy Flanagan, J.J. Johnson, Benny Golson
1997: Billy Higgins, Milt Jackson, Anita O'Day
1998: Ron Carter, James Moody, Wayne Shorter
1999: Dave Brubeck, Art Farmer, Joe Henderson
2000: David Baker, Donald Byrd, Marian McPartland
2001: John Lewis, Jackie McLean, Randy Weston
2002: Frank Foster, Percy Heath, McCoy Tyner
2003: Jimmy Heath, Elvin Jones, Abbey Lincoln
2004: Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Hancock
Luther Henderson, Nancy Wilson, Nat Hentoff
2005: Kenny Burrell, Paquito D'Rivera, Slide Hampton, Shirley Horn,
Artie Shaw, Jimmy Smith, George Wein
2006: Ray Barretto, Tony Bennett, Bob Brookmeyer, Chick Corea,
Buddy DeFranco, Freddie Hubbard, John Levy

Click here for more info on the NEA Jazz Masters.

1 comment:

webmaster said...

His live playing is much more interesting (and worthy) than the material he releases on record. I guess it sells better....

P.S. Here is a list of his recordings that are available online.