Annie Ross summoned the spirits of departed jazz legends in a performance of her song "Music Is Forever," providing an emotional highlight at the annual NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony.
The 79-year-old Ross, among the early practitioners of "vocalese" on songs like her "Twisted" — in which original lyrics were set to what had only been known before as an instrumental jazz solo — was among eight 2010 Jazz Masters honored at a Tuesday night concert presented by the National Endowment for the Arts and its new chairman, Rocco Landesman, at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater.
This year's other Jazz Masters included pianist-composers Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton and Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; West Coast arranger Bill Holman; reed instrument player Yusef Lateef; record producer George Avakian; and Bobby Hutcherson, who modernized the sound of the vibraphone as a voice in hard bop and free jazz.
Accepting the nation's highest jazz honor, the British-born Ross, best known for her work in the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, recalled being billed as the "Scottish Shirley Temple" when she first came to Los Angeles as a child actress in the 1930s, only to hear an Ella Fitzgerald record and decide she "wanted to sing like that."
Accompanied by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the JALC Orchestra, Ross performed a ballad co-written with Russ Freeman, in which she created lyrics out of the names of late jazz greats — Miles, Dizzy, Monk and others — with a chorus: "Music is forever. You still live when we listen to you."
Lateef, 89, one of the first artists to bring a world music approach to traditional jazz, held the audience's rapt attention as he performed on assorted Middle Eastern and Asian reed instruments as well as saxophone and flute in a duet with percussionist Adam Rudolph on his "Brother Hold Your Light."
Avakian, who produced the first jazz albums and helped establish the LP as the primary format for popular music in 1948, recalled that "the biggest disappointment" of his career came in 1956 when plans fell through for Louis Armstrong to record with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
As his personal selection for the concert, Avakian offered the audience a chance to imagine what might have been by having Marsalis solo in Armstrong's place accompanied by the JALC Orchestra in a performance of Ellington's 1930's composition "Stompy Jones."
"I asked Wynton to dedicate this composition and performance to ... the two greatest musicians in the history of jazz from the past, present and future," said the 90-year-old Avakian.
Since 1982, the NEA has given its Jazz Masters Award to 114 living legends in jazz. Each of this year's recipients also receive a $25,000 grant.
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