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Top 10 Jazz Musicians Deserving of NEA Jazz Master Consideration

With the recent induction of the 2010 class of NEA Jazz Masters, some of the most glaring omissions in my eyes have been rectified, namely Yusef Lateef, Bobby Hutcherson and Cedar Walton. To put some very sweet icing on the cake, add my mentor Kenny Barron, who got in a lot sooner than I expected.

For this list I’m using some fairly specific restrictions. I’m limiting myself to instrumentalists, and only those who were significantly active by the mid-1960s (since there is as yet little precedent for inducting people who came to prominence later – as such some “elder statesmen” are left off who might otherwise be on the list, such as Jack DeJohnette, Buster Williams, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Anthony Braxton, etc. – maybe I’ll do some kind of “next generation” list later on). Likewise, I’m leaving for another conversation those who are primarily known for multicultural “fusions” (Chucho Valdes, Eddie Palmieri, Hugh Masekela, etc. – I’m also reluctantly including Abdullah Ibrahim on this list, as I love his music but don’t really know how to categorize him). And for those readers who are less familiar with the award, it is for living artists, so please spare me the hate mail about what a jerk I am for omitting Hank Mobley.

This was a tough and subjective one, and the LONG “honorable mention” list as of this moment includes Gary Bartz, Al Grey, Grachan Moncur III, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Charles McPherson, John Handy, Reggie Workman, Roswell Rudd, Ben Riley, Junior Mance, Billy Hart, Louis Hayes, James Spaulding, Frank Strozier, Eddie Daniels, Grady Tate, Eric Kloss, Larry Coryell, (gasp for breath, this is a long list) Charles Lloyd, Mickey Roker, Horace Parlan, Clare Fischer, Don Friedman, Archie Shepp, Andrew Cyrille, Marshall Allen, Larry Willis, Roger Kellaway, Henry Grimes, Eddie Gomez, and Richard Davis. I could have included any of them without reservation and would be delighted to see any of them inducted . . .

. . . but now onto my top 10

  1. Charlie Haden – I will admit that I find this omission somewhat bewildering. He would probably deserve induction if only for his work with Ornette Coleman in his classic quartet, and his work as a bassist and bandleader in the ensuing fifty years has been simply awesome.
  2. Paul Motian – his work with Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett is remarkable in and of itself, and his drumming has influenced countless others. His work as a bandleader has been impressive for years as well.
  3. Sam Rivers – I can only figure he has waited this long because he has been so antiestablishment for so much of his career. His mid-60s output (including a brief tenure with Miles and some great work for Blue Note including the all-time classic Fuchsia Swing Song) would be enough to warrant serious consideration even if he retired in 1970, and he most certainly did not do that.
  4. Albert “Tootie” Heath – when you’re this great for this long, the term “underrated” doesn’t entirely apply anymore. When you look closely at Tootie’s resume it is quite stunning, from Wes Montgomery’s “Incredible Jazz Guitar” to Herbie Hancock’s “Fat Albert Rotunda.”
  5. Lou Donaldson – still going strong well over 50 years after making seminal recordings with Monk, Blakey and the proto-MJQ. Perhaps Lou is not the most original alto player of his era, but between his bop credentials and his influence in the realm of soul jazz (Alligator Boogaloo, need I say more?) he has more than earned his propers.
  6. Harold Mabern – he sounds better than ever, has a stellar resume, and has a special place in my musical heart as a bridge, of sorts, between two of my all-time favorite musicians, Phineas Newborn, Jr. and James Williams.
  7. George Coleman – it’s funny how a great musician can sometimes be best-known for a dubious accomplishment (see Flanagan, Tommy). So it goes in some circles with Coleman, Mabern’s buddy from Memphis, who was fired by Miles Davis and replaced by Wayne Shorter. His work in countless settings (including with Miles – the ’64 Carnegie Hall recordings are favorites of many of my colleagues) has been unimpeachable.
  8. Ray Bryant – this was a little tough, given his relative inactivity in recent years. But hoo-wee could that man play. And compose. A number of his recordings (under his own name and with the Jo Jones trio) really hit my soft spot for hip-yet-soulful.
  9. Pharoah Sanders – a really interesting case in that he has grown so tremendously from the time of his mid-1960s emergence with John Coltrane’s band. I love the recordings with Trane, but he just keeps getting better and better. Kenny Garrett’s recent Beyond the Wall is a particular favorite.
  10. Gary Burton – this one began convolutedly. I count myself among the minority who feel that Larry Coryell is at the top of the heap of guitarists to mix jazz and rock early on (although I like John McLaughlin as much as the next guy). I was thinking about his work with Gary Burton’s groundbreaking quartet, and checked the Jazz Masters list just to confirm that Gary has been honored, which he hasn’t (although before this year neither was Bobby Hutcherson, whose omission was a more significant slight IMHO). Burton’s innovative playing and bandleading are also enhanced by his vanguard position as a jazz educator.
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