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Top 10 Jazz Musicians Deserving of NEA Jazz Master Consideration: 2014 Edition

A few days ago the 2014 class of NEA Jazz Masters was announced, with honors going to the diverse crew of Richard Davis, Anthony Braxton, Keith Jarrett and Jamey Abersold. 3+ years ago, I wrote about musicians who I felt had been neglected in this selection process (click here to read that post for reference), and the latest batch has led me reflect a bit on who has been inducted since. In summary:

* From my original Top 10 list, Charlie Haden and Lou Donaldson were subsequently honored.

* From that same list, 3 great musicians died without being honored: Paul Motian, Sam Rivers and Ray Bryant.

* A number of musicians were honored who I did not even consider for the list due to the relative chronological lateness of their rises to prominence, a precedent not previously set except by Paquito D’Rivera, who it would seem was honored in large part due to his incredible multicultural contributions. These musicians, including Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and even younger musicians like Dave Liebman and even the “next-generation” members of the Marsalis family, seem to have opened up the criteria a bit.

So who is still overdue? I am including the 5 “carry-overs” from the previous list (again, click here to read that post if you want to read more about them and/or about my general line of thinking). Things have indeed been opened up chronologically, but there is a certain degree of weight still given to those who a) have been prominent since the early-to-mid 60s (sorry Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Eddie Daniels, Larry Coryell etc.) and b) are still prominent (sorry Frank Strozier, Eric Kloss, Horace Parlan, etc.). And still, I must apologize for many omissions, including Grachan Moncur III, Charles McPherson, John Handy, Al Harewood, Reggie Workman, Roswell Rudd, Bob Cranshaw, Ben Riley, Junior Mance, Billy Hart, James Spaulding, Grady Tate, Charles Lloyd, Mickey Roker, Don Friedman, Archie Shepp, Andrew Cyrille, Marshall Allen, Larry Willis, Gary Peacock, Joe Chambers, Roger Kellaway, Henry Grimes, Eddie Gomez and more. I could have included any of them without reservation . . .

. . . but now onto my top 10

  1. Albert “Tootie” Heath
  2. Harold Mabern
  3. Pharoah Sanders
  4. George Coleman
  5. Gary Burton
  6. Gary Bartz – his modern and edgy yet tradition-rooted style of alto playing, while perhaps not as innovative as that of Jackie McLean, is tops among this crop of alto players in its foreshadowing of (and in some cases direct influence on) the contemporary approach to the instrument. If you’re not hip to these albums, check out the reissue Libra/Another Earth and his work on Max Roach’s Members, Don’t Get Weary.
  7. Dr. Lonnie Smith – The Turbanator has been tearing up the Hammond organ since coming to prominence in the mid-1960s with George Benson’s quartet. Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Charles Earland are among those who’ve passed on since this program began, and thus far the now-departed Jimmy Smith is the only organist yet honored. Dr. Lonnie is largely agreed upon as both a living giant of the tradition and a sonic innovator himself.
  8. Louis Hayes – It’s easy to snooze on Louis Hayes because he is so unassuming, but at least for myself, it’s rather striking how many of my favorite albums have him in the drum chair, particularly albums by Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Dexter Gordon. His own albums as a bandleader are well worth a listen (I’m a big fan of Variety Is the Spice with a host of also-neglected giants, including Mabern, Strozier and Cecil McBee).
  9. Mark Murphy – I’ll admit that I’m a relatively late convert to the church of Mark Murphy. As much as I’ve enjoyed his records from his mid-50s Decca recordings to his 1961 classic Rah! to his innovative 1970s work for Muse, the truth is that I discovered most of that material “backwards,” e.g. after realizing what influence he had on more contemporary singers like Kurt Elling. Insofar as we look at how jazz voice has evolved, we need to recognize his role in that.
  10. Buster Williams – From his 1960s work holding it down for Sarah Vaughan, Gene Ammons and the Crusaders (back when they were still an acoustic jazz group) to his subsequent work with Herbie, Mary Lou, Dexter, Rahsaan and so many more, he is one of the most important bassists of his generation, and it is time to honor him alongside his colleagues Richard Davis and Ron Carter (whose band was another that employed Buster, no small compliment). Factor in his substantial body of work as a bandleader and it’s a slam dunk.
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  1. anonymous

     /  March 20, 2015

    So pleased about George Coleman, in particular.
    My own 2 nominations (which I logged on the NEA website) are Charles Tolliver and the same Mark Murphy.
    - Seems mad that Tootie and Louis Hayes and Ben Riley AND Mickey Roker haven’t been accorded the honor. Of course I nod my head vigorously when I see you list Buster Williams’ name. Grady Tate and Don Freidman too.

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