• The Harmonica-Playing Baron Of Belgium

    May 18, 2012. Posted by Becca Pulliam.

    Toots Thielemans performs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in July 2005. He's celebrating his 90th birthday with a series of concerts throughout his native Belgium. (Image Credit: Rick Nederstigt/AFP/Getty Images)

    People throughout Belgium are currently celebrating the harmonica player and guitarist Jean-Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans, born in Brussels on April 29, 1922. That puts the NEA Jazz Master, also made a Baron by the King of Belgium in 2001, just a few days past 90.

    The night after his birthday, Thielemans set out on an eight-concert tour across his homeland. In Ghent, Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine joined him as a special guest. In Brussels, his long-time pianist Kenny Werner and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves came from the U.S. and Brazil, respectively. In Hasselt, Thielemans — who had broken his foot — performed from a wheelchair. And last night and tonight, May 17 and 18, the two final concerts take place in Liège and then Dinant. It's all taking place in a country where everyone can pronounce the name "Thielemans." (Try "teel-mahnz.")

    Invited by the Belgian Tourist Office, I attended his May 9 performance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a.k.a. BOZAR (get it?), in Brussels. The interviews and meet-and-greets were canceled, but the concert was sold out and a great success.

    Thielemans entered to roaring applause. His band members helped him cross the stage to perch on a high chair so his feet could dangle and clap together. He looks frail, but his breath support and musicality seem little diminished. Just the sound of his Hohner harmonica brings joy and sadness together, and sweetly so.

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  • Stan Kenton At 100: Artistry In Rhythm

    February 17, 2012. Posted by Simon Rentner.

    Stan Kenton. (Image Credit: William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via Flickr)

    Last December, the late composer, arranger, bandleader and pianist Stan Kenton would have turned 100. Centennial celebrations have been happening since then; Jazz at Lincoln Center plans a two-night retrospective of his music starting tonight.

    Kenton's brassy big band was enormously popular during his lifetime. He left behind an astonishing body of work as bountiful as it is strange, influencing even such groundbreaking artists as Cecil Taylor. And many of jazz's greatest improvisers passed through the band — baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, alto saxophonist Art Pepper, singer Anita O'Day, trumpeter Shorty Rogers and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, among others.

    But Kenton never lacked for controversy, and was often criticized for bombast. In 1948, Barry Ulanov wrote about the "sheer noise" of the Kenton orchestra in Metronome magazine: "There is a danger of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same phenomenon." Accusations of racism also plagued the bandleader. Annoyed by the exclusion of what he felt were worthy players in the 1956 Down Beat critics poll, he sent a telegram to the magazine protesting on behalf of "a new minority, white jazz musicians." Though Kenton regularly employed African-American musicians and professed friendship and admiration for black jazz pioneers, he never fully shook the stigma.

    Kenton has also been in the news after his daughter, Leslie Kenton, published a 2010 book that stated alcoholism drove him to sexually abuse her repeatedly from when she was 11 until she was 13. The book is called Love Affair, and according to Wall Street Journal reviewer Will Friedwald, it takes a tone of "forgiveness rather than accusation." The Kenton estate offered no public comment when reached.

    Despite the offstage drama, Kenton tirelessly promoted his "artistry in rhythm" and sought original directions for jazz. How did Kenton hit the pop charts while remaining uncompromisingly experimental? Here are five notable selections from the man who called his music "progressive jazz."

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  • The 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Concert

    January 10, 2012. Posted by Simon Rentner.

    L-R: Jack DeJohnette, Ron Carter, Sheila Jordan, Jimmy Owens. (Image Credit: Michael G. Stewart/NEA)

    In a concert and ceremony at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized its latest class of NEA Jazz Masters on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012.

    The honor, here in its 30th year, is the highest federally-supported award for jazz artistry; those recognized received a $25,000 grant and an opportunity to perform. The event was broadcast live tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET through XM Satellite Radio, WBGO-FM and online — with a live video stream — at this page on NPR Music. Video of the entire event is archived at the NEA's website.

    The NEA recognized five individuals, all musicians. Jack DeJohnette is one of the great drummers in modern jazz; tenor saxophonist Von Freeman has long been a hard-swinging anchor of the Chicago jazz community; Charlie Haden's bass playing seems endlessly versatile; vocalist Sheila Jordan is known for her distinctive approach and singing workshops; and Jimmy Owens, trumpeter and composer/arranger, receives the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy for helping to establish housing and emergency assistance for musicians.

    Each of the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters was introduced by a short video segment and a guest speaker, then offered the chance to speak. (Haden and Freeman were unable to attend; their children, themselves prominent musicians, accepted their awards for them.) Between awards, songs written by Jazz Masters were performed by Jazz Masters, often with up-and-coming musicians and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The list below separates all the individual performance for on-demand listening.

    Since 1982, the NEA has recognized 124 Jazz Masters (or group awards), all of whom were living at the time of their selection. In addition to the one-time grant, recipients are also invited to participate in NEA-sponsored live performances and education programs across the country. The NEA recently announced it would renew its commitment to the Jazz Masters program after proposed funding cuts in 2011 imperiled its future existence.

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