Each year for the past 33 years, the National Endowment for the Arts has honored the living legends of jazz, those who have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of the genre, with its Jazz Masters Fellowship. Last week, on April 20, those ranks grew by four.
Of note this year is that half of those honored are from Memphis, a city renowned more for its blues, rock-and-roll, and soul music.
Tenor saxophonists George Coleman and Charles Lloyd, born in Memphis in 1935 and 1938 respectively, were schoolmates who played together growing up and behind such blues greats as Johnny Ace, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and B.B. King. They were weaned at the piano of Phineas Newborn Jr., and played alongside musicians who would go on to make their own names in jazz — pianist Harold Mabern, trumpeter Booker Little, saxophonists Frank Strozier and Hank Crawford, and Willie Mitchell.
Coleman left Memphis for Chicago and New York, and would eventually work as sideman, composer, and arranger with the likes of Max Roach, Slide Hampton, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Chet Baker, just to name a few. Over the decades since jazz’s heyday, Coleman has worked as an educator, and was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2012. He was previously profiled in the Memphis Flyer.
George Coleman, as quoted on the NEA website: “Being named an NEA Jazz Master is truly one of the crowning highlights of my career. As committed music professionals, we
toil away at our artistry for many years without the expectation of accolades or awards. Our only goals are to expand and evolve our craft through dedication and hard work so that we can represent this national treasure called ‘jazz’ at the pinnacle of artistic professionalism.”
Lloyd was influenced heavily by Phineas Newborn Jr. and saxophonist Lester Young. He graduated from the University of Southern California and played with Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry, and Keith Jarrett. His 1966 recording Forest Flower: Live at Monterey became one of the first million-selling jazz albums and, the following year, more headlines were made when his quartet played in the Soviet Union as the Cold War heated up. At the height of his career, Lloyd dropped out of the spotlight and retired to his home in Big Sur, California, to focus on his spiritual quest. He has since come out of his self-imposed reclusiveness to great acclaim, traveling the world, and releasing the new recording Wild Man Dance this month. The documentary, Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity, produced by his wife and artist, Dorothy Darr, was released last year.
Charles Lloyd, from the NEA website: “This is a music of freedom and wonder. It uplifts, it inspires, it touches the heart, and it heals. It is transformational. Jazz is our indigenous art form and is constantly evolving while remaining deeply rooted in tradition and nourished by the American terroir. I have been drunk with the pursuit of ‘the sound’ all my life — and have been blessed to stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and gave encouragement — this is also part of the tradition.”
Composer and pianist Carla Bley and Chicago club owner Joe Segal were also honored by the NEA.