THREE jazz luminaries joined the long list of jazz legends when they were awarded the National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Masters Fellowships Jan. 14 in Boston. The musicians - Louie Bellson, Ahmad Jamal, and Carmen McRae - were given grants of $20,000. Since 1980, the NEA has bestowed the award each year on three-to-five living jazz legends of all races who have made a significant contribution to the traditional African-American art form. Forty musicians, including jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Sarah Vaughn, are on the roster.
The awards ceremony took place in a crowded ballroom at the Hynes Convention Center where the International Association of Jazz Educators held its annual conference - a three-day gala of clinics, jam sessions, and concerts by well-known artists and student musicians.
``Jazz is America,'' said Jane Alexander, chairwoman of the NEA, before she handed out the awards. Jazz ``mirrors what's best about our national identity - the mixture of discipline and improvisation, the mix of individuals riffing off one another yet working together at the same time, the bravado, the inventiveness, the dynamism of the American character.''
Louie Bellson, the first to receive the award, is a drummer, bandleader, and composer. He is considered one of the foremost big-band drummers of the swing and post-swing eras and is best-known for the invention of two pedal-operated bass drums. Mr. Bellson played professionally with Benny Goodman in 1942 when he was 18. He also played in other big bands with Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington, who described him as ``the world's greatest drummer.'' He also served as music director for his wife, the late Pearl Bailey.
Pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal began performing at age 3, composing at age 10, and began his professional career when he was 11. Mr. Jamal toured with bandleader George Hudson and the Hudson Band in the late 1940s and formed his first trio in 1951, the Three Strings. One of his best-known recordings is ``Jamal at the Pershing,'' which remained on the top-10 charts for 108 consecutive weeks. Trumpeter Miles Davis admired him for ``his lean style, use of space, and simple embellishments.''
Carmen McRae, a singer and pianist, has been referred to as ``a crucible of modern jazz creativity'' for her sense of rhythm, skillful vocal technique, and innovative scat singing. At the beginning of her career, Ms. McRae sang with Benny Carter's orchestra and later performed with the Count Basie and Mercer Ellington orchestras. In 1954 she began performing mainly as a solo vocalist.