IAJE & NEA: Solo Spotlight

Friday was John’s big day and Leroy Hamilton was on hand to document it. If you’ve not yet heard of Leroy, go here. Leroy is a truly talented photographer with an artist’s eye and the soul of a saint. He arrived in New York at dawn and at 10:30 AM he met up with us in a conference room where John was being interviewed by Katti Gray, a columnist for Newsday. [Her piece about John ran on Monday, January 16th, here’s the link].

After the interview, we went to the Etrusca Restaurant for the Jazz Masters Luncheon. This is the event that most Jazz Masters like best, because it’s the only time when they can sit and visit with one another, swapping stories and telling ‘lies.’ Hosted by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, it’s a private affair for the Jazz Master’s and their significant others. All Jazz Masters are invited and usually a handful of past recipients show up in addition to the current year’s inductees. In attendance at Friday’s luncheon were Ray Baretto, Tony Bennett, Bob Brookmeyer, Chick Corea, Buddy DeFranco, Freddie Hubbard, and John, plus Chico Hamilton, Jim Hall, Nat Hentoff, Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Heath, Ron Carter, Slide Hampton, Frank Foster and probably a few others I am not remembering at the moment. Before we sat down to eat, The Masters were led out into a roped-off area in the hotel lobby for this year’s group photo. Never before had they staged the photo in a public area, but it was a stroke of maketing genius to do so as both the public and he paparazzi seemed to love it. After the group shot of all the Jazz Masters on hand, they did a shot of just this years inductees. Finally, they led us back into the restaurant for lunch.

The original plan was to eat first, and then Chairman Gioia and IAJE President David Caffey would give out the plaques. But no sooner did we finish our Farmer’s Market Salads with herbed goat cheese and toasted croutons atop a bed of mixed baby greens with a light citrus vinaigrette, than the plan changed — that’s jazz, always improvising — it was decided to give the awards before the main course. While talking to NEA Director of Music & Opera Wayne Brown, who was seated to my left, I noticed John get up to say hello to Freddie Hubbard, but when I turned my attention to the podium, I didn’t see John anywhere in the room. The giving of the awards involved little more than announcing the person’s name, applause applause, and a photo. Luckily John was last in line as he came back into the room with barely a minute to spare.

Following the luncheon (a choice of Petit Filet Mignon with Wild Mushroom Ragout or Grilled Atlantic Salmon with Picante Mango Peach Salsa, and Warm Peach Cobbler for dessert), John amazed me by agreeing to do more press interviews. It was around 2:30 or so when he spoke with a local television crew (NY1) and then he did a lengthy segment for Listen Here! The jazz review with Neil Tesser and Mark Ruffin. We had wanted to see Nat Hentoff’s one-on-one interview with Clark Terry, but we just couldn’t be everywhere at once, and we needed a short rest before the evening events.

John was scheduled for his NEA portrait photo at 5:45 PM, just before the Pre-Concert Reception that began at 6. He also took a few minutes to do a short cable television interview with Jaron Eames, who has been pursuing him with a smile for many years. Then it was on to the reception in the Mercury Ballroom. It’s not that large a room and it was crowded. Somehow I managed to find our invited guests in the crowd: retired William Morris booking agent Marty Klein, musical director Bobby Tucker, and John’s son, Michael, who had worked with him at one time as road manager for Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard, and Wes Montgomery. There were lots of friends in the room, some of whom we barely had a chance to wave at: John Snyder, Bill Kirchner and Judy Kahn, and Maria Schneider come to mind. Then it was hurry up and wait time. They shepherded the Jazz Masters through the kitchen and into the back entrance to the Grand Ballroom where we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Chairs had been set up along the wall with name tags, and we were to wait in these positions so that we could enter in a processional. The Ballroom was filled to capacity, and later I heard that even people who had VIP tags could not get in to the main floor and had to go up to the balcony.

The program opened with two big band pieces played by The Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra — “Beige,” from Duke Ellington’s suite, “Black, Brown & Beige” and a Frank Foster arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Countdown.” Then the first three of seven Jazz Master awards were presented to Freddie Hubbard, Ray Baretto, and Chick Corea. Each presentation was preceded by a short biographical video clip, and followed by a brief acceptance speech. Then the Count Basie Orchestra took the stage and was all-too-soon joined by vocalist Nnenna Freelon. After her third song it was back to the awards presentations.

The video segment on John, which included the obligatory childhood photo, also included some seldom seen footage of John playing bass with the original George Shearing Quintet, something most people in the room had never seen or heard before. Then it was time for Nancy to give John his award, the moment she’d been waiting for all night. I have seen her tear up before when talking about John, but this time it really got to her. She wanted to regale the audience with chapter and verse of John’s good deeds, but she couldn’t, and it was just as well because John wanted to get on with thanking some of the people who helped him in his long career. He thanked Bobby Tucker, George Shearing, Cannonball Adderley, Marty Klein, Laurie Goldstein, his son, George Wein, Darlene Chan, his in-laws (my parents), and me.

The last award given was to Tony Bennett, who, in his acceptance speech, thanked his son, the best manager he’s ever known…except for John Levy. I couldn’t see in the dark, but John might actually have blushed at that one.

The evening ended with a classic battle of the bands, playing the Frank Wess arrangement of Ellington’s “Battle Royale” and a Thad Jones piece titled “To You.” The finale was One O’Clock Jump, during which several Masters sat in (Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, Chick Corea, James Moody scat singing) and were upstaged by a ten-year old trumpet dynamo named Tyler.

When it was all over…we were hungry. There was no dinner served, just the luncheon and some hors d’oeuvres at the reception, so we went upstairs, changed into “street clothes” and headed for the Carnegie Deli where I had a bowl of matzo ball soup and we shared a hot pastrami sandwich. Can’t get that in Los Angeles (Jeri’s Deli and Cantor’s not withstanding). We didn’t linger, though, because Saturday’s schedule was just as busy. Stay tuned.

[Note: As you can see, the photo of John and Nancy posted here is not one of Leroy’s. I hope to have his pictures soon, and I know that between my blog, John’s website, and Leroy’s site, we’ll be posting quite a few. I’ll let you know when that happens.]