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By Mona Ghuneim
New York
24 October 2008

Each year, the National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA, bestows upon certain longtime, living, jazz artists what is considered the highest honor in jazz. Joining the ranks of American jazz legends Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, the 2009 recipients range from an electric guitarist to a recording engineer to a Belgian harmonica player. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.

With what is often called the "definitive American art" resonating through the concert hall, jazz musicians, jazz aficionados, and friends, family and colleagues of numerous jazz artists gathered to honor the six masters of 2009.  

The awards ceremony took place in partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center, a group dedicated to inspiring and growing audiences for jazz. On hand to help honor the artists and play a few notes himself was artistic director of the center and famous jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.  

Willie Nelson, left, performs with Wynton Marsalis and bassist Carlos Henriquez, right, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on 9 July, 2008
Willie Nelson, left, performs with Wynton Marsalis and bassist Carlos Henriquez, right, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on 9 July, 2008
Marsalis, speaking to the six recipients for 2009, said they have left "indelible sounds on the landscape of the art of jazz" and have given the world a gift.


"Jazz musicians earn applause all over the world nightly but it's important to celebrate the masters of our music," he said. "It is a testament to all Americans that the National Endowment for the Arts recognizes the central significance of jazz to our nation's history and values."

Selected from nominations submitted by the public to the NEA, the United States' premiere national foundation for the arts, the 2009 winners are an interesting mix of artists. Drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxophonist Lee Konitz, trumpeter "Snooky" Young, Belgian harmonica player "Toots" Thielemans, guitarist and vocalist George Benson, and recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder will each receive a $25,000 grant award and may participate in NEA-sponsored performance and educational activities.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said that despite cut backs in many government-backed art programs, he has been fortunate to see the growth of the endowment's jazz programs since he came on board in 2003.

"The U.S. government has not done enough to honor its artists but over the past six years, the NEA has taken the lead in bringing both financial support and public recognition to living artists and nowhere more than in jazz," he said.

U.S. singer George Benson performs during the Nice Jazz Festival in southeastern France, 20 July, 2008
George Benson performs during the Nice Jazz Festival in southeastern France, 20 July, 2008
George Benson, a 2009 honoree, is perhaps the most commercially successful of the artists this year. He is more famous for his cross over into pop and R&B (rhythm and blues) music, but his roots stem in jazz. At 65, he is also the youngest of the recipients, 14 years younger than the next youngest, Jimmy Cobb.


But young or old, Benson said that like most art forms, jazz needs its appreciators and he made certain to thank the fans.

He said, "I want to say to you, the people who put us here into the position we're in, [that] it's because of your ears and your acceptance - that has given us the platform to exercise our ideas and our art."

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