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NEA Honors Bellson, Jamal and McRae


Louie Bellson's lithe, precise explosions from the drum set, the deft touch and just-so note placement of pianist Ahmad Jamal, the liquid luxury of Carmen McRae's contralto--these three distinctive sounds from the jazz world have moved audiences for decades.

Now, Bellson, Jamal and McRae are being honored for their lengthy contributions to music and American culture by being selected for the 1994 American Jazz Master Fellowships, the lifetime achievement awards presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The artists, who join such past recipients as Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey, will be honored tonight at a ceremony in Boston. NEA Chair Jane Alexander will present the one-time-only fellowships of $20,000 each to Bellson, Jamal and McRae.

"These colossal talents have helped write the history of jazz in America," said Alexander recently in announcing the awards. "They have distinguished themselves as musicians, composers and teachers, blending their unique style with a commitment to preserving and passing on a musical tradition that is proudly American."

The awards ceremony will be part of the annual meeting of the International Assn. of Jazz Educators. The Billy Taylor Trio, Sheila Jordan and Joe Henderson's quartet are the featured performers.

Bellson is regarded as one of the finest drummers to come out of the swing era. He worked with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington, has led his own bands and has written numerous compositions, including the classic "Skin Deep" and his recent magnum opus, "Tomus."

McRae, who worked as a soloist from the mid-'50s until the late '80s, when a recurring bronchial ailment forced her retirement, is acclaimed for being one of the most distinctive of jazz vocalists, a singer who can make even the most innocuous material come alive.

Jamal, who has spent most of his four-decade career as leader of his own trio, has proven to be one of the most influential pianists in jazz, leaving his mark on such artists as Miles Davis and current sensation Benny Green.

"It's really a thrill to be selected," says Bellson, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. "I think of when I was a kid, picking up records by Duke (and) Basie hoping I'd have a chance to meet them. And then to play with them, and then get this award, well, I have to pinch myself. I'm so glad to have been in that era of music where they were all heavyweights. There are beautiful things happening today, but that was a golden era."

Avant Guardian: Anyone who watched tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders on the bandstand with John Coltrane's quintet in the mid-'60s will probably never forget him. Sanders would bend backward and blow streams of notes, or issue wild shrieks through his instrument that sounded like an elephant set to charge. These notes were often followed by deep, soothing tones. His performances exemplified an era when experimentation was at its zenith, and Sanders was one of the most notable members of jazz's avant-garde.

"That was a wonderful period with a lot of energy," Sanders says of jazz's mid-to-late '60s. "Nobody ever told me that I had to play this way or that way. I just did it any way I wanted to do it. We started when we started, ended when we ended."

Sanders, whose career is on an upswing after some inactivity during the '80s, has relaxed somewhat, but don't expect him to completely turn his back on his past.

"I like to be an all-around musician, play everything," says the 53-year-old artist, who leads a quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill beginning Tuesday for a six-night stand.

Sanders said his current performances mix lyrical originals with pop and jazz standards but he adds that he still favors lengthy renditions.

"If you play long, rather than short solos, you will get into something," he says. "And I like the rhythm section players to play long, too. I want them to motivate me, so that I can jump in there and play some more. I don't want to just end it."

Playing with Sanders at Catalina will be pianist William Henderson, bassist Jeff Littleton and drummer Ralph Penland.

Critic's Choice Ravi Coltrane, the great saxophonist's son, will be showcased when drummer Gerry Gibbs--son of the noted vibist Terry Gibbs--plays a pair of three-night stands at the Club Brasserie. The N.Y.C.-based Gibbs will employ pianist Billy Childs Thursday through Jan. 22, and pianist Patrice Rushen, Jan. 27-29. Bass ace Andy Simpkins will be on hand for all six nights. . . . Pianist Benny Green makes a brief solo appearance Saturday from 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Virgin Megastore, 8000 Sunset Blvd., in Hollywood. Information: (213) 650-8666.

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