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The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters fellowship has been, since 1982, the nation's highest honor bestowed on living jazz artists. Revered musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln, Hank Jones, James Moody, Dr. Billy Taylor, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, George Benson, Nancy Wilson, Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones have been honored. The award brings with it a $25,000 prize.

Last night, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in midtown Manhattan, the Marsalis family became the first ever to be given this honor as a group. The patriarch, Ellis Marsalis, is a marvelous pianist and one of the most respected educators in New Orleans. He and his wife, Dolores, raised six boys, four of whom followed in his footsteps as professional musicians: Branford (saxophone), Wynton (trumpet), Delfeayo (trombone and producer) and Jason (drummer).

After Ellis accepted the award on behalf of the family, his sons joined him onstage to play Jason's "At the House, In Da Pocket," a tune featuring a New Orleans backbeat groove. Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo traded spirited lines, transitioning to a midtempo swing, giving their dad a chance to flow into a melodious solo in the spotlight.

The other honorees were flutist Hubert Laws, saxophonist Dave Liebman, arranger Johnny Mandel and producer Orrin Keepnews, recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy. With the exception of Keepnews and Mandel, who conducted the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a beautiful rendition of his famous song "The Shadow of Your Smile," each honoree performed live. A special highlight was a rendition of "Stella by Starlight," performed by Laws and pianist Kenny Barron.


A brief film overview introduced each 2011 NEA Jazz Master. During the Marsalis family film, Wynton, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, talked about his father, Ellis. He said that early on, "I played in a funk band and … he came and played with the band and played hipper than we was. … My father was the coolest teacher you ever had. His specialty was dealing with hardheaded kids, since he had so many of them in his house."

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Greg Thomas is a cultural journalist and frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook