There's a moment on "Oceans of Time," from a 2016 album by The Cookers, when alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. takes a solo full of swerving self-assurance. Swinging mightily behind him is the composer of the tune, master drummer Billy Hart.
As of today, both Hart and Harrison can be identified not only as members of The Cookers but also by a prestigious title: They are both 2022 NEA Jazz Masters, along with the magnetic singer-songwriter Cassandra Wilson and virtuoso bassist Stanley Clarke.
According to an announcement this morning by the National Endowment for the Arts, these four new inductees will be celebrated with a concert and ceremony March 31, 2022 at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. They will each also receive a $25,000 award, along with what is considered the highest honor reserved for a living jazz artist in the U.S.
"The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to celebrate the 40th anniversary of honoring exceptional individuals in jazz with the NEA Jazz Masters class of 2022," Ann Eilers, acting chairman for the National Endowment of the Arts, says in a statement. "Jazz continues to play a significant role in American culture thanks to the dedication and artistry of individuals such as these and we look forward to working with SFJAZZ on a concert that will share their music and stories with a wide audience next spring."
Hart, at 80, is the senior member of this NEA Jazz Masters class. During a career that began in his hometown of Washington, D.C., Hart has distinguished himself in a staggering range of settings, always with the earthy elasticity that is his rhythmic trademark. He was a member of Mwandishi, the pioneering jazz-funk band formed by 2004 NEA Jazz Master Herbie Hancock, and has backed everyone from Stan Getz to Shirley Horn. For the last 18 years, he has led an acclaimed quartet with several prominent younger associates; his most recent album is All Things Are, made with pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Ben Street.
Clarke, who recently turned 70, originally hails from Philadelphia, where he studied classical music as well as jazz. Recognized as a young phenom almost from the moment he arrived in New York, he amassed copious sideman credits before teaming up with keyboardist Chick Corea to form Return to Forever, another defining band in the formative era of jazz fusion. Clarke went on to a wildly successful solo career: his 1976 album School Days cracked the Top 40, and "Sweet Baby," a single he made with keyboardist George Duke, was a Top 20 hit. He has also scored extensively for film and television, and he runs the Stanley Clarke Scholarship Foundation, which supports promising young musicians.
Harrison, 61, is this year's recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy — an award that often goes to a writer or producer rather than a musician. His qualifications are rooted in a lifelong commitment to his native New Orleans, where he established the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group and serves as artistic director of Tipitina's Foundation Internship Program. Harrison is also an alto saxophonist and bandleader of high distinction, and progenitor of a hybrid genre he calls "nouveau swing," which combines elements from across the African diaspora. (Speaking with me in 2019, he explained how this idea applies to his instrumental cover of "Old Town Road," the Lil Nas X smash.)
Finally, we come to Wilson, the youngest member of this year's musician class at 65. Born and raised in Jackson, Miss., she has been a genre-blurring artist since the 1993 release of her commercial breakthrough, Blue Light 'til Dawn (recognized by NPR Music as one of the 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women). Wilson first emerged almost a decade prior as a fearless vocalist in the avant-garde musical cohort known as M-BASE. Her rich contralto, touched with smoke and honey, is an unmistakable timbre at the crossroads of modern jazz, Delta blues, classic country and American folk music.
Wilson has also publicly aligned herself, in recent years, with a political faction that calls for the elimination of the NEA, among other government programs. But she has expressed only positive thoughts about the Jazz Masters award. "This honor bestowed upon me by the National Endowment of the Arts lifts my spirits," she writes in a statement, "and brings me great joy in knowing that the music will always continue and that the best is yet to come."