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Jazz Appreciation Month: Celebrating the 2021 NEA Jazz Masters

National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters logo

Nationwide recognition for jazz artists is a rare thing. The National Endowment for the Arts stepped up its mandate in 1982 to include jazz as an art form and celebrate those who advance it. Robin Lloyd introduces the 2021 NEA Jazz Masters for Jazz Appreciation Month.

The highest honor that our nation bestows on jazz artists is the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award. Since 1982, the program has annually celebrated living legends who have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz. Let’s meet the 2021 NEA Jazz Masters!

Drummer Terri Lyn Carrington grew up in a musical family and became a professional musician at age 10, when she got her first Musicians Association card and played her first gig with Clark Terry. She was awarded a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music the very next year. 

Like her mentor Clark Terry, she’s turned her attention over the last 15 years to empowering the next generation. She’s a composer, bandleader, producer and educator, and is the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, created to address gender equity in the jazz field and the role that jazz can play in the comprehensive struggle for social justice.

Drummer Albert Tootie Heath is the youngest of the Heath Brothers of Philadelphia. Both of his older brothers, bassist Percy and saxophonist Jimmy, were also NEA Jazz Masters. Albert worked with J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock and Yusef Lateef, and led an intergenerational jazz drum ensemble called the Whole Drum Truth, which combined legendary and emerging jazz drummers such as Sylvia Cuenca, Billy Hart, Louis Hayes and Willie Jones III. He also leads the Tootie Heath Trio, with pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street. In 2018, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America. Heath was an instructor at the Stanford Jazz Workshop summer camps for middle and high school students for more than 30 years.

On the leading edge of avant-garde jazz, saxophonist Henry Threadgill is known for his original compositions. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2016, one of only three jazz artists to win the prestigious award. Threadgill grew up on the south side of Chicago, and when he was 19, he joined Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band, which evolved into the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective of musicians that emphasized playing their own music. 

While gigging with marching bands, blues bands, Latin bands and even polka bands, he also started studying at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago where he majored in piano, flute and composition. Threadgill’s list of honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship (2003), a United States Artists USA Fellowship (2008), induction into the ASCAP Wall of Fame in 2015, and a Doris Duke Artist Award (2016). In 2016, the Vietnam Veterans of America honored him with their Excellence in the Arts Award.

Phil Schaap displays his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz music and history in his jazz programs on Columbia University’s radio station WKCR in New York, where he’s been hosting since 1970. He has won six Grammy Awards for his liner notes, audio engineering and production. Schaap became curator at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, where he created the Swing University educational program, which continues to offer public jazz listening and appreciation classes with the goal of increasing and cultivating audiences for the music.

He has taught jazz at Columbia, Princeton and Rutgers universities, and currently teaches in the graduate school at Juilliard. Schaap has also conducted and collected hundreds of hours of taped interviews with jazz legends.

Join the celebration of the 2021 NEA Jazz Masters on Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT. The concert will be webcast online on, and NPR Music.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.