Glen Ridge jazz saxophonist receives NEA honor

Photo Courtesy of Vernon H. Hammond III
Glen Ridge resident Kenny Garrett, an alto saxophonist and composer, has been named a 2023 Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Alto saxophonist and composer Kenny Garrett, a Glen Ridge resident, has been named a 2023 Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. The recognition comes with a $25,000 stipend for Garrett, 61, a Grammy Award winner and eight-time nominee. Two other musicians were also named 2023 Jazz Masters by the NEA, violinist Regina Carter and drummer Louis Hayes. Interestingly, all three are Detroit, Mich., natives. On Friday, Aug. 26, Garrett spoke with The Glen Ridge Paper about the award and his influences. Detroit, he said, offered him a lot of musical diversity in his youth.

“There were so many great musicians who helped me,” he said. “But a lot of the time, as a kid, you’re just trying to learn and you don’t know how important history is. It was never my dream to be a jazz master, I just wanted to get the experience.”

As a developing musician, Garrett said he never really thought about the journey he was on, but now he is older and thinking it over.

“I knew the musicians who helped me were great, but you don’t think about it until you reflect,” he said. “You’re just trying to get to the next level.”

Garrett said he was helped along by trumpet players Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Marcus Belgrave.

“Marcus was a pillar of the community,” Garrett said. “All the musicians from Detroit came from Marcus.”

Garrett had hoped to attend Berklee College of Music, in Boston, after high school, but was not accepted. Instead, at the age of 17, he was accepted into the Duke Ellington Orchestra. 

“That was my school, the Ellington Orchestra,” he said. “And I played in the Freddie Hubbard school of music and with Miles Davis. That was my university. I played with the people that students were studying.”

Garrett, however, did receive an honorary doctorate from Berklee, in 2011.

He said a musician’s influences are a lineage.

“People can hear your influences,” he said. “They are a path of concepts you can find your way through. How are you playing the music differently? Kenny Garrett takes those forms and is honest with himself. I take a lot of information and just keep studying. You have to understand where the music came from in history. There is no blueprint.”

Garrett tours Europe annually, has played in Asia and throughout the United States, and will be appearing at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City from Sept. 1 through 4; to purchase tickets, visit tinyurl.com/mr2uwtt5. He currently performs with the Kenny Garrett Quintet, and with Kenny Garrett with Sounds From Ancestors. He said a musician has to be physically in shape to perform as frequently as he does, and that a spiritual connection is paramount to him. It provides sustenance, lifting his spirit.

“I feel music comes from the Creator,” he said. “I was 27 and playing with Miles. It wasn’t physical because there was a purpose to the music. I’m not just doing it for me, but for the next generation, too.”

His role, he said, is to play at the highest level, and, hopefully, he will catch the interest of some young people with his message.

His own musical education was “backwards,” he said, because he first learned how to play and then how to read music, which was essential because he wanted to play with big bands. 

“I want to be the consummate musician,” he said. “I don’t play classical sax, but I know the importance of it.”

He practices whenever possible, but sometimes physically practicing gives way to studying. He takes improvement as a serious responsibility. 

“You never get everything and you’re always trying to figure it out,” he continued. “My goal is to inspire people to do better. That’s why I put my energy out in the universe. I’m a motivator, but one day I won’t be able to do it.”

Garrett feels that the NEA recognition is acceptance into a community, and with that comes responsibilities. He was a little surprised by the NEA announcement.

“I thought you had to be older,” he said. “It’s humbling that your peers acknowledge the work you’ve put in.” 

He said 2022 has been a “crazy” year for him because of the recognition his work has received. His latest album, “Sounds From the Ancestors,” was selected by the Jazz Journalist Association as the best record and it also received an NAACP Image Award for outstanding instrumental jazz album. 

“Those things are good,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you want to keep staying inspired.” 

The 2023 Jazz Masters, as well as Sue Graham Mingus, recipient of the 2023 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, will be honored on April 1, 2023, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

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