The annual National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters awards ceremony and concert is not a referendum on the current state of jazz; it celebrates older heroes, as it is meant to. But there have been a lot of subplots in the long story of the music, and the emphasis of the event changes according to who’s being inducted, through their performances and their speeches.
This year’s edition, on Monday night at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, honored the pianist and composerCarla Bley, the tenor saxophonistGeorge Coleman, the tenor saxophonistCharles Lloyd and the Chicago club owner Joe Segal, proprietor of the Jazz Showcase and a presenter of live music in that city for nearly 70 years. (Mr. Segal was born in 1926; the others were born between 1935 and 1938.)
The concert was divided evenly between strict, almost classical lessons in bebop, and all the approaches that lie beyond it — ways of adding one’s original voice and even one’s limitations into jazz’s 100-year continuity. The evening evoked, now and then, what there is to be known about the spirit of jazz in, say, the early 1960s, when musicians either followed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as absolute truths or made up their own uncertain destinies — basically, whether to be insiders or outsiders.
Outsider-ism is built into Ms. Bley’s history. She moved to New York from Northern California in 1953, a lapsed young pianist and composer who checked coats and sold cigarettes at jazz clubs before starting to write music for her first husband, Paul Bley. (Female instrumentalists at the top levels of jazz weren’t common back then.)
She spoke about her early experiences of learning from the work of Count Basie’s arrangers from the position of an employee at the Birdland jazz club, and about working with open expectations.
“I really don’t care what the package is, what the format is,” she said of her music. “I just grab the tune by the horns.” She added, “And I’m getting good at it, I think.”
With her current quartet — including her partner, Steve Swallow, on bass — she played the easy-swinging piece “Ups and Downs,” full of chord changes and Thelonious Monk-like serenity.
Mr. Coleman was introduced by the saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who told a funny roundabout story about the Joe Louis-Tony Galento fight in 1939 to describe Mr. Coleman’s competitive prowess. Mr. Coleman, who turned 80 last month, is an insider, and showed it in three tunes with his quintet that were full of generous blues and concise bebop phrases.
Mr. Lloyd, like Ms. Bley, has outsider tendencies; he’s rooted in John Coltrane and Lester Young, but he’s looking for ways to connect to wider and older traditions beyond jazz. Like Mr. Coleman, he comes from Memphis, which he described as “a strange place to be born.” He spoke of learning from his local friends and heroes Phineas Newborn Jr., Frank Strozier and Booker Little (“he knew the eternal verities”), and avowed that he wasn’t nearly as good as Mr. Coleman as a teenager.
“But I still persevered,” he said, “because I love music so much.” His set of new music, from his album “Wild Man Dance,” worked through lyrical and free-time sections and intimated a sense of searching without a set outcome. It included his current quartet as well as two string players from beyond and before jazz — Sokratis Sinopoulos, on the Greek lyra, and Miklos Lukacs, on the Hungarian cimbalom.
Mr. Segal was honored by hard-core bebop players: the saxophonist Ira Sullivan and the pianist Stu Katz from Chicago, and the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, originally from Philadelphia. (Ray Drummond played bass, and Jimmy Cobb played drums.) They performed Parker’s “Dewey Square,” prefaced by the most straightforward kind of thanks a working musician like Mr. Sullivan, who is 83, could give.
“Joe Segal has been booking me since I was 18 years old,” he said. “By virtue of that, I have played with every major jazz musician in the world.”
Correction: April 23, 2015
A Critic’s Notebook article on Wednesday about the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters awards ceremony, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, misstated the surname of an honoree at one point in some editions. As the article correctly noted elsewhere, he is Joe Segal, not Glaser.