A pathbreaking composer and saxophonist, a radio host and organizer, a storied bassist, and arguably the most distinguished vocal talent of his generation: These four figures will make up the 2020 class of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, the agency announced on Tuesday.
Jazz’s highest public honor will go to Roscoe Mitchell, Dorthaan Kirk, Reggie Workman and Bobby McFerrin at a ceremony in April 2020. Held at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco, it will be the first Jazz Masters gala in California since 2005. Awardees receive cash prizes of up to $25,000.
In the mid-1960s, Mr. Mitchell became an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago organization that fosters onward-looking black composers and improvisers. Around the same time, he founded what would become the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a performance troupe as much as a jazz outfit, and a band of particular significance to the avant-garde. Mr. Mitchell has written extensively for everything from solo saxophone to orchestra, and he taught for many years at Mills College, where for a decade he was the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition.
Mr. Workman began playing bass for John Coltrane when still in his early 20s, and since then he has enjoyed a career of great consistency and eclecticism. It has included fruitful stints with Art Blakey and Wayne Shorter as well as more outlandish affiliations, such as a long-term partnership with the saxophonist Oliver Lake, a strident free improviser.
Ms. Kirk was already working to support jazz music before the death of her husband, the famed saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, in 1977. But after he died, she recommitted herself. Ms. Kirk became just the third person hired at WBGO 88.3 FM, the only full-time jazz station in the New York region, and has worked there for over 40 years. She has also helped organize and program concerts across the city.
Mr. McFerrin is still best remembered for his commercial smash hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” from 1988, the first a cappella track to reach No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. But throughout his career, he has innovated new roles — and a new sense of potential — for the voice in jazz, classical music, American folk song and much of the space in between.