The 2017 NEA Jazz Masters, In Their Own Words Hear how the artists honored by the NEA this year — Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Dave Holland, Dick Hyman and Ira Gitler — earned their stripes and paid their jazz dues.

The 2017 NEA Jazz Masters, In Their Own Words

The 2017 NEA Jazz Masters, In Their Own Words

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2017 NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland, Dick Hyman, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Dr. Lonnie Smith (not pictured: Ira Gitler) at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Dinner, sponsored by BMI, on April 2, 2017. Yassine El Mansouri/Courtesy of the Kennedy Center hide caption

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Yassine El Mansouri/Courtesy of the Kennedy Center

2017 NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland, Dick Hyman, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Dr. Lonnie Smith (not pictured: Ira Gitler) at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Dinner, sponsored by BMI, on April 2, 2017.

Yassine El Mansouri/Courtesy of the Kennedy Center

This year's class of NEA Jazz Masters is as accomplished as they come, with Dee Dee Bridgewater on vocals, Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ, Dave Holland on bass, Dick Hyman on piano and Ira Gitler representing the ranks of jazz journalists. In this episode, Jazz Night in America explores the artists' origin stories: how, why and when they got their starts. Rare, live recordings of Holland and Bridgewater were unearthed from the NPR archive. Hyman joins the program from Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Smith from The Jazz Standard in New York.

The NEA Jazz Masters Award is often described as the nation's highest honor for a living jazz musician. From the first, its program has celebrated a broad aesthetic range — its inaugural class of honorees, in 1982, consisted of bebop icon Dizzy Gillespie, his trumpet precursor Roy Eldridge and the interstellar visionary Sun Ra. As those initial inductees show, the roll call of NEA Jazz Masters has represented striking diversity within the uppermost echelon of achievement in this music.