NEW YORK (AP) – Pianist and broadcaster Ramsey Lewis joined the “in crowd” of Jazz Masters at a gala concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of the awards program for lifetime achievement in jazz sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

“As a musician who has moved through a long career there’s been many awards and accolades bestowed upon me for which I am very grateful, but I must say that the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award outweighs them all by far,” said the 71-year-old Lewis, speaking Friday night to several thousand people filling the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton New York Hotel. “lt’s our country’s highest jazz honor.”

Accepting the award from his mentor and fellow Jazz Master, pianist Billy Taylor, Lewis recalled his early days in Chicago where he used his gospel and classical roots to create his own jazz style in the many neighborhood venues that hired young jazz musicians.

But he lamented that young musicians today don’t have too many places to hone their craft after leaving school. “I challenge you to go back to your local communities and explore ideas for performance spaces so these young up-and-coming musicians will have a venue to perform and find their own voice,” he said addressing audience members taking part in the annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education.

Lewis was among seven Jazz Masters for 2007 who were honored by the NEA. Newly minted masters, who bring to 94 the number of artists honored since the awards were launched in 1982, also include bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi, trombonist Curtis Fuller, flutist-saxophonist Frank Wess, alto saxophonist-composer Phil Woods, vocalist Jimmy Scott, and historian and writer Dan Morgenstern. Each Jazz Master receives a $25,000 fellowship.

“The 2007 Jazz Masters demonstrates how the American art form of jazz has become truly international,” NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said in an interview before the ceremony. “Toshiko Akiyoshi is not only the first Japanese-American who’s ever won the award, but is the first Asian-American.”

Akiyoshi, 77, who came to the U.S. from Japan 50 years ago, was credited for her groundbreaking role in paving the way for Asian-American and women musicians in a career that saw her start out as a bebop pianist and go on to form the innovative Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring her husband, tenor saxophonist-flutist Lew Tabackin, blending Japanese themes into her compositions.

“When I received the phone call from the NEA, I couldn’t believe my ears because Lew always said I am “demographically challenged. … ,’ said Akiyoshi. “I came a long way from being written by some jazz journalists who wrote “I question her authenticity’ to tonight’s highest honor.”

Morgenstern, 77, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, whose parents fled Germany after the Nazis came to power, recalled discovering jazz as an 8-year-old boy in Copenhagen, Denmark, when his mother took him to hear pianist Fats Waller.

“When I came to this country (U.S.) in 1947, I had already behind me the experience of jazz during some of the darkest days of World War II in Europe as a kind of beacon of freedom.” And he offered a favorite quote from pianist Thelonious Monk: “Jazz and freedom go hand in hand.”

Past Jazz Master Nancy Wilson not only took the stage to perform “Old Folks” and “Day In, Day Out” with the big band but also struck a tender note at the start of the evening when she presented the award to her mentor, romantic balladeer Scott, now 81, whom Billie Holiday described as her favorite singer.

Wilson recalled her reaction when her father brought home a Lionel Hampton big band album in 1947 featuring Scott. “My life changed,” said Wilson. “I know where my phrasing comes from … I know about the bending of the word and what the lyrics mean, all of that comes from the heart of Mr. Jimmy Scott.”

In recent years, the NEA has significantly expanded the Jazz Masters program to include a multi-media curriculum for high school students, developed by Jazz at Lincoln Center’s director Wynton Marsalis; funding support for Ramsey Lewis’ “Legends of Jazz” series on public television, and a touring program that this year will bring Jazz Masters to 73 cities in all 50 states.

New this year is “NEA Jazz Moments,” a series of short radio features highlighting such Jazz Masters as pianist Herbie Hancock that have started airing on some of XM Satellite Radio’s major news channels as well as its jazz programs.

“We’re trying to honor great musicians in their own country in their own lifetimes,” said Gioia. “The most important thing we can do for jazz in the United States is to create work for the musicians … because we’ve got a very strong jazz education system that needs to be balanced out by an equally strong performing world.”

AP-ES-01-13-07 1336EST