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Jazz Centennials: Legends At 100

Lester Young gave Billie Holiday her nickname: "Lady Day." (Library of Congress via flickr.com)

Jazz has no shortage of celebrated masters. Historical markers and cultural figures — births, deaths, pivotal releases, Ken Burns — give record labels a chance to highlight old legends in new ways seemingly every year.

This is a bountiful year for centenary festivities, so expect some prime mining of catalog classics from the glory days, resurfaced for an audience still hearing this music for the first time — which is pretty cool, when you get right down to it. Naturally, it's also a chance for another layer of repackaged artwork to frame the source material, not to mention new liner notes about the old liner notes. In that centennial spirit, Take Five presents some old wine in a new bottle with six great Americans who would have turned 100 in 2009.

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Ben Webster

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived saxophonists like Ben Webster: a nascent insurgent of swing, an explorer of a personal sonority on an instrument that was just getting a toehold in recorded music. Webster has an unmistakable sound: Bunyan-esque when stomping on blues timber, butterfat when poured onto a ballad. The tenor saxophonist was a Kansas City swing frontiersman who played in Benny Moten's Band with Count Basie, soloing in the top-flight swing orchestras of the 1930s and glowing in the limelight of Duke Ellington's greatest band. By the time he recorded "Sunday" with the Oscar Peterson trio, Webster had the kind of confidence and maturity that jazz players covet.

Johnny Mercer

Johnny Mercer's great talent was language and words, the raw material of storytelling. Mercer wrote more than a thousand songs, and he collaborated with melody makers from the golden age of popular song. He penned Tin Pan Alley classics, Broadway banners and Hollywood staples. Mercer's lyrics were the product of a down-home sophisticate who imbibed on big-city cosmopolitanism, but he never left the poesy of sentimental Scottish ballads, everyman folk narrative and idiomatic African-American culture of his childhood in Savannah, Ga. Mercer also founded Capitol Records. He sings one of the few songs he didn't write with one of the label's biggest stars, Nat "King" Cole.

Art Tatum

Ask 10 jazz musicians to name the greatest piano player of the 20th century. Nine will say Art Tatum, and somebody's a liar. Tatum's virtuosity didn't always work well in a group setting, but his advancements in harmony, coupled with a near-flawless technical execution, remains undiminished today. Listening to his solo piano recordings even now (admittedly, in recommended small doses), you can hear the freedom in the way Tatum embellished a melody with his own immediate variations on stride rhythm. "Too Marvelous for Words" is one of many dizzying re-arrangements for two-handed orchestra in real time. It's pure genius on display.

Benny Goodman With Lionel Hampton

Who could have guessed that a clarinet player could be the king of anything? Benny Goodman enjoyed a remarkable career as an ambassador of music — the benevolent "King of Swing" — and he introduced jazz to millions of people who loved to dance. Goodman popularized the music of a talented writer and arranger, Fletcher Henderson, and he integrated his band while the rest of America was still yoked to segregation. Frankly, the music deserved the best, and Goodman's units delivered with hairsplitting precision. In "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas)," Goodman's quartet with pianist Teddy Wilson, drummer Gene Krupa and the irrepressible jazz vibraphone master Lionel Hampton (also turning 100 in 2009) makes an inspiring sound.

Lester Young

The more you listen to Lester Young play the tenor saxophone, the more you'll appreciate what makes jazz great — the idea that someone with talent and technique can take a language of sound and execute an instant personal narrative seemingly out of whole cloth. Coleman Hawkins may have kicked open the door to improvisation on the tenor saxophone, but Young left the window open for musicians to find something else: an infinite and implied universe of self-expression in rhythm. After Count Basie tickles the first chorus of George Gershwin's "Oh Lady Be Good," Young plays one of jazz's undisputed perfect solos.

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