Thielemans, whose harmonica has been heard by generations of children on the "Sesame Street" opening theme, said he got hooked on jazz during the German occupation in the 1940s, when he first heard recordings of Armstrong with the Mills Brothers.
"How are you going to follow that?" quipped another new Jazz Master, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, 81, who took the stage Friday night at the Rose Theater right after Thielemans to perform the ballad "Body and Soul" with the orchestra.
Thielemans is the first European-born musician, harmonica player and baron (he was given the title in 2001 by King Albert II of Belgium) to be named an NEA Jazz Master. He recalled the warm welcome he received from African-American jazz musicians after he settled in the U.S. in 1952 - from singer Dinah Washington, who cooked him a soul food dinner, to pianist Billy Taylor, who let him sit in with his band at a New York club while he was waiting for his musicians' union card.
"I figured he was going to play the guitar, but he pulled out his harmonica and he just killed all of the people who heard him at that time, because nobody was playing jazz harmonica like that," said Taylor, a 1988 Jazz Master, in presenting the award to Thielemans.
Benson, 65, recalled his humble roots in Pittsburgh as he thanked his stepfather, who hand-made his first electric guitar when he was a teenager and introduced him to Benny Goodman's recordings with electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian.
Benson, whose singing on such crossover pop and R&B hits as "This Masquerade" later overshadowed his earlier work as a straight-ahead guitarist, then displayed some swinging jazz chops when he performed the ballad "Stella By Starlight" with the orchestra.
The ceremony also recognized the other 2009 Jazz Masters: drummer Jimmy Cobb, 79, who played on such landmark albums as Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" and John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" but was also known for his sensitive accompaniment of vocalists Washington and Sarah Vaughan; and Snooky Young, 89, the veteran big band trumpeter whose career includes a 25-year stint with Doc Severinsen's "Tonight Show" orchestra.
Rudy Van Gelder, the first recording engineer to be named a Jazz Master, was honored for his work on such seminal recordings as Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and Sonny Rollins' "Saxophone Colossus."
The stylistically versatile JALC orchestra was able to accomodate requests from each new master. Cobb sat in on drums to play "Can You Read My Mind," John Williams' love theme from the 1978 "Superman" movie, and Van Gelder was recognized with "Stolen Moments" from the 1961 Oliver Nelson album "The Blues and the Abstract Truth."
This year marked the first time that Jazz at Lincoln Center hosted the Jazz Masters awards ceremony, which was a centerpiece of the annual International Association for Jazz Education convention before that organization declared bankruptcy this year.
"We're honored to do it because it's in direct line with our mission," said trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, JALC's artistic director, in an interview before the ceremony. "We have a history and a tradition of playing with the masters and of respecting the great contributors to the art form."
Dana Gioia, who will be stepping down as NEA chairman in January, expanded the Jazz Masters program during his six-year tenure by doubling the number of honorees each year from three to six, sponsoring tours by Jazz Masters and producing short features for broadcast on Sirius XM Radio.
With JALC, the NEA developed a Web-based jazz curriculum that has reached an estimated 7.5 million students since its launch in January 2006.
"Jazz is America's greatest single musical tradition," Gioia said in an interview, "and I don't see the purpose of having a National Endowment for the Arts unless jazz is one of the things that we support seriously."