What’s in a Jazz Award?

Why don’t jazz journalists care about the biggest names in jazz? When Awards are given for jazz excellence, why don’t in-the-know critics applaud the popular musicians, top record sellers and radio playlist stars? 

Two upcoming Awards presentations highlight these questions. The Jazz Journalists Association with a cocktail barbeque buffet on Wednesday June 18 at the Jazz Standard, in Manhattan, hails the jazz aesthetic but risks preaching to the choir. The First International Jazz Awards, advertised as a “two-hour televised extravaganza” hosted by comedian D.L Hughley at the Beverley Hilton in Beverley Hills on June 29, bases its nominations on Soundscan‘s top jazz sellers,” contributing to the tautology “What sells best is best.” Everyone knows that, right? 

Conflict of interest alert: As president of the Jazz Journalists Association, a non-profit organization whose 400 professional members can vote in the Jazz Awards and as producer of the Jazz Awards parties over the past dozen years I’m chin-deep in our initiative. Kitty Sears — a former associate of Marvin Gaye — of Tamar Scarlet Entertainment is the force behind the Los Angeles-based International Awards, hoping to fulfill her dream of producing a globally broadcast Academy Awards of jazz.

There’s some overlap of nominees but not a lot. At a glance, the Jazz Journalists Association’s heroes echo the polls jazz magazines and other insider publications in print and online produce. As the International Jazz Awards delve into music business favorites, they lend exposure of some artists crits typically overlook: On the basis of Elsa Valle‘s rollicking promo vid alone, I’m eager to see this IJA nominee for Latin & Afro-Cuban Outstanding Performance. At their best, Awards should function just that way, turning a listener to new discoveries. 

Do the JJA’s Jazz Awards do that? Considering our limited budget (based on modest sponsorship, some program ads and tickets priced for members at $40, non-members at $100) we probably don’t reach out enough. The IJA’s plans are much more glamorous, promising red carpet coverage of Hollywood A-list attendees, two black tie gala events, and “the talents of international jazz stars,” for a $250 ticket. It its event comes off as intended, it could indeed snare the attention of audiences to whom jazz is hopelessly old and irrelevant.
What’s the dif, and what’s the point of such Awards anyway? Jazz fanatics of all stripes are eager to raise the profile of the art form and its artists, even for the moment such celebrations pierce the greater public’s consciousness. Awards are as valuable as the spirit in which they’re given. Recipients are usually pleased to be celebrated. Conferring bodies feel good to have done their part. For some, there’s the excitement of being involved in a competition. We all know there’s no “best,” really — except in a subjective sense, the best being what we like the most. Jazz journalists are specialists, applauding really special music. The International Jazz Awards promote what Soundscan sales charts say the majority of jazz buyers like, maybe to those who never buy jazz. Good luck with that! But I’m still listening for something different. . . 

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  1. says

    Television? hmmm “television” … rings a bell somewhere. Oh wait, that’s that twentieth-century technology that crumbled when the media monopolies fell to the blog channels in the early Naughties, right?
    Instead of a cakewalk followed by crowning the Zulu King, couldn’t we do something really innovative like having Wynton Marselis and Ornette Coleman trading fours? Oh, wait, no, that was done before, wasn’t it, back in the ’50s … on television. Jack Smight’s “Seven Lively Arts” only it was Basie and Monk, New Orleans trading fours with swing trading fours with hard bop. Nonetheless, I’m sure it didn’t cost nearly as much to produce and was so landmark and educational, the film still makes the playlist today, 50 years later.
    If you ask me, instead of awards, we should launch more general and gentle awareness education programs. Already I see on YouTube how there are more high-school jazz bands (and of a higher calibre) than ever before, and that’s not from some gameshow spectacle dazzle, it’s from the simple fact of experience, the experience of jazz in their lives. I watch Jack Smight introduce Miles, Trane and Gil Evans and I think, “Man, what ever happened to tele-Vision?”
    Just before we finally switched off the box for the last time, there was a new pay-per-infliction channel that called itself Cool-TV or somesuch other. It was full of old cliches and adverts for pop swag. I was so disappointed. All I wanted was a camera and mic on that club where Ethan Iverson just sat in with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, the chance to be there with them, see the living breathing jazz as it happens.
    HM: I’m with you on all this, Gary — and may I mention that Paul de Barros of the Seattle Times has done excellent coverage of local high school bands in his paper, which sent him to NYC a couple weeks ago to cover the Essentially Ellington competition that Jazz at Lincoln Center sponsors — guess what, three of the Seattle bands took high honors. Paul has persuaded his editors that his coverage is akin to coverage of local high school sports teams, which has intrinsic local interest. . . .Now that citizen journalists are supposed to be able to podcast at will, maybe coverage of such high school bands is coming right up. But your question is essentially why is there so little video coverage of jazz anywhere. And I wonder, too.

  2. says

    >why is there so little video coverage of jazz anywhere. And I wonder, too
    Twelve years ago, when the Soviet-era semi-official Minister for Jazz in Russia, Yuri Saulski, was still around, he was asked by one impudent young journalist why on Earth there was no jazz on Russia’s nation-wide Culture TV — where none but Mr. Saulsky was at that time responsible for music coverage. Mr. Saulski, being part of a jazz musician himself (and a well-established traditional pop composer,) said that “it is very difficult to film jazz properly, it requires more experienced cameramen and skilled sound technicians that we have at hand, and is overall too expensive, and I stand firmly against allowing badly pictured and poorly recorded jazz on the TV.” Simply saying, no jazz video was better for him than badly produced jazz video. As a result, almost no Russian jazz from 1992 (when he took that position) to 1998 was documented on video — because Saulski, who undoubtedly wished a greater good, just banned “poorly produced” jazz programming from the nation-wide TV.
    HM: An inspired decision. We wouldn’t want the music’s purity disgraced by mediocre camerawork. This must explain why even today the US Public Broadcast System stations, MTV/VHI and other cable stations refuse to give jazz a spot on tv (kudos to chef Emeril Lagasse for his courage in featuring New Orleans-based percussionist Doc Gibbs & band, who seem pretty comfortable in the studio setting that has indeed most often seemed to work against jazz artists’ comforts and spontaneity).