What’s in a Jazz Award?

Finalists for the 14th annual Jazz Awards presented by the Jazz Journalists Association are up at JJAJazzAwards.org. See and hear who critics like. These are our Pulitzer Prizes.

There’s a lot of excellence represented by 187 nominees in 41 categories of achievement in music-making and music documentation — the JJA being the only organization (since ASCAP decided it couldn’t afford to give any more Deems Taylor Awards) to recognize the efforts of scribes, photogs, deejays, bloggers, websites, periodicals and book authors as well as jazz legends, newbies, instrumentalists, composers, ensembles and recordings. The JJA comprising some 400 media-savvy ultrahipsters (60 of whom filed nominating ballots), this is a much more detailed and refined list than the Grammys put forth. And jazz awards don’t rate the Grammy’s spotlight. The JJA, on the other hand, holds a gala presentation event and reception (with Brother Thelonious Belgian Ale, the beer that gives to jazz education) this year at City Winery, NYC, in the third week of June (a last minute snafu has put the exact date in question; watch this space for news updates).

Here are clips of four multiply-nominated finalists, whose appearance below does not constitute my vote or singular endorsement . . . but I do like them all. 
Darcy James Argue is up for Composer of the Year, Arranger of the Year, Large Ensemble of the Year (his Secret Society), Record of the Year for Secret Society’s Infernal Machines,  his first ever release — and so, not surprisingly, Up & Coming Artist of the Year. Darcy maintains an jnteresting website, too. 

Henry Threadgill, of whom I’ve written a bit, is nominated as Musician of the Year, Composer of the Year, for Record of the Year (This Brings Us To, Vol. 1) and Small Ensemble of the Year (his quintet Zooid). What’s below ain’t Zooid, but I can’t resist the clip of his never-commercially-recorded Society Situation Dance Band (from ’88) with solos by the late John Stubblefield on soprano sax and Charles Burnham in the violin section next to the late Leroy Jenkins —

Steve Lehman, improviser and composer, has been nominated for Composer of the Year, Alto Saxophonist of the Year, and Record of the Year for Travail, Transformation and Flow, which explores at length the “spectral harmony” he mentions in this clip:

Vijay Iyer, pianist and conceptualist, has a breakthrough album in Historicity, nominated as Record of the Year and lifting him to consideration as Musician of the Year, Composer of the Year, Pianist of the Year and Small Ensemble of the Year for his trio, seen below in their studio session — 

Just a touch of the talent the Jazz Journalists Association’s members have been digging — go to the ballot for more new music from now. And please weigh in on whether these Awards are any more esoteric than the Pulitzers for Music, Drama, Fiction, Poetry or Music (dig, though, the special citation for Hank Williams, who died in 1953 but so lives on).

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  1. says

    JJA’s award is “our” Pulitzer Prize?
    Are you serious?
    Don’t you think that—in your eagerness to hype your group—you might be exaggerating its importance just a little bit?
    HM: Thanks for asking about this, Chris. By “our Pulitzer” I may have exaggerated a bit, but I meant the JJA’s Pulitzer, not the larger jazz world’s (that’s for the jazz world to decide). And I slipped in that exaggeration because a source at the NYTimes told us the Awards would NOT be covered because it’s too much an “insiders” initiative.
    That riles me, because the Pulitzer Prizes is an insider initiative, hyped to be taken as a genuinely independent honor. Let me explain: Committees in each category of the Pulitzer Prize confer Awards on nominees who are put up by publishers of newspapers and magazines. There is no democracy in action there, and though many of the honors go to outstanding work, they are conferred as insiders’ Prizes. This is one reason why the Pulitzers for arts categories such as music, fiction and drama often go to obscure or arcane works. I do not mean to denigrate the composers, authors and playwrites, or the panels that determine Pulitzer recipients (unless they are overruled, as has often been the case and happened again this year with the drama award — the committee overruled by the Pulitzer board).
    I guess my comment was itself too much an inside joke to be understood without this explanation. But I do believe that the JJA Jazz Awards are more meaningful to the jazz world in general than the Grammies and that the voters represent a broader group of jazz journalists than vote in the Down Beat Critics Poll. Can you name another set of Jazz Award conferred by informed voters? Fellowships from the MacArthur, Alpert, Guggenheim foundations are not comparable; the JazzPar Award was suspended in 2004; Tamar Entertainment’s “International Jazz Awards” have never occurred though they maintain a high Google ranking; the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards by definition limit the jazz field; there is an American Smooth Jazz Awards scheduled to take place in October 2010, presented by Scott & Company Music Group in Michigan City, Indiana (anyone know anything about this?); in the UK the London Jazz Awards and BBC Jazz Awards do not include much if any US jazz. So what do YOU think are the Pulitzers of the jazz world?

  2. says

    I’ll answer your very last question first. I don’t think any award is another field’s Pulitzer equivalent. Frankly—with the possible exception of the Oscar—I find mantlepiece awards to be of little or no consequence to a career. The fact that there are now so many of these statuettes and that they are given out indiscriminately (so it seems, at least) reduces them to one evening’s pat on the back. For obvious reasons, awards that include money are a different matter.
    I lost any respect I might once have had for the Pulitzer when they gave it to Wynton Marsalis for a truly mediocre work, and had yet to honor Duke Ellington. John Lewis was on the board, so I asked him if he really thought Wynton’s “Blood on the Fields” merited a Pulitzer. He smiled and, with a wink, told me that it was “political.”
    When it comes to Grammys, I have seen first-hand, from the inside, how record companies get together and throw votes to each other. Did I deserve my Grammys? No, and I would not have received them were it not for the fact that my work was done for Columbia.
    I realize that it is almost impossible to give out these things fairly. The pop music business is essentially a popularity contest the outcome of which is determined by bottom lines. Forget about Grammys and jazz, NARAS is a pathetic organization that very quickly forgot those who made it possible. It is quite telling that the best music heard at this year’s Grammy Awards show was that which accompanied the death roll.
    I think it is good that jazz performers are given some sort of recognition, and I see nothing wrong with rewarding obscure or arcane works. Artistic merit and promise are far nobler criteria than public popularity and sales figures. Knickknacks don’t cut it. If the recipient is well established, such a trophy is not going to make any difference to him or her—sad to say, the well established are, in the main, those for whom people vote. I think that organizations such as yours would be far better off if they limited the honors to one or two winners, made it a cash award, and injected the selection process with a heavy dose of artistic judgement and integrity. That would make the annual event more meaningful to us all, including the now-disinterested press. You could still have your dinners or whatever it is you have, but make them fund-raising events for some truly useful prizes.
    I’m sorry to be so critical, Howard, but you should know that my disgust is not aimed at JJA alone. I am sure that JJA’s intentions are the best, but I think there is a better way.
    How about an award beyond awards? :)
    HM: Chris, your criticism of the JJA’s Jazz Awards focuses on criticism of NARAS and the Pulitzers. Like the Academy Awards, the Emmies, the Tonys, the Bessies, and, yes, the Jazz Awards, these are insiders voting for their colleagues. I’m proud to report that the Jazz Awards have consistently been given to people who genuinely represent artistic excellence over vast audience popularity or commercial success. And according to many of the recipients AND EVEN NOMINEES, the Awards are worth more than an evening’s pat on the back. Validating well-established jazz musicians may not seem like much of a gain for them, but the validation of jazz musicians when they weren’t so well established or fell away from the public eye (I’m thinking of Andrew Hill, Maria Schneider, Matt Wilson, Scott Robinson, Roswell Rudd, Arturo O’Farrill, Bobby Sanabria) or are up ‘n’ comers has been met with gratitude. And the same goes for the journalists who the Jazz Journalists Association has honored — the spotlight seldom falls on these people, and to focus attention on their works brings higher profile to the entire profession. That’s why the JJA does these Awards, especially cognizant that no other institution or organization offers comparable recognition.

  3. Ken Dryden says

    While Howard’s use of Pulitzer may have been a bit of hyperbole, at least the Jazz Journalist Awards go to deserving musicians rather than reflecting commercial interests or insider politics. Trying to lobby JJA members to vote for a particular artist or release would be as successful as herding cats.
    In recent years both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes have awarded very undeserving individuals at times.