The Latin Jazz Grammy Travesty

April 24th, 2011

I’ve been meaning to weigh in concerning the recent bombshell dropped by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) over their “consolidation” of Grammy categories. It’s an interesting and disturbing example of contemporary trends in cultural politics, and is raising both passionate discussion and calls for action within a musical family that I’m very much a part of, the Latin Jazz community (many of you are aware that my recording The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project – Simpático won the 2006 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album) . What’s it about, and how are all of us, not just Latin Jazz musicians, affected? Many statements of outrage and resistance have been made since this broke on April 6th. As usual, some of the most intelligent (and provocative) ones have come from Grammy nominated drummer, bandleader, and educator Bobby Sanabria. He’s tied up what happened into a timeline that explains the situation in what I think is its proper perspective, and brilliantly. Below is Bobby’s timeline in its essentials:

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2001 – Progressive Jazz Rock group Steely Dan wins Record of the Year Grammy over Eminem. Hip Hop. Pop music industry/community is in shock

1990’s – to present – Small independent record companies (mostly begun by artists themselves) steadily begin to demonstrate their presence as nominees and winners of Grammys culminating with Multi-Cultural jazz musician Esperanza Spalding’s win for Best New Artist over teenage pop sensation Justin Bieber.

2008 – Jazz legend Herbie Hancock wins Record of the Year Grammy over Kanye West. West’s and his management are incensed. Hip Hop, Pop music industry/community again in shock. NARAS begins secret meetings in earnest after the telecast to explore the possibility of downsizing the Grammy Awards because they have become “devalued” because according to current President Neil Portnow, “The Grammys have become a huge collage.” President Portnow’s own words at NYC Chapter Emergency Meeting, Monday April 11, 2011 – 6pm at New York Institute of Technology Auditorium 61st St. & Broadway, NYC.

2011 – Indie record labels are nominated and win more Grammys than at anytime in the history of the Grammy Awards. Multi-Cultural jazz artist Esperanza Spalding wins Best New Artist Grammy over teenage Pop sensation Justin Bieber. It is the first time a musician wins over an entertainer. Pop music industry and the World in general are in a state of shock.

Immediately after the Grammy telecast Stephen Stoute, an industry insider and employee of Jay Z takes out a FULL one page ad in the New York Times blasting NARAS stating that they are out of touch with current popular society and must be RESTRUCTURED. He insults Esperanza Spalding and the Grammy membership. It was the membership who gave her the win for her incredible musicianship. THE FIRST TIME A MUSICIAN IS CHOSEN OVER AN ENTERTAINER IN THIS CATEGORY. NARAS DOES NOT offer a rebuttal to defend the Academy and/or its members.

Justin Bieber fans begin an anti-Esperanza Spalding campaign that goes viral globally insulting her and Academy thus insulting the membership. Again, no response from the Academy.

Legendary Hip Hop and R&B Producer Jimmy Jam (of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) who is second in command to President Neil Portnow approves ALL category cuts in secret meetings with Grammy Board members in the Los Angeles Mother chapter. The question begs to be asked, how is this person even a Grammy executive? Is there not a conflict of interest?

Black Wednesday – April 6, 2011 – NARAS sends out a mass e-mail to its membership stating to follow a link for a major announcement regarding the Grammys. The announcement states that a RESTRUCTURING (DOWNSIZING) OF THE GRAMMYS HAS BEEN DECIDED UPON. The original 108 categories are now cut by 31. Some categories are CONSOLIDATED into unrelated categories thus giving no chance for independent record companies to compete. For example: Latin Jazz and Contemporary Jazz (two completely different styles) are now consolidated into JUST Best Jazz Recording and Best Large Jazz Ensemble, thus giving Latin Jazz artists virtually no chance to compete for a Grammy. Other categories like Hawaiian, Polka, Zydeco, Cajun, etc. and as a final insult, Native American, are cut. MOST OF THE CUT CATEGORIES ARE ETHNIC CATEGORIES. THE DECISON BY NARAS IS MADE IN SECRET WITHOUT CONSULTING ANY OF ITS MEMBERSHIP OR CITY CHAPTER BOARD OF GOVERNORS.

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A meeting in New York, the first of a number in various locales around the country, was held by NARAS on April 11th to explain these ominous and unexpected changes. Many of us in the Latin Jazz community, including Bobby, Eddie Palmieri, Chris Washburne, and myself, came to the meeting to make our voices heard. Bobby’s chronicle of the meeting is again, a succinct recounting of what went down. You can check it out here: http://www.chipboaz.com/blog/2011/04/14/bobby-sanabria-on-the-41111-new-york-naras-meeting-the-latin-jazz-grammy/

Suffice it to say that we were heard but not especially listened to. The problems that many of us had even being admitted to the meeting, including myself, only accentuated the sense of violation expressed so well by Eddie, Bobby and others in their statements before the audience. I think a lot of lip service was paid to our passion by the NARAS officials (including President Neil Portnow), but to me there was no sense at the end of the meeting that they would entertain any change in their position, or feel any reason to. We were offered the use of NARAS facilities for further meetings (among ourselves), but when I asked the NY NARAS official for her business card to facilitate further contact, I was blown off with a “check the website” bit. I’m not sure they’re too keen on fostering dialogue on this issue; perhaps a waste of time for them since they’ve already made their decision and now are just waiting for the reaction to die down.

Some thoughts at this point:

Bobby’s timeline makes things very clear. The increasing visibility of truly independent artists represented by Grammy Awards and nominations seems to be a threat to the traditional recording industry. The uncertain future of the whole business, challenged by digital media sharing, lack of compelling content, and its own shortsightedness, makes the powers that be flail about looking for a way to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

It’s very disappointing that NARAS appears to have buckled under to this corporate music mentality that seeks to marginalize the independent recording artist and illegitiamize significant musical genres such as Latin Jazz. I think over the last couple of decades we music makers have really thought of NARAS as friends, as colleagues sympathetic to the project of keeping good music alive. It’s hard to feel this way after this diktat, to say the least. How will this breach of trust be reflected in the overall relationship of skilled music makers in our genres to the music/entertainment industry in general? Musicians bred in the genres of Latin music have been very important in the crafting of the sound of the mainstream pop hits of today. What Latin (Afro-Caribbean) and jazz music both share is that their practitioners and those trained in their crafts provide much of the talent base for the actual realization of content in the pop music industry. What this move says to me is “we’ll use your talent but we will not respect where it came from.”

This move is not just a marginalization of the Latin Jazz genre, but a flattening out of the whole Jazz field in the Grammys. The Contemporary Jazz category has been folded into Best Jazz Album as well as the Latin Jazz category. This means that now Chris Botti, Nicholas Payton, and Gonzalo Rubalcalba could all be competing for the same category. Does this make any sense? Guess who wins?

One change in the rules that I think really makes a big (and negative) difference in the Grammy voting process has flown under the radar. Check it out:

In the past, Grammy voters have been restricted to picking a limited number of genres to vote in. (Examples of Genres: Jazz, R&B, Classical, Rap) You could vote for every category in a Genre. (Examples of Categories: Best Jazz Album, Best Latin Jazz Album, Best Improvised Jazz Solo) The reasoning behind this, logically, is that with such a wide variety of musical genres in the business, voters shouldn’t be voting in genres they have no interest in and knowledge of, and having to make a choice will focus them on genres they care about. Now this year, the rules have changed. Voters are now limited to voting for a set number of Categories, which they can mix freely between Genres. Now, (at least the way I understand it) you can vote for a certain category in a genre that normally wouldn’t interest you without having to make a commitment to block voting in that whole genre. My gut feeling is that this move will facilitate campaigns by companies or artists with resources to influence Grammy voting. In other words, say I’m a alternative country singer songwriter. I’m not really interested in jazz. But if my network passes the word that it’s a good idea to vote for so and so in a certain Jazz category because then maybe all the Jazz guys will vote for me… well, maybe I’m just being paranoid but these things sometimes happen.

It’s hard for me to not think about this move by the music industry (with NARAS as its instrument) as being the same kind of anti-democratic, “let the market decide” sort of play that’s going on against labor (like in Wisconsin) and that’s part of the current struggle in our government. It’s the “Shock Doctrine”, disaster capitalism concepts of neo-liberalism as applied to the music business.

Links to articles concerning this issue:

http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2011/04/grammys_latin_jazz_eddie_palmieri_larry_harlow.php

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/13/arts/music/grammy-awards-executive-defends-cuts-in-categories.html

And from the grammy.org website, their mission statement (boldface emphasis added):

“Celebrating music through the GRAMMY Awards for more than 50 years, The Recording Academy continues its rich legacy and ongoing growth as the premier outlet for honoring achievements in the recording arts and supporting the music community. The GRAMMYs are the only peer-presented award to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position. As we move ahead in an ever-changing music environment, The Recording Academy looks forward to the new opportunities of a growing organization. Over the last decade particularly, The Academy has expanded its goals from the important work of recognizing the best in music through the GRAMMY Awards to establishing itself as the preeminent arts advocacy and outreach organization in the country. The Academy’s mission statement is simple, but represents the heart and soul of the organization’s efforts: to positively impact the lives of musicians, industry members and our society at large. The Academy can be proud of its accomplishments on behalf of its constituency. Through the efforts of the volunteer leadership and the capable professional staff, the music community, music lovers and inheritors of America’s great cultural legacy are reaping the benefit.”

Is NARAS living up to their mission statement with this latest move?

 

 

 

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