Jazz musicians gather in Oakland to protest changes to the Grammys
on May 10, 2011
Sitting in front of the stage at Yoshi’s, musician Roger Glenn looked up at the portraits of famous players that lined the walls of the legendary downtown Oakland jazz club and was overcome with disappointment. A tear rolled down his cheek as he spoke.
“I felt like my whole life, what I was doing, the history of all the people I’ve known, is meaningless,” said Glenn, as he looked out at 50 musicians, reporters and jazz aficionados assembled before him. Glenn, who plays vibes and flute, has shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie, and his father, a vibraphone player and trombonist, played with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
Glenn and the other men and women at Yoshi’s on Monday had come to voice their displeasure about changes to the Grammy Awards—which will eliminate or consolidate nearly one third of the prize categories, including the award in Glenn’s genre of Latin jazz. The move has struck a deep nerve with artists in New York and the Bay Area, who have voiced concerns that the changes are culturally insensitive, because the eliminated awards include Latin jazz, Native American and Hawaiian music.
When the decision to change the awards was announced by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) last month, it prompted big figures in Latin jazz to speak out, including nine-time Grammy winning pianist Eddie Palmieri and percussionist and five-time nominee John Santos.
“They have the audacity to speak of diversity at the same time that they hypocritically gut the Grammys of the music that best represents the broadness of American musical expression,” said Santos reading from a prepared statement at Yoshi’s on Monday afternoon. “There is no justification for this kind of cultural violence that attempts either out of ignorance or arrogance, intentionally or unintentionally, to further marginalize the music and expression of certain American communities.”
But NARAS officials say that the honors were not gutted but “merged,” combining categories to consolidate accolades for male and female artists into single prizes and moving niche awards into broader categories to reduce the number of prizes from 109 to 78. For example, the awards for Zydeco or Cajun music, Native American music and Hawaiian music will no longer be given, but a larger category of “Best Regional Roots Music Album” will cover all of them. Part of the reasoning for the change, officials said, was to make the number of entries competing for each award more equal, since the old system had some award categories with hundreds of competitors and others had fewer than 40.
“Frankly, I think that if a Latin jazz artist wins Best Jazz Artist, it’s less marginalized than shoving it off to the side in a category called ‘Latin jazz,’” said Bill Freimuth, Vice President of Awards for the Grammys.
But the artists gathered at Yoshi’s said it wasn’t reassuring to learn that all the forms in Latin jazz—which includes everything from tango to big bands and Brazilian music—would now have to complete with more entries for fewer prizes in an awards show where jazz artists often feel overshadowed by pop stars.
“NARAS told us that it was simply too easy to be nominated and win a Grammy in our fields. Really?” said Santos. “So the average Latin Jazz musician who spends a lifetime studying music theory and history, diligently practicing his or her craft, works in clubs, small venues, and is probably a teacher, has it so much easier than a teenage kid with a bad haircut and a video?”
According to Freimuth, the changes were made after two years of study and consideration by various committees that represented diverse genres. But the group at Yoshi’s expressed dismay that the broad membership of NARAS was not involved in the decision, and said that none of them had been consulted. They are circulating an online petition which now has 2,600 signatures, and are demanding the reinstatement of all the awards, and the resignation of NARAS president Neil Portnow and the board of trustees.
In the dim club, sitting in plush booths and at small tables, the gathering of artists listened to Jeff Cressman, a trombonist who plays with Carlos Santana, read a statement from the popular Mexican American rock guitarist. “Latin Jazz artists helped launch and craft countless genres of American and World music and are just as vibrant today as they were at any other point in history,” Cressman said, reading Santana’s letter. “Without Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, João Gilberto and countless others, there would be no Santana.”
According to Freimuth, NARAS is trying to extend an olive branch to the Latin jazz musicians, and is planning to hold private meetings in San Francisco and New York to discuss the artists’ concerns. In the meantime, Friemuth is making a 12-city tour to explain the changes to the awards. He is scheduled to speak in San Francisco Tuesday evening.
Some of the artists who gathered at Yoshi’s are planning to demonstrate at the meeting and express their concerns during the comments. “They are trying to deny our history and our culture,” said Myrna Zialcita, Associate Director of the San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival. “We must not let that happen.”
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