Support the Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Awards

By Howard Mandel

Somebody ought to stand up for jazz musicians and journalists. Oh, audiences applaud and reader-listeners sometimes compliment the writer, photographer or broadcaster who delivers words, images and the sound of music using whatever medium they happen to employ. But the best jazz musicians and jazz journalists are hardworking, exceptionally creative people who have dug a rich but narrow niche between commercial pop and classically “artistic” culture with slight reward other than their work itself. So they deserve a little extra appreciation—and the Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Awards try to do that very thing.

On June 14, the non-profit JJA, a group of some 400 media professionals covering jazz in the U.S., Canada and beyond, will present honors for the 14th time. The event takes place at City Winery in Tribeca and covers 30 categories of musical excellence and 10 for journalistic accomplishments, plus recognition to “activists, altruists, advocates, aiders and abettors of jazz.”

Honorees receive engraved statuettes, and more than 200 nominees get the bump in public profile that a well-publicized awards program provides. The Jazz Awards serve as a community event, as jazz stakeholders will gather to nosh, quaff and schmooze to musical accompaniment, this year by pianist Ayako Shirasaki, guitarist Rale Micic’s trio, keyboardist Marc Cary’s Focus Trio, saxophonist Tia Fuller’s Quartet and the Bobby Sanabria Big Band. It’s going to be fabulous.

I say that because I’m far from objective about or disinterested in these Jazz Awards. In fact, I couldn’t be more involved: I’m the producer. As president of the Jazz Journalists Association, I co-founded the annual awards initiative 14 years ago in collaboration with Michael Dorf, who in 1997 ran the Knitting Factory and now operates City Winery. Today, putting on the Jazz Awards is my organization’s labor of love—or compulsion. It’s also a JJA fundraiser, which supplements the group’s income from dues with contributions from sponsors, program book advertisers and ticket-buyers. Yes, the Jazz Awards is open to the public, with $150 the price to attend ceremony (starting at 3:30 p.m.) and reception (starting at 5), $75 to attend the reception alone.

The first Jazz Awards, held at Alice Tully Hall, drew a rambunctious crowd of musicians, journalists and jazz industry stalwarts—those record company employees, producers and presenters, publicists, retailers and educators who spin the jazz world ’round. As befits an assembly of expressive, individualistic improvisers, the event was indecorous. While drummer Elvin Jones was onstage hilariously accepting one of the honors, saxophonist Dewey Redman felt free to heckle good-naturedly from the seats. When presenter Stanley Crouch made disparaging remarks about a nominee for Trumpeter of the Year, a palpable chill ran through the audience—and when I confronted him at an after-Awards party about how insulting a nominee was in bad taste, he took a swing at me, which was interrupted by musicians standing nearby, including saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist Matt Shipp.

But even being assaulted by a colleague made for Jazz Awards fun. There is something wondrous about convening highly opinionated critics and resolutely self-absorbed artists, then asking them to sit quietly as representatives of the “best” record, instrumental and vocal endeavors and Lifetime Achievements are announced, to both pleasure and dismay. Jazz polls seeking to elevate and promote the reputations of musicians go back a ways, and used to be a national sport. Remember when voters in the Playboy Jazz Poll routinely named Paul McCartney bassist of the year, and Ringo Starr best drummer?

Jazz magazines like Down Beat (for which I’ve also written for more than 35 years) contain both readers’ and critics’ polls. Decades ago DB gave its winners nice plaques. That practice seems to have ended because it’s hard to track down musicians’ addresses and do them all justice with numerous public presentations. The JJA has addressed this problem by making the Awards a singular event, similar—although on a more modest scale—to that of the Academy Awards, Grammies, Tonys, Bessies, etc.

What establishes our Awards as legit, however, is not an internationally broadcast network television show, trade-paper advertising campaigns and respectful press coverage—rather, it’s the attendance of jazz luminaries, who may arrive in expectation of being winners but don’t leave, I hope, feeling like losers if someone else got the statuette. Musician-nominees who’ve RSVP’d for the Awards show this year range across jazz’s sub-style spectrum: Randy Weston, Joe Lovano, Maria Schneider, Henry Threadgill, Darcy James Argue, Kenny Barron, among others. To the voting JJA members, they are all winners. And so are those of us lucky to hear them. Cue applause!

Get tickets at www.JJAJazzAwards.org, where streaming live video from the City Winery will be featured during the gala.