Bestowing awards on what matters
If you were to have walked into the Blue Note at 4 p.m. on June 20, you’d have heard guitar wiz Gabriel Marin improvising microtonal figures with a Middle Eastern tinge on double-necked guitar, electric bassist John Ferrara by his side. You could have grabbed a bottle of Brother Thelonious ale and plate of appetizers and, spying a friend across the room, navigated a mass of famous musicians, music journalists and significant others from the inner circles of the jazz industry/community, then schmoozed until MC Josh Jackson from WBGO introduced local “jazz heroes” Robin Bell-Stevens, executive director of JazzMobile, and Adrian Ellis, late of Jazz at Lincoln Center. You’d have been at the 2012 Jazz Awards.
Jazz honors are bestowed publicly in New York City twice a year: in January, when the National Endowment of the Arts celebrates Jazz Masters, and in June, when the Jazz Journalists Association hails excellence in music and media.
The JJA gala cocktail party, open to the public—with 13 related parties from Auckland, New Zealand, to Tucson, Ariz.—is a grassroots initiative produced by the music’s professional observers and biggest fans. Awards include Lifetime Achievement, Up and Coming Musician of the Year, Players of the Year for all instruments and Best Record, Book, Blog, Periodical and Website. Winners are selected through two stages of voting by the organization’s journalist members.
We (I’m president of the JJA) provide food, wine, beer and entertainment—this year, alongside Marin and Ferrara, were the Organ Monk Quartet and singer Paulette McWilliams with pianist Nat Adderley Jr. The awards are announced and presented from the stage. Party favors include new CDs. A good time is had by all.
But why? Isn’t media attention, paying gigs and applause enough to thank jazz people for what they do?
Well, no. Most artists crave attention, and maybe especially jazz musicians, for whom the main rewards of the American entertainment industry—money and fame—are remote, but who strive to be productive, creative and expressive anyway. Then there’s the fact that almost everybody loves a party, and the JJA’s New York City Jazz Awards party is one of the few opportunities for players, pundits, producers, presenters and devotees to share face time without being shushed ’cause there’s a gig going on.
But the real reason we hold the Jazz Awards is to make some noise about jazz itself. This great American art form underlies nearly all American music made today, a point seldom articulated by the NEA, the Grammies or other entities promoting culture here and now, but demonstrably true.
Why jazz is overlooked and underappreciated is a topic worthy of discussion; I think it’s taken for granted. Americans are improvisers by nature. We dig elegant and hard-driving rhythms. Given a basic melody line, we belt it out our way. That’s jazz, folks, as vital a base of our social interactions as democracy and freedom of speech or action. Of course we should applaud those who do jazz best, and those who let us know about them. Praise jazz!
Contact Howard Mandel at firstname.lastname@example.org