2009 Jazz Journalists Association Awards
New York, New York
June 16, 2009
On Tuesday, June 16th I was privileged to attend this year's Jazz Journalists Association Awards held at the Jazz Standard in New York City. It was a rare opportunity to meet and mingle with some iconic artists, some up-and-coming musical hopefuls and some seasoned but imaginative scribes who have challenged the world of jazz journalism. As the economy goes, so goes the jazz business. The industry has been taking it on the chin in these contracting economic times. Recent events involving three stalwart institutions in the jazz worldthe shuttering of Jazz Times, the filing for bankruptcy protection by the I.A.J.E. (International Association of Jazz Educators) and Festival Networks showing all signs of teetering on eminent collapse sent shock waves rippling through an industry that already has many challenges to face. This night was a time of celebration, acknowledgment and some reflection.
As a relative newcomer to these proceedings, I found that the median age of the crowd was a signpost for the problems that need to be addressed by this industry if it is to survive let alone prosper. Despite the inclusion of some young and talented musiciansAnat Cohen, the celebrated clarinetist, and Rudresh Mahanthappa, the fiery alto saxophonistthe winners in their respective categories are just two examples of the youth and vitality of the new guard: the majority of the awards went to well- deserving but clearly elder statesmen of the jazz world.
Indeed, at times the event seemed dominated by giants. The venerable and still young-hearted at 91 years of age Hank Jones won pianist of the year and accepted the photograph of the year award on behalf of Kris King. Lee Konitz, who is approaching 82, won the lifetime achievement award for his distinguished body of work on alto saxophone. Octogenarian Frank Wess, the flautist of choice by the jazz journalist voters, was also in attendance. Iconic but absent seventy-nine-year-young Sonny Rollins took top honors for tenor saxophone. In a medium that has few stars and many worthy contributors, some of these awards are long overdueMark Murphy's Special Career Honor's Award for Words in Music was one case in point. These fine musicians were deservedly recognized for their achievements both this year and throughout their long and storied careers. Also in attendance were the grand dame of song, Sheila Jordan, the rising chanteuse Roberta Gambarini, maestro of guitar Gene Bertoncini, award winners Billy Bang for violin, Kurt Elling for male vocalist, Terence Blanchard for trumpet, Roswell Rudd for trombonist and Gary Smulyan for baritone saxophone, Dr. Lonnie Smith for organist of the year and Carla Bley for record of the year.
There were also many producers, publicists, philanthropists, record executives and of course journalists on hand to fill out the audience. I am sure there were other notables that I simply missed in all the excitement. The live music provided by a variety of artists began with a stirring performance by the Charles Tolliver big band to the delight of all.
As I was enjoying the proceedings, one thing became increasingly clear: jazz as a viable musical alternative to the more popular musical genres has to create a message that can grab the uninitiated by the lapels and yank them into the fold. We will always have the dedicated faithful, but it will take a combination of compelling music as well as smart marketing to expand the fan base. It is often thought that jazz is a musician's music, too complicated or technical to be appreciated by the casual listener. This is hardly the case, but the perception must be dealt with and the myth destroyed. This is part of the responsibility of jazz journalism. We as a community must not take the elitist tact that if the music is good enough it will find its own audience. Such an assumption unfortunately amounts to dangerous hubris.