Jazz Journalist Association 2009 Awards Dinner


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2009 Jazz Journalists Association Awards
Jazz Standard
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 world—the 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 musicians—Anat Cohen, the celebrated clarinetist, and Rudresh Mahanthappa, the fiery alto saxophonist—the 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 overdue—Mark 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.

All art has its patrons, and in a real sense jazz journalists and publicists must be patrons to the musicians that they write about and promote. It is a symbiotic relationship, for without the artist and the music he or she creates, what would we journalists and publicists have to write about? Part of the process of injecting vitality into the music and encouraging expansion of the listener base is to reward the young talent more generously and acknowledge their efforts more openly. Awards are a case in point. We have a tendency to venerate in retrospect or, even worse, posthumously! Who could argue with the choosing an icon, but to go out on a limb and reward an unheralded newcomer takes courage! This plea for recognition of newcomers in no way is meant to slight the veterans; they should be rightly revered and cherished for what they continue to bring to the jazz banquet table. They should be acknowledged with their own distinguished career awards and as such venerated for their body of work. Hank Jones' self-effacing comment about receiving the award for pianist of the year—he said it made him want to work harder—was a testament to the contributions these masters continue to make, contributions for which they certainly deserve respect as well as recognition.

We should, however, admit that it does require some risk-taking on our part when choosing award recipients when they are less well-known and at the peak of their creative powers. To some degree we are all victims of falling in love with the classics, the memorable; the reliable masters who have made their mark and deservedly so. Miles Davis was once queried as to why he stopped playing ballads, and his response was because he liked them too much. Like Miles, we must be courageous enough to let go of what we already know and do all too well; we must push past our tendencies to become too comfortable with the familiar and trusted and be more willing to honor the new and daring or the music will suffer from rigor mortis. New artists that challenge the boundaries, that can bridge the gap between the dedicated and the uninitiated, deserve more of our praise and should be rewarded with meaningful recognition and more representation in awards like the JJA's. This will help infuse new life and a new audience into our ever-shrinking art form.

The proliferation of fine conservatories that concentrate on the music and its history, are producing some outstanding young prodigies who will amply supply us with our new heroes. It remains to be seen where all these talented people will be able to perform. The loss of the JVC Jazz Festival in NYC this year is another severe blow that the music and the artists can ill endure. George Wein, an award recipient, has thankfully returned to the business of producing quality world-class events, but we need more youthful and visionary producers to carry on the tradition he and others like him have championed for so long. It is the mandate of the jazz journalists, jazz producers, jazz activists and jazz philanthropists to be the criers for the music and to create the fire of desire in the minds of a broader public. We need to inspire young people with Woodstock-like events, if necessary, to encourage the rebirth of the community of jazz. We need to demonstrate that jazz is not only wonderful music but that it provides a deeply rewarding experience that communicates great joy and hope, especially in times when the future is so muddied. When we as journalists do our job correctly we stimulate interest in deserving offerings by our enthusiastic and critical reviews. We not only credit the artist for a job well done, but we create the possibility of extending the artist's reach and with it his economic viability. Such enabling helps sustains the entire effort.

The JJA awards event was a wonderful gathering of people of like mind and interest, and I commend Howard Mandel and all of those at the JJA ceremony committee for an outstanding job at an equally outstanding venue, The Jazz Standard. I look forward to the organization expanding its awards outlook toward new artists as a clear path to the longevity and vitality of our beloved music.

Photo Credit

Steven Sussman

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