The scene outside the New York Institute of Technology Auditorium Monday night suggested a Latin jazz celebration; pianist Eddie Palmieri, pianist/bandleader Larry Harlow, drummer Bobby Sanabria, trombonist Chris Washburne, and trumpeter Brian Lynch milled about. But this wasn’t a concert, nor was it a celebration; it was an informational meeting organized by the New York chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) where the musicians gathered would soon sound off in polite yet impassioned protest of the Grammys’ elimination of the Best Latin Jazz Album category.
Last week, as part of several reforms, NARAS announced a reduction in the number of Grammy prizes to 78, from 109. The changes, which will take effect next year, were being made to ensure “that the Grammy remains a rare and distinct honor, and continues to be music’s most prestigious and only peer-recognized award,” said NARAS president Neil Portnow. The value of a Grammy was in danger of dilution, he explained; the first Grammy ceremony in 1959 honored nominees in only 28 categories, and over the years that number had swelled in an unorganized fashion. “It had become a collage,” he said. Some categories failed to produce a suitable number of entries each year, added NARAS VP of Awards Bill Freimuth. “But [even after the reforms,] every submission will have a home,” he assured.
But where will that home be, and what effects will the move have? Many genre distinctions–traditional blues, Hawaiian album–were eliminated or “merged,” as the NARAS officials put it. The consolidation of categories will particularly affect jazz; it’s lost key categories, a point not lost on drummer Roy Haynes, who was also present. In the case of Latin jazz, the move touched a delicate nerve. One by one, musicians and music-label executives stepped up to testify as to why.
Palmieri, who has won nine Grammy Awards and whose Listen Here! won the category in 2006, described his work within the organization through the years, including serving as a past governor. “This hurts so much,” he said, “I can feel it in my heart. It’s like a Grammy scar.” And he reflected on his first Grammy victory, for Sun of Latin Music, which won the Best Latin Music category in 1975. “It felt like I was representing every Latin-jazz artist in the world that night.”
Sanabria, who has been nominated in the category twice, called the change “an insult. It strikes me as cultural insensitivity,” he said. “It’s the denial of things we’ve worked long and hard to achieve.” Randy Klein, who runs the Jazzheads label, claimed the category changes flew in the face of NARAS’ commitment to music education. “By cutting the Latin-jazz category, we stop mentioning it, stop teaching people what this is,” he said. “A name is important,” added Ileana Palmieri, Eddie’s daughter and an independent music executive. “When it’s tied to an ethnic identity and a cultural tradition, it’s a source of pride.”
The powerful response highlights a conundrum. Most jazz musicians, listeners and critics in the U.S. have long recognized basic signposts to the intersections of Latin music and American jazz: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s work with the Cuban bandleader Frank “Machito” Grillo and with percussionist Chano Pozo in the 1940s; Louis Armstrong’s 1930 recording of the Cuban song “El Manisero”; Creole pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s even-earlier assertion that jazz had to have a “Spanish tinge” to be authentic. Still, Afro Latin culture had widely been regarded as an exotic “other.”
Latin-jazz musicians have celebrated the acceptance in recent years of their music into the broader mainstream jazz canon. At the Grammys, the Best Latin Jazz Performance category was established in 1994, and renamed Best Latin Jazz Album in 2000. Also, there exists a specific awards showcase for Latin music, the Latin Grammy Awards, established in 2000. But many Latin musicians feel that’s a ghetto. “There are no two Oscars,” said Mr. Palmieri, “no two Emmys.” Many within the Latin jazz community feels it important to retain a specific identity not just as a cultural signifier within the mainstream but, especially in the case of the Grammys, to achieve commercial viability. Sanabria noted since that Latin-jazz recordings will mostly compete within the overall jazz category, “We don’t have a chance in hell now.”
On the phone from his office yesterday, Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall-who signed the great Cuban band Irakere to Columbia Records; their 1979 Best Latin Recording Grammy led to American followings for pianist Chucho Valdés and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, among others-groaned as he assessed the new Grammy system. “It is a terrible mistake to eliminate this very valid category,” he said. “It should be reinstated immediately. Grammy recognition was absolutely the key ingredient in building an American market for one of the most exciting avenues of new music, and I don’t know how we would have done it otherwise.”
Portnow defended his organization’s decisions Monday night, saying that the changes were carefully considered-and that they needn’t be permanent. “If you don’t like what they decided,” he said, “throw the bums out of office.” He drew a comparison to Congress: “They didn’t ask you how you felt about the budget, they just voted on your behalf.”
Perhaps the analogy was unfortunate, because Washburne seized on it. “It’s almost like what the Tea Party wants to do-repeal all the things that have happened in the past few decades.” He challenged Portnow’s determination that the “collage” created by 109 categories was problematic. “Of course it’s a collage,” Washburne fired back. “That’s what we are.”