Things have been rough at NARAS, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. You probably couldn't tell, not with their two big buildings and a brand new museum and certainly the Awards telecast with all its rock stars and movie stars and high priced commercials. That thing alone looks like a gold mine.
Not so. For one thing, they've been trying to dump one of those buildings ever since they moved into their fancier new digs. And the Museum ain't exactly a cash cow. Ratings for the awards ain't what they used to be, and scariest of all, dues paying membership has plummeted by 25%. Something is wrong. So NARAS took a long hard look at what needed to be cut. Looked at what was essential and what not essential. They looked at their two buildings and they looked at their museum. They finally came to one conclusion. Too many statues.
So they cut 31 categories. But Latin Jazz got it the worst of all: The Academy declared it doesn't exist.
The Academy prefers to think of it as consolidating. For example, Zydeco, Polka, Hawaiian and Native American were replaced by the Regional Roots Music category. That's three less statues right there. Blues and folk are were reduced to one each. Just about anything ethnic was cut back.
Latin Jazz only had one award anyway, just one statue, but that was one too many, so the Best Latin Jazz Album award was eliminated. They laid it out bluntly: “The distinction between Latin and non-Latin jazz was restructured … these entries will go to Vocal Album, Instrumental Album or Large Jazz Ensemble Album, depending upon content.” Basically, as NARAS sees it, Latin jazz is just jazz with a few too many drums. Somehow the entire history of Latin Jazz, and the fact that it is a distinct American music form in itself and not just “large ensemble jazz” or a jazz vocalist with a Cuban accent, was tossed out the window. Musicians who've spent their lives playing this suddenly non-existent music were infuriated. In disbelief they rattle off the same historical litany to anyone that will listen: Mario Bauza, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, Machito, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Chucho Valdes, Jerry Gonzalez…. “This decision is a slap in the face to all of them” Pete Escovedo said. “Like all that they did meant nothing.”
Academy officials do seem confused about this whole Latin Jazz thing. According to Bobby Matos, when the five time Grammy nominee John Santos asked in what category he should enter his new Filosofia Caribena, Grammy officials said it would be included the vocal album category. But why? Well, your compositions include Caribbean chanting. Chanting is singing. Singing qualifies the album in the vocal album category. Santos was speechless. Now anyone who's actually heard Caribbean chanting knows that Dianna Krall doesn't come to mind. Nor Bobby McFerrin. Hell, not even Dwight Trible. Apparently the academy hadn't thought through all the details. Or even bothered to listen.
It's the not listening, more than anything, that is so infuriating to these musicians. Read through all the handouts, emails, the news stories in the paper, online, on TV, the posts on Grammywatch.org, hear the angry outbursts on radio, on stage, or on the phone, and they cannot believe that NARAS president Neil Portnow and his team seem so completely ignorant of just what Latin Jazz is, and what is has been for six or seven decades now. Or that Portnow and crew simply do not comprehend just how rude and disrespectful a decision this is.
A bunch of well known Latin Jazz musicians decided it was time to return the love and showed up to picket the NARAS Executive Board meeting at the Beverly Hilton. Nice place. Security wouldn't let the musicians near it. So they went out to the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica and raised holy hell, waving signs, chanting, banging on agogos and bongos and blowing horns. The media was out in force, interviewing everybody, getting great video for the night's news.
Two time Grammy winner Oscar Hernandez looked up at the Hilton and despaired just for a moment. “It's like nothing we do means anything” he said. “It's like my two Grammys were for nothing.” A car went by, honking its horn, and he snapped out of it. “But we'll show 'em!” He laughed and waved at the cars. Another honked. And another. Bobby Matos started beat out a furious a clave on the cowbell and a pair of trumpeters played a ragged “El Manisero.” It was a party again. Deep inside the bowels of the Beverly Hilton, Neil Portnow could hear nothing.
Brick can be reached at email@example.com