Reflections on classic jazz


January 21, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announced its Grammy Award nominations for jazz earlier this month.

And almost immediately afterward, Baltimore radio announcer Joe Lee shook his head in sorrow.

"I go through this every year," said Lee. "Every year, it's the same old thing. I just don't think the serious jazz musicians and the serious jazz bands get the recognition they deserve.

"Look at the nominations," he continued, "David Grusin? Chick Corea? David Sanborn? I don't want to take anything away from their music, but I can't understand how they could get honored when other deserving musicians did not.

"There were some truly magnificent pieces of music out this year, stuff that will become classics. Charles Fambrough, for instance, is a magnificent bassist who put out a CD, "Proper Angle," that is unbelievably hot. Then there was a young saxophonist, Rickey Woodard, and "California Cooking" and Kenny Barron's "Quickstep," which is really good.

"Not to mention a three-volume collection, "Soul Gestures-Southern Blue" by Wynton Marsalis, which features some of the best stuff he has ever, ever done. I just can't understand how they could have been ignored."

Lee is the program director at radio station WEAA-FM and host of its morning show from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

He is an aficionado of classic, mainstream jazz and his morning show reflects it: The melancholy lament of an alto sax, the throbbing bass, the whisper of brush against cymbals. Vocalists such as Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstein who ply their voices like musical instruments.

And, generally speaking, that is the type of music honored this year by the academy.

David Sanborn's electronic "Another Hand" received two nominations -- for best jazz instrumental solo and best jazz instrumental performance by a group.

But the academy also honored David Grusin's acoustic release, "The Gershwin Connection," which was nominated for best jazz performance. A cut from the collection, "How Long Has This Been Going On?", was nominated for best instrumental solo.

The academy also recognized Lionel Hampton's "Lionel Hampton and the Golden Men of Jazz Live at the Blue Note," which many considered one of the hottest new jazz releases of the past year. Oscar Peterson's "Saturday Night at the Blue Note" and Joe Sample's "Ashes to Ashes" also received nominations.

Mel Torme, Bobby McFerrin, Natalie Cole, Shirley Horn and the Manhattan Transfer were among those nominated for best jazz vocal performance.

What we have here, of course, is a classic example of the debate between supporters of traditional, mainstream jazz that is generally played on acoustic instruments vs. the jazz hybrids such as fusion and jazz rock that are siphoned through electronic keyboards and drum machines and synthesizers and mixers.

Jazz purists will never be happy until the new stuff is shunted off into its own special category -- maybe something like "best manipulation of a computer."

"Jazz," Lee said reverently, "is an art form with a certain style and format generally played on acoustic instruments, where you take a basic melody and build endless improvisations on it. I'm not trying to limit what anyone can play or anything, but when you add drum machines and all of that, you debase the music."

Then there is the issue of control.

Jazz is an art form created and largely practiced by black men and women. But the decision-makers of the recording industry remain, of course, predominantly white and male. The majority of the academy's 7,500 voting men and women are white, and many have charged that they tend to favor the music of white artists, even in the jazz category.

"You can even take a look at the so-called jazz magazines," noted Lee, "an African-American artist is going to be hard pressed to get on the cover."

The academy will announce the Grammy winners during a nationally televised ceremony at Radio City Music Hall Feb. 25 in New York.

The results in the jazz category will be interesting, of course, but Lee offers the best advice every day at the end of his morning program.

"Support the art form," he exhorts his listeners, "attend a live performance tonight."

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