Latin Jazz Heavyweights Protest Grammy Snub
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."