By now, everyone knows the Grammy Awards — like the Oscars — is a farce, a popularity contest, and free exposure for the overplayed. Watching the three-and-a-half-hour telecast on CBS last night was an exercise in masochism, as every auto-tuned, overrated, youth-oriented somebody paraded around making a spectacle himself. It’s the MTV Awards for suit and ties, supposedly.
Oh there are attempts at creative fusion in the mash-ups of various artists, the more varied the better. Except for a few early stale notes (forgive him, he’s a veteran) between Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk’s reps (Pharrell Williams and Chic’s Nile Rodgers), their segueway from “Get Lucky” to “Another Star” held the hope that the music industry’s not entirely in the back pockets of the mass manufactured studio zombies.
Otherwise, Pink’s still up in the air doing acrobatics, showing off her ample rear depressing the hell out of us with her feel-good trying-for-sainthood lyrics, Katy Perry’s still half-naked and singing terribly off-key (but really, who’s paying attention to her voice? Boy, are you blind?), and Taylor Swift’s still out here trying to prove herself — her indie-emo-punk Fiona Apple emulation was gut-busting bad.
Every major media outlet dutifully vomited out the list of final winners, just as with the official nominees weeks prior in rushed, amplified epithets. They were a predictable list of winners, the same Top 40 names on repeat, not shuffle, on every young high schooler’s iPod: Daft Punk, Lorde, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Bruno Mars, Imagine Dragons, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Jay Z, blah blah blah blah.
When Seattle rapper Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz (“Thrift Shop”) beat out Kendrick Lamar (“Swimming Pools [Drank]”) in best rap performance, heads rolled on Twitter. Even Macklemore felt compelled to privately text an apology to his hero, Lamar, something along the lines of, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech. Then the music started playing during my speech, and I froze. Anyway, you know what it is. Congrats on this year and your music. Appreciate you as an artist and as a friend. Much love.” At once humble, disingenuous (Macklemore later reposted that apology for all to see on his Instagram), and savvy, the rapper without a major studio label wound up with four Grammys, industry validation, and a career set for life if he plays his cards right as another pop star overstaying his welcome.
Afterwards, left to his own thoughts, Macklemore acknowledged that the Grammy voting system left a lot to be desired, with eligible judges out of their league navigating certain categories, like rap. “And I think what people don’t understand, is what the Grammys are. It’s a bunch of people on the Grammy committee, in the industry, that get a ballot,” he told Nadeska Alexis reporting for MTV.com January 27. “I got a ballot this year. Now, as I’m filling out the ballot I’m realizing I don’t know much outside of the genre of hip-hop. So people are filing out bubbles of genres that they don’t know about, and that’s the process of it.”
Guess what that means for the little guy who’s actually quite outstanding in his category but not very well-known to the cross-over, mainstream audience? No Grammy. “Our name was big this year. In terms of the people that are voting on those ballots, we have an unfair advantage due to race, due to the fact that we had huge radio success, due to the fact that our name was circulating more in the pocket [those] of people filling out of their ballot,” Macklemore said. “This is not a RapRadar poll, this is not a 2DopeBoyz poll, this is not a Hot 97 poll, this is the Grammys.”
Jazz, like rap, consistently gets the shaft at music awards shows. While Macklemore was stewing about his rap category not getting any airplay on the Grammys — they appeared onstage twice, once to accept the best new artist award and to perform — all the jazz artists have been suffering this injustice for a lot longer. Of all the aural art forms, jazz and rap should’ve received more respect earlier on in the history of American music, jazz for birthing the collaborative spirit, the improvisations, the fusions, and rap for giving social conscience and beats back to the people, ready and willing to shake up any standards.
Both music categories never see the light of day, so that pop — the nectar of the milquetoast gods — can inherit an embarrassment of extraneous riches (do we really need to split a category into 50 sub-categories so a popular artist has more chances to win?) and mediocre performers can continue to rack ‘em in.
If Macklemore was pissed about the rap diss, he should be a jazz artist. They didn’t even get the official Grammy ceremonies. Oh, they got to watch the stage antics from an audience vantage point. But their categories were unceremoniously shuffled off stage in the pre-telecast and streamed live online at a website nobody pays attention to. The Nokia Theatre (where?!) housed the attendees of the Grammy pre-show, aka where all the serious music happened. Cyndi Lauper, once the pop darling of the main Grammy stage in the 1980s, hosted.
L.A. Times’ Todd Martens chronicled the 2014 Grammy Awards pre-show, echoing the sentiment of many jazz fans. “The Grammy pre-show live stream has just now rescued us from watching the Grammy.com live stream of the red carpet. Don’t misunderstand us, we enjoy watching official Grammy hosts Louise Roe and Andrew Burnette introduce themselves to artists by saying, ‘So, tell us who you are,’ but we’d prefer some jazz.
“And that’s what we received, courtesy of Dave Koz, Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Verdine White. They were all fully clothed musicians, so you’ll never see them on prime-time television. Pre-show host Cyndi Lauper started with a few jokes. She noted that last year’s Grammy live stream was watched ‘by more than 100,000 people, and that’s not including the NSA.’”
This is the pre-show where all the jazz, classical, Christian, Latin rock, rap, Americana, urban alternative, folk, roots, and generally the future of true music fusion hang out. This is also the pre-show where the critically acclaimed jazz storyteller Lorraine Feather (“Attachments”) lost out on best jazz vocal album to R&B-jazz newcomer Gregory Porter (“Liquid Spirit”).
Porter won out, riding the fine line between traditional R&B and jazz. He even had his debut Blue Note record submitted in both categories but took it from Feather and Cécile McLorin Salvant (who should’ve won if we’re being technical here for her raw, pure jazz vocals in the debut “Woman Child”) on the strength of his Motown melody in a mostly misunderstood jazz category. Even L.A. Times music blogger Chris Barton mentioned that fine line as “… Capable of straddling multiple genres.” Stacking the decks? Perhaps.
Another L.A. Times writer, Mikael Wood days before the blessed event, observed Porter’s blurred lines in a frothy review. “Yet one of the album’s tracks, the slow-rolling ‘Hey Laura,’ is also nominated for traditional R&B performance against songs by ‘American Idol’ alum Fantasia and singer-songwriter Gary Clark Jr.
“Speaking at his hotel in Hollywood last week before an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Porter, 42, said with a laugh, ‘I don't know what all these categories mean, man.’
“But his recognition in them speaks to the appealing in-between vibe of Porter’s music, which combines the lithe rhythms and political engagement of Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield with the intricate instrumental interplay essential to jazz.
“It’s a quality that connects Porter to other genre-blurring artists such as Robert Glasper, the pianist who last year beat out R. Kelly and Tyrese for the R&B album Grammy, and the singer Jose James, whose recent ‘No Beginning No End’ pulled as much from D’Angelo as from Andy Bey.”
But is it fair? Why couldn’t the Grammys split yet another category into pieces and have had the uber-talented Porter up for non-traditional fusion jazz vocal album since there’s already a split between traditional R&B and R&B. Right? Feather put more jazz into her “Attachments,” from the vocal harmonizing to the arrangements, to the seasoned players and the solo considerations.
Not all the Grammys were a wash. Winner Herb Alpert (“Steppin’ Out”) remained relevant, along with his smooth jazz colleagues, (Dave Koz, Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair, Richard Elliot, Jeff Lorber, Earl Klugh, Boney James), despite the downgrade to best pop instrumental album. Remember when they were jazz? Black Sabbath won best metal performance for “God is Dead?” Beatle Paul McCartney not only got performance time, but won best rock song for “Cut Me Some Slack,” which he did with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear. Collaboration, people. Led Zeppelin found themselves in classic rock company (David Bowie! Kings of Leon!, Neil Young with Crazy Horse!), taking best rock album for “Celebration Day.”
Best of all, Snarky Puppy and Lalah Hathaway most deservedly won what should’ve been some weird jazz-funk/R&B hybrid for their phenomenal vocal shifting in “Something” as best R&B performance. Their win was somewhat of a surprise to those expecting Miguel featuring Kendrick Lamar (poor guy) in “How Many Drinks?” Another case of limited category confusion, and fixating on one musical moment over an entire experience.
In best jazz instrumental album, it was drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s “Money Jungle: Provocative In Blue,” proving classical jazz still lives, through the reworked movements of Duke Ellington, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus. When accepting her award, she shakily acknowledged her history-making showing as the first woman to win in this category. She beat out the New Gary Burton Quartet, Gerald Clayton, Kenny Garrett, and the Christian McBride Trio. In 2012, Carrington won best jazz vocals (“The Mosaic Project”).
Randy Brecker, a familiar jazz name in the Grammys, took best large jazz ensemble album for “Night In Calisia,” which he recorded with the Włodek Pawlik Trio & Kalisz Philharmonic. Many believe Brecker took it on name recognition alone, considering Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s “Brooklyn Babylon” shook up critics.
Paquito D’Rivera didn’t win best improvised jazz solo with his “Song For Maura,” but that’s okay. D’Rivera And Trio Corrente won best Latin jazz album. So there is a god.
Overall once again, serious music took a backseat to frivolous, but popular noise. And the Grammys were there to give legitimacy to all of it.