May 27, 2011
As a lot of you may know, I’m heavily involved in the fields of Latin Jazz and Afro-Caribbean music. Afro Caribbean music and its marriage to Jazz (most call this Latin Jazz) excites me. All of the thousands of rhythms of its great tradition are infectious to me. Afro Caribbean music gets me up in the morning. I find myself dancing its rhythms and steps in the mirror at any given time for no apparent reason.
It’s a major part of my career as a musician. I’ve studied it and made the most important friends in my life because of it. I compose it and arrange it. I teach it everyday to coming generations of musicians. I get to watch on satisfyingly as students get the hang of playing a rhythm in clave and get really excited about it. They take it home with them and create their own variations and gestations. They come back with their own melodies, based on these rhythms. Few things in life satisfy me more than that.
In addition to my own projects, I get to tour and perform with the major figures that are standing behind the current protest to the categorical cuts in the Grammy awards. In the next month alone, I will have the humble honor to perform with 9-time Grammy Winner Eddie Palmieri, Pete Escovedo and his Latin Jazz Orchestra, and the 2-time Grammy winning orchestra Spanish Harlem Orchestra, led by Oscar Hernández.
As of late, I’ve been trying to figure out just where I stand on this intensifying debate, which is currently generating a lot of awareness as a result of street protests in Los Angeles and press conferences both here in New York and my hometown, the San Francisco Bay Area. Personally, I feel that this is a tough issue - I can see parts of both sides of the coin. It wasn’t until I felt that I could see clear missteps in the decision that I decided to weigh in.
Most can see the need to add value to something. We all do it at some point or another. We refurbish our kitchens. We invest. We can thusly see the impetus to make an award an object of desire and an object to be lauded.
The way that the NARAS Board of Trustees has gone about cutting categories attacks the very fabric of this country and our greatest asset. Our diversity.
This was wrong.
It should have never been done. At the very least, voting members of NARAS had to be made aware of a such a sweeping decision as it was being made. NARAS, of which I am a part, is a democratic organization which comes to decisions about entries, nominations and awards via its voting members and its Board of Governors. The voting members of NARAS and its corresponding Board of Governors in the different cites should have been informed and been a party to this decision.
Importance of Diversity
How can cutting an award category attack the diversity of a nation? Quite simply, in its long term implications.
The Grammy award is the summit of success for most of us who are part of the process of creating music. How can generations to follow not be discouraged to create music based on the styles which represent the cut categories? The mere possibility of receiving a nomination inspires creators in these styles to create their own takes of the music which has influenced them. The result will be less music created in these styles that are 100% American, by definition. We therefore lose diversity, as a nation.
We have to be clear here - the chance of a musician specializing in Cajun music or “Traditional Blues” or Latin Jazz to actually win a Grammy has been reduced to nearly 0%. In our current climate, (insert discussion of major labels vs. indies and independent musicians here) there is no way that a musician specializing in the forms representing the categories can compete against artists with more of a mainstream influence that have been folded into the same category as they have.
So why would a person influenced by these styles put it all on the line to 1) become a musician of these styles and to 2) create their own music on an album, putting most of their life resources on the line to do so? It clearly won’t be to be internationally recognized by receiving a Grammy award. For a lot of us, being recognized with a Grammy is certainly the biggest part of the dream. Even being nominated would be the most validating prize in a life of sacrifices.
The way to celebrate the great diversity of this country (and for that matter, the world) is to promote it. You keep these categories intact - they do not “devalue” the Grammy in any way. If any of us were to win a Grammy award outright in our area of specialization we would be ecstatic. Nothing could take away from the significance of that vaunted award.
It was difficult enough to win a Grammy before these changes went into effect. Just ask 60+ year Latin Jazz veteran Pete Escovedo:
“I was fortunate enough to be nominated in 1989 for my recording entitled “Mister E.” That nomination inspired me to work harder at my profession – to reach for the ultimate goal – A GRAMMY – which at some point in my life I hope to achieve.”
The NARAS representatives arguing for the cuts have countered with a numerical analysis on the present number of categories versus past. This is well beyond a “numbers” issue. When you deal with sacrificing the diversity of our country’s music, to merely add value to an award, you have fallen out of touch with the mission statement of NARAS and have dropped the ball when it comes to what should be its true priorities, cultural awareness and diversity being chief among them.
Where I DON’T Agree with the Protestors
There have a couple of points and issues that have bothered me in regards to the protestors of the Grammy category cuts.
First, I think calling for the immediate resignation of President Neil Portnow and the Board of Trustees is insensitive and ill-advised. I personally know folks on the “Secret Sub-Committee” that was formed and what they have done to promote diversity before the round of categorical cuts. Some in particular are friends that I hold very dear and have readily demonstrated efforts to spread cultural awareness and diversity through the MusicCares program. Asking for their resignation in NO way sets the stage for an amicable resolution to this issue. This in fact jeopardizes the main goal of having the cut categories reinstated.
I also take issue with calling the cuts racist. To be fair, mainstream categories were cut as well, and these categories include artists that are of mixed race and musical background. True, cutting categories of musical diversity will lead to a homogenization of music in general (which is highly unfortunate), and this, in my opinion, is very much going in the wrong direction. But I just can’t see how this process is explicitly racist. Please correct me if I am wrong.
All things considered - cutting these categories will systematically result in a “cut” in desire to create this music of diversity. The music, and therefore the culture, of this country and of music followers and fans the world over will suffer tremendously from the standpoint of the stimulating rhythmical and stylistic components that make it exciting. General awareness and inclusion of these diverse styles in music will eventually be lost as a result.
To this capacity, I stand in opposition to the categorical cuts to the Grammys made by NARAS.
Trombonist, Arranger, Composer, Educator
Harlem School of Urban Music and Recording Arts @
Frederick Douglass Academy, Harlem NYC
Advocate of Diversity in Music