Awards? And the winner is…

Anyone and everyone who has survived and managed to thrive in this constantly shifting business model by working their butts off to create music, promote it, and give their audience an experience that is compelling enough, magical enough, to keep them coming back for more.

I have never been a big fan of awards shows. They always seem to reward the most conspicuous, not the best. That is understandable because whether the nominating committe is a closed circle of experts or a “vote early vote often” web based platform you have to get noticed by a pretty large amount of people in order to beat out everyone else and make the nomination list, then actually win the award. Then as the conspicuous get rewarded they become more conspicuous and people jump on the bandwagon, which means they are spending their time and money on what got that promotional push and the resulting award when there is a lot out there they might enjoy even more if they found some way to hear it.

“Beat out everyone else.” That phrase may sum up my reasoning as I catch up on DVR or On Demand while the Grammys are on or do some sewing while the rest of the world gawks at Oscar’s Red Carpet. I just can’t roll with the idea of beating out everyone else, of turning the creation of art into a competition. In music, TV, Movies, and any other form of creative expression there are too many apples and oranges. There was always a lot of diversity and as production and distribution have become more accessible that has increased geometrically. How can anyone be aware of everything that is out there? More significantly, how can you choose any one song,album, or artist as being better than everything else when there is so much good stuff out there and it all sounds so different that there is no basis for comparison?

Look at the 2012 Grammy nominees for jazz vocal album. Kurt Elling putting his spin on Brill Building pop music classics (yes there is such a thing,)  Esperenza Spalding bringing elite artistry and a quirky youthful vibe to jazz, Luciana Souza singing Chet Baker songs, Al Jarreau running through an ecelectic program of hits and deep album track backed by amazing orchestration, Denise Donatelli proving she should be much more well known with a truly original selection of songs that have jazz integrity with a touch of pop appeal. There is no way to pick one of those as “better” than the rest because there is so much individuality and artistry in all of them.

The contemporary/smooth jazz community has an interesting history with awards events.  The Oasis Awards, which was renamed the Oasis Smooth Jazz Awards during its second year, had a three year run between 2001 and 2002. It was a celebratory event for those who were still in smooth jazz radio and the small group of artists that had a high profile on the radio charts. This was back when one consultant controlled the entire radio format and the radio format controlled the genre. There was a definite in-group and the format was steeped politics and elitism. If you were on the staff of one of the major market smooth jazz stations or wrote for one of the two high profile print publications you mattered, otherwise you were invisible. A nominating committe from this in group selected the same names every year and radio listeners voted. These listeners were only hearing a limited selection of the music so they voted for what they had heard of and the same  people seemed to win, then get nominated again the next year. Bottom line – it was a good concert for the locals who could pay a steep price for tickets but it was basically the industry patting itself on the back during the radio format’s heyday. Then in 2010 Bernie Scott put together the American Smooth Jazz awards event in Chicago. It had a decidedly more populist tone as far as the nomination process and accessiblity of tickets. A few new names made the nomination list but outside of the new artist category it looked a lot like the old Oasis nominees. People nominated and voted for the people they had heard of and with the radio format falling apart and the new infrastructure just beginning to coalesce that was to be expected. There was still so much they were not hearing. There was an event in the works for 2011 in San Diego that positioned itself as an extremely upscale event with lots of golf and wine and dress-up parties surrounding the concert. It was abruptly cancelled only a few days before the event leaving attendees stuck with plane tickets and hotel reservations and musicians with an empty slot on their schedule. A group of passionate people saved the day by putting together a group of concerts that were probably a lot more fun to attend than the formal awards night would have been.

Now there is talk buzzing through social networking circles that plans are underway for a new smooth jazz awards event. The first thing that crossed my mind was “Isn’t this a bit 20th century?” Yes, we need to celebrate this music and the people who create it, but might it be time to come up with a different approach. Were the epic fail of 2011 and the epic rescue that happened in its wake a sign that it is time to get creative and invent a new type of framework where we can gather, show our support for the music and celebrate the process of growth and reinvention. Can we find a way to do this that doesn’t involve picking a handful of artists then designating one of them as “better.” I find myself going back to a quote from Will Donato, one of my favorite sax players who has put out several albums that should have received a lot more recognition (see what I’m sayin’ here?) He said “My mantra is ‘excel but don’t compete’.” At its highest level creating music is about collaboration, not competition, anyway. Right now there are so many people working to keep this music alive and keep the fans connected. From the surviving record companies with promotional budgets to dedicated internet broadcasters who may have only 25 listeners at a time it is all part of a cumulative groundswell. As someone said, “It’s like herding cats” but wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone came up with a really inclusive way to honor and celebrate this music and the fans who love it?