Last Tuesday the Jazz Journalists Association announced the winners of its 2014 Jazz Awards. The JJA presents these awards “as an assertion that informed, professional, independent coverage of jazz across genre is vital to the preservation and promotion of contemporary music.” As for non-contemporary music, the Columbia Legacy album Miles Live in Europe 1969 beat out ECM’s Jack DeJohnette Special Edition boxed set and Mosaic’s Complete Strata Recordings of Clifford Jordan for “Historical Record of the Year.” For some jazz lovers, these young players robbed the likes of Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver. There is a segment of the jazz community who appreciate and enjoy contemporary artists drawing upon the rich traditions developed in the wake of bop, but whose main interest remains in jazz’s prewar idioms. The JJA Jazz Awards may not seem relevant to moldy figs, big band fanatics and ears that perk up for Bix Beiderbecke over Terence Blanchard. Looking back, postwar artists playing in modern styles take up the bulk of the awards. Yet the Awards have included at least one category for reissued material since the first ballot in 1997, adding the term “Historical” to the category in 2008. Voting starts with professional members submitting up to three nominees for each category. Finalists are then selected based on the number of votes, and a second round of votes determines the winner in each category. This blogger was not able to find finalists for every year, but past finalists have included Mosaic’s Jimmie Lunceford collection competing next to a winning Miles Davis set, and the same label’s Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions 1935-1946, which lost to Ella Fitzgerald’s Twelve Nights in Hollywood on Verve. This survey does not even account for the large pool of first-round nominees (which, based on the size of the JJA, would probably be an impressive and inundating list to post and sort through). Past JJA Jazz Award winners have included Columbia Legacy’s Hot Fives and Sevens set in 2001, the same label’s Billie Holiday Columbia 1933-1944 sessions in 2002, its Charlie Christian CD in 2003, BMG Bluebird’s Coleman Hawkins Centennial in 2005 (right next to fellow saxophonist Albert Ayler in the boxed set version of this category) and Duke Ellington’s Complete 1932-40 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings, once again from Mosaic, in 2011. Also noteworthy is the 2010 competition between Armstrong’s Decca set and Mosaic’s Classic Artie Shaw Bluebird and Victor Sessions for Best Liner Notes. For the JJA, bebop and other languages are spoken here. “Early jazz” has a noticeable, if not overwhelming, presence in these well-known awards. Yet is that presence likely to stay there, and possibly even grow? Unsurprisingly that issue is about more than musical taste or academic debates between traditionalists and progressives. JJA President Howard Mandel very graciously shared some of his insights and thoughts on the matter via email. Andrew Jon Sammut: The JJA’s 2014 “Historical Record of the Year” award was “for CDs, vinyl or digital recordings recorded at least ten years ago (prior to 2003), issued during calendar year 2013.” What was the JJA’s philosophy behind using such a wide concept of “historical”? Howard Mandel: The JJA Jazz Awards essentially focus on the past twelve months of jazz activity, but jazz journalists have often (at least since the forties) or perhaps typically (since the seventies) been interested in reissues and music from earlier in history. It’s basically essential to understand the music’s past in order to understand the music’s present, and to listen to the past is often to come to love it, because a lot of the music endures across time, regardless of stylistic differences among the various eras. AJS: There is also a wide stylistic range within that category. Miles Davis reissues are frequently nominated and frequently win (including in 2014, 2012 and 1997 through 2000) but Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s earlier efforts have also been nominated and won. What is it that artists as diverse as Armstrong, Charlie Christian, Davis, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins and others in this category share? HM: The artists you mention all have well-established reputations as being icons of the art of jazz. All of them were stars of their day, and with the exception of Christian (who gets extra credit for being the first prominent electric guitar player in jazz, and in almost, with exception maybe T-Bone Walker, any kind of American music) their careers were long. Most of these musicians’ works have remained in print or essentially available since they were first issued. They have been written about a lot, and with the possible exception of Coleman Hawkins or Christian their names are familiar to non-jazz audiences, including editors. So it is often possible to write about these artists for general or jazz publication, if there is something startlingly new about them to report (like an issue of newly discovered or “historic” music). AJS: So do you think there are other ways that the JJA Jazz Awards could honor historical artists within more specific eras or stylistic idioms? HM: I’ve been against breaking out the Awards into new categories for specific eras or stylistic idioms. Stylistic idioms: it’s impossible to adequately define and enforce such divisions. Eras: What is the value? Does one consider Vince Giordano‘s recordings with a contemporary band along with original source material from the same era? Who should receive the Awards: the producers of the albums, for making the music available, or heirs of the musicians who made the music? Also, it is my personal feeling that the history of jazz be the province of the historians, and not all jazz journalists are historically minded. In general the organization has the mindset that journalism is about the present not the (receding) past, and that we better mind jazz’s present if we want to ensure it has a future. AJS: I didn’t see this category listed in 2013. Was that due to lack of submissions, consensus or some other reason(s)? HM: I think that may have been an unintended error. AJS: It looks likes this category has undergone some changes over the years. In past years, the award was for “Boxed Set Reissue,” it featured separate categories for “Historical Record/Reissue” and “Historical Boxed Set” and early on it did not even mention the word “historical” for reissue or boxed set categories. What went into rethinking this award? HM: Each year we are rethinking each category and the overall structure of the Awards. We do not want to have more Awards. The ballot is long and complex enough. If anything, we want to limit the number of Awards. We also want the categories to reflect what’s being issued, and what kinds of excellence are emerging from jazz activities. “Boxed set” clearly pertained to big packages, rather than a single CD that might be of equal significance or pleasure, and so single-album releases were getting overlooked in favor of the big package that attracts more attention to begin with. We wanted to provide a more even playing field. I would think that reissues are conceptually synonymous with “historical.” This year the ballot committee discussed whether a recording was “historical” and fit in this category if the majority of the music was recorded as little as three years ago. It was determined that some artists record and then the record doesn’t come out for three or four years, but that doesn’t mean it is “historical.” AJS: Reviewing past nominees and winners, it seems like prewar jazz is almost entirely represented by reissues on the Mosaic and Columbia Legacy labels, with labels such as Frog, Jazz Oracle, Timeless Historical, Archeophone and others apparently not being mentioned. How would you explain those two labels’ apparent “lock” on early jazz and the absence of other labels with similar missions? HM: Marketing and promotion by Mosaic and Columbia is far superior to that of the other labels you mention. JJA members may or may not pursue recordings on their own, but they are surely most likely to pay attention to recordings that are sent to them for review, with all attendant press releases and also the (perhaps subconscious) impact of ads that show up in jazz publications they read has an effect, and it also makes a difference if they are pitching a review to an editor, or an editor is commissioning them. That happens far more frequently with Columbia and Mosaic packages than with the other labels mentioned. AJS: Have those labels with similar missions been represented in the selection process, before the nominees are announced? HM: Yes, often. The first stage of nominations is an open call: all professional JJA members are invited to submit anything issued in the previous year as a nominee. For the 2014 Awards between a quarter and a third of professional members submitted first round nominating ballots. There are many albums that receive single or perhaps three or four votes. Yet the three albums that have received THE MOST nominations are the ones that advance to being finalists. They are almost always albums that have been released, promoted and marketed by a decently financed and very business-and-media-savvy company. AJS: How does the JJA understand the role and impact of historical music in this process? HM: I’m writing from my personal point of view, because the JJA as an organization does not have any sort of official take on issues of this sort. Current jazz is based on earlier jazz. One of the very essences of jazz is to respect the music’s history, original creators and creations, without allowing that respect to deter development but rather to use it as an inspiring stimulant, a creative touchstone. In an era during which post-Modernism seems to be a dominant critical modality, all the history of an art form is as one for purposes of study and derivation of newly produced material. The neoconservative musical attitudes promoted by Wynton Marsalis have also contributed to this notion. Yet “free jazz” never went against “early jazz” (only maybe “square jazz”). As the Art Ensemble motto went, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future,” except for most jazz journalists it doesn’t have to be “Black” music only; the internationalist embrace has become wider in the past 50 years, too. The digital revolution has also made an even larger amount of historic work much more widely available. And we simply find we like that music! So it’s with us now, not merely a historical relic. That acceptance of older music may furthermore be a result of the baby boomer generation getting old. Baby boomers are still the bulk of membership of the JJA. AJS: Do you think there is room for other, lesser-known historical artists to “compete” in this area (provided there is a reissue released during the nomination year)? Could you imagine Chu Berry, Red Nichols or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings winning this award? Is the “Historical Record” category intended to reflect contemporary appeal, continuing school of influence, both, or some other factor(s)? HM: Again, the JJA does not promote any particular view of what the “Historical Record” category is meant to reflect. It’s simply the preferences of the most of the voters opining about releases that fall into that very general category. Yes, I can imagine some of those artists you mention winning the Award, but it doesn’t seem likely to me. I would not expect it unless material was released that completely revised the oeuvre of those artists as we know it, and probably released by one of the more prominent labels (such as you’ve mentioned, Mosaic or Columbia Legacy). It would most probably happen if such a release were widely publicized, on the order of the discovery of the Monk/Coltrane tapes in the Library of Congress vaults (which doubled the little bit of Monk/Coltrane already available with a superb concert very well recorded and issued by Blue Note Records). I was always surprised that the “suitcase tapes” of Parker and Gillespie from a hotel room in 1942, issued I think by Stash, never made much of a splash. The challenge is greater for lesser-known artists, because not everybody agrees that something is great, and not everybody sees everything. Several years ago I was enthusiastic about Bluesiana, by pianist Frank Melrose and issued on Delmark, but few of my colleagues seemed intrigued by it, and it attracted few votes other than mine. AJS: What is the role of this category? Why does the JJA choose to honor artists whose work may have been created close to a century ago? As much as I’m concerned about the present and future, there are many pleasures to be had from jazz that’s one hundred years old. I read books that are at least that old and I like movies from the thirties and forties. I listen to music that has ancient roots and has not been technologically updated. I’m interested in anything that endures to have a lively presence now, whenever it was created. I would like my fellow critics (of every art form) to act on similar principles, because it seems to me what critics try to do is determine what works of art are worth our continued attention. There’s no reason to assume music made decades ago can’t please people today. People today are not so different than people were then. Hail Jelly Roll, Pops, the Dodds brothers, James P. Johnson, the Boswell Sister, Red Allen, Duke’s Jungle Band, Bessie Smith and the other classic blues singers, James Reese Europe, Bechet and all the originators. They had the right ideas, there at the founding of music that keeps generating new and exploratory manifestations.
In other words, keep looking for Armstrong and Ellington as well as Beiderbecke, Goodman, Oliver and Henderson, perhaps even Nichols and Wooding, on the JJA’s rosters. Yet be patient finding them. More importantly, keep reissuing them and get the word out!