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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jazz at the Native American Music Awards? Join the discussion!

By Sean Cruz

Portland, Oregon--

My friend Marc Bowlegs Anderson, a jazz guitarist of Oklahoma Seminole descent, has instigated a spirited discussion regarding the absence of separate categories for jazz and classical recordings at the Native American Music Awards, now in its 12th year.

The Nammys currently place all jazz and classical nominees in a catch-all category labeled “instrumental,” although there are probably as many jazz and classical recordings with vocals as there are without.

The Nammys require a minimum of six nominations in each of the 28 categories that they currently recognize. They haven’t received the minimum six, they say, six this year, six last year and six next year to create the category.

Marc wrote to the Nammys: “The NAMMYS should take a proactive approach…and foster participation in jazz and classical music by offering these awards without regard to the number of entries in any year. This can only enhance the diversity and visibility of the NAMMYS and will certainly serve Native Classical and Jazz musicians well, thereby benefiting the entire Native American music community.”

The Nammys replied to Marc: “In our earlier years, we actually had a combined jazz/blues category. Over time, the jazz recording submissions vanished and were non-existent and thus gave way to a complete Blues category, as evidenced today. We are still attempting to hold on to the classical field through our Instrumental category.

"However, we continue to honor jazz and classical musicians with special awards as we have in the past with artists as Frederick Whiteface with a Lifetime Achievement Award, Jim Pepper - Hall of Fame, etc. and allow all jazz and classical artists to submit their recordings in whatever category they feel they are qualified to enter.

"We did not ask the Grammys to "break their rules", when we submitted the Native American music category proposal and sought their approval. In fact, we had to prove a marketplace existed five years prior and five years ahead showing hundreds of recordings each year in both the traditional and contemporary fields just to create ONE category for our genre. The same obviously does not apply to suggesting new categories in the Nammys, but to maintain our credibility among the mainstream music industry and media and keep the fairness among all competing categories - we require a minimum number of entries of six recordings for that year and continuous years just like any other national music awards show."

It’s a complicated subject. I intend to return to it several times over the coming months, any number of times going forward.

The argument is only in part about which should come first, the chicken or the egg, six entries each year for the foreseeable future or the category.

Music is often not easy to categorize or label, and that fact points to a separate but related issue, the arbitrariness of the nomenclature itself.

Coming off the stage after his set at the Isle of Wight music festival, Miles Davis was asked the name of whatever it was that his band had just performed. Miles said, “Call it anything,” and that’s how its labeled on the album.

There’s art, and then there are labels and categories.

Then there is the much larger issue of how Native American music and musicians are perceived and categorized by the recording industry and recognized by the Grammys, its annual self-promotional showcase. The Grammys bestows awards, prestige and other support to artists in 109 categories.

In each of the past 12 years the Nammys have demonstrated the broad diversity of Native American music, while in an entirely separate process the Grammys distills all of Native American music down to one performer per year, regardless of genre.

This discussion reaches to how Native American music is categorized and marketed in record store bins, often clustered with “World Music”, irony noted….

The six-entry rule bars recognition of a lot of Indian talent. Robbie Robertson is an easy example. Among his accomplishments are movie scores for “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York”. The music itself was not “Native”, but regardless, the Nammys are not likely to get six Best Score or Best Song Soundtrack for Motion Picture or Television any time soon. The only option was to award Robbie a Lifetime Achievement Nammy, which he earned for his time with The Band and Bob Dylan alone.

There should be a way to recognize the accomplishment for the accomplishment.

It’s not like there isn’t any Native American jazz or classical music close at hand….

Gabriel Ayala, the Yaqui guitarist, won the 2010 Best World Music Nammy with a recording of Spanish classical guitar music. Most record stores consider World music to be synonymous with indigenous music, not the Spanish classical canon.

On awards night, Gabriel performed a medley of Concierto de Aranjuez (as popularized by Miles Davis) and Chick Corea’s Spain, and that was jazz played on a classical guitar. Gabriel Ayala plays classical and jazz guitar on the same instrument, in the same performance.

His Nammy performance included this duet with Skylar Wolf. Feel free to put a label on it, to place it in a single category. Is it Indian music? Sure, but then what…?

Here are some thoughts going forward:

Muskokee Creek poet and musician Joy Harjo, last year’s Female Artist of the Year at the Nammys, has a new multimedia show titled “We were there when jazz was invented,” featuring her band, three Oklahoma stomp dancers and video.

The Nammies could make a powerful statement about Native Americans in jazz by featuring Joy Harjo’s program at the 2011 Nammys, I’m just saying….

And while we’re at it, let’s nominate Choctaw brother the late Don Cherry for the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame, to join his soul mate Jim Pepper there….

And then there’s the late Don Pullen, whose “Sacred Common Ground” with the Chief Cliff Singers (Kootenai) is just as astonishing a concept today as it was when recorded shortly before his death….

I’m just saying….

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