It’s time for the Grammys … and all that jazz

Steve Pond, writing for The Wrap in 2020, listed some of the not so illustrious history in the aptly titled “The Grammys and Black Music: A Timeline of Snubs and Embarrassments.” 


At the first Grammys, the Best Rhythm & Blues Performance category was won by a white group, the Champs, with “Tequila.” Ella Fitzgerald was the only African American nominated in the Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year categories, which were won by Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu (Volare)” (record and song) and Henry Mancini’s “The Music From Peter Gunn” (album).


At the 10th Grammy show, one of the top three awards is finally won by black performers: The Fifth Dimension, who win Record of the Year for “Up, Up and Away,” written by white songwriter Jimmy Webb.


After 18 years, Natalie Cole becomes the first black performer to win Best New Artist.

That snub of Ella Fitzgerald in 1959 was only partial since she did win in the Best Jazz Performance, Individual category, for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book. Count Basie also won Best Jazz Performance, Group for Basie.

Give a listen to a sample from both:

Originally titled simply Basie, the award-winning album was later reissued as Atomic Basie.

Over the years, some stellar artists have won in the jazz categories. While I’ll be posting a lot of that music history in the comments section, today’s focus is on some of this year’s nominees in jazz.

I’ll be honest with you: I have read several stories recently about turmoil with this year’s ceremony, which was postponed due to COVID-19. Frankly, I plan to ignore it all. Most of the drama is swirling around artists I don’t listen to whose music I won’t be buying. What I’m more interested in exploring today are those groups and individuals in the jazz categories. I’ve found some great new music to add to my playlist.

Onto the nominees, from the Grammy website:  

Best Improvised Jazz Solo
For an instrumental jazz solo performance. Two equal performers on one recording may be eligible as one entry. If the soloist listed appears on a recording billed to another artist, the latter’s name is in parenthesis for identification. Singles or Tracks only.

  • Sackodougou
    Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, soloist
    Track from: The Hands Of Time (Weedie Braimah)

  • Kick Those Feet
    Kenny Barron, soloist
    Track from: Songs From My Father (Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trios)

  • Bigger Than Us
    Jon Batiste, soloist
    Track from: Soul (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Various Artists)

  • Absence
    Terence Blanchard, soloist
    Track from: Absence (Terence Blanchard Featuring The E Collective And The Turtle Island Quartet)

  • Humpty Dumpty (Set 2)
    Chick Corea, soloist
    Track from: Akoustic Band Live (Chick Corea, John Patitucci & Dave Weckl)

I fell in love with “Sackodougou” as soon as I heard it. I have a deep love of music from West African traditions.

The Kennedy Center offers quite the comprehensive bio for the nominated soloist, Christian Scott:

Chief Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (born March 31, 1983, in New Orleans, Louisiana) is a two-time Edison Award winning and five-time Grammy Award nominated sonic architect, multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, designer of innovative technologies and musical instruments, Stretch Music record label and app company founder, and crowned Chieftain of the Xodokan Nation of the Black Tribes of New Orleans. He is the grandson of legendary Big Chief, Donald Harrison Sr., and the nephew of jazz innovator and legendary sax man, Big Chief Donald Harrison, Jr. His musical tutelage began under the direction of his uncle at the age of thirteen. After graduating from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) in 2001, Adjuah received a full tuition scholarship to Berklee College of Music where he earned a degree in Professional Music and Film Scoring thirty months later […]

Adjuah is a scion of New Orleans’ first family of art and culture, the Harrisons, and the grandson of legendary Big Chief, Donald Harrison Sr., who led four nations of the City’s Black Tribes. The HBO series Treme borrowed the storyline and the name “Guardians of the Flame” from the group. Adjuah began as a member of his grandfather’s nation in 1989. In 2018, Tulane University’s acclaimed Amistad Research Center announced its archive of the Donald Harrison, Sr. legacy papers to highlight the Harrison/Scott/Nelson family’s contributions to the arts, activism, and African diaspora cultural expressions. The Harrison family’s story has been documented by Oscar winning director, the late Jonathan Demme, in his post-Hurricane Katrina filmic works.

Adjuah is dedicated to a number of causes that positively impact communities. He gives his time and talents in service to several organizations which garnered him a place in Ebony Magazine’s 30 Young Leaders Under 30. He has supported or supports, through his time and talent, Each One Save One, NO/AIDS Task Force, Girls First, The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, Good Work Network, Black Lives Matter and numerous other community service organizations. Holding master classes, creating and participating in discussion panels, creating content, and purchasing instruments for youth music programs and individual youth musicians are all part of Adjuah’s community-based work. He has worked with Guardians Institute in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, which is dedicated to reading and fiscal literacy, cultural retention and a firm commitment to the participation of community elders and artists in uplifting and supporting youths in underserved areas of New Orleans. Adjuah currently sits on the Boards of Guardians Institute and The NOCCA Institute. Since Adjuah’s emergence on the jazz music scene, he has been a passionate and vocal proponent of human rights and an unflinching critic of injustices throughout the world.

“Sackodougou” can be found on Weedie Braimah’s The Hands Of Time, an album that’s now part of my music library. Check out this 2021 feature on Braimah, from John Morrison at Bandcamp.

Weedie Braimah is a djembefola—a master of the djembe, a West African drum with a hollow wood body and an animal skin stretched and fastened over the top, the origins of which date back to the 12th Century. Braimah, who was born in Ghana and raised in East St. Louis, is the product of a family whose musical history goes back centuries. His father, Oscar Sulley Braimah, was a master drummer and composer whose Uhuru Dance Band made remarkable records that bridged the gap between jazz and traditional African music. Braimah’s mother, Ann Morris was a gifted jazz drummer, and his great-uncle Idris Muhammad played with everyone from Grant Green and Horace Silver to Pharoah Sanders and Roberta Flack, while also leading his own ensembles.

Braimah’s latest album The Hands Of Time puts the interconnectedness of African diasporic music into practice. Featuring a variety of collaborators from around the world, compositions like “Full Circle,” “Express Train to Bamako,” and “Send for Me” deftly fuse jazz with hip-hop and funk, while the sound of the djembe and the spirit of West Africa gives these modern styles a timeless pulse.

Also nominated is Kenny Barron’s piano solo in “Kick Those Feet.”

Barron’s personal website offers his bio.

Philadelphia is the birthplace of many great musicians, including one of the undisputed masters of the jazz piano: Kenny Barron. Kenny was born in 1943 and while a teenager, started playing professionally with Mel Melvin’s orchestra. This local band also featured Barron’s brother Bill, the late tenor saxophonist.

While still in high school. Kenny worked with drummer Philly Joe Jones and at age 19, he moved to New York City and freelanced with Roy Haynes, Lee Morgan and James Moody, after the tenor saxophonist heard him play at the Five Spot. Upon Moody’s recommendation Dizzy Gillespie hired Barron in 1962 without even hearing him play a note. It was in Dizzy’s band where Kenny developed an appreciation for Latin and Caribbean rhythms. After five years with Dizzy, Barron played with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, and Buddy Rich. The early seventies found Kenny working with Yusef Lateef who Kenny credits as a key influence in his art for improvisation. Encouraged by Lateef, to pursue a college education, Barron balanced touring with studies and earned his B.A. in Music from Empire State College, By 1973, Kenny joined the faculty at Rutgers University as professor of music. He held this tenure until 2000, mentoring many of today’s young talents including David Sanchez, Terence Blanchard and Regina Bell. In 1974 Kenny recorded his first album as a leader for the Muse label, entitled “Sunset To Dawn.” This was to be the first in over 40 recordings (and still counting!) as a leader[…]

Whether he is playing solo, trio or quintet, Kenny Barron is recognized the world over as a master of performance and composition.

As anyone who reads this column regularly knows, my favorite jazz category is vocals. As soon as the nominees were announced I rushed to listen to all of them!

Best Jazz Vocal Album
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new vocal jazz recordings.

  • Generations
    The Baylor Project

  • SuperBlue
    Kurt Elling & Charlie Hunter

  • Time Traveler
    Nnenna Freelon

  • Flor
    Gretchen Parlato

  • Songwrights Apothecary Lab
    Esperanza Spalding

The Baylor Project introduced their album Generations, released in celebration of Juneteenth and Black Music Month, with this video/audio montage.

As the YouTube caption notes:

Set for release during Black Music Month and on the eve of Juneteenth, this soulful sonic story quilt celebrates the universality of the human condition, viewed through the lens of the Black experience. Married musical partners Marcus and Jean Baylor welcome listeners to their proverbial kitchen table, as they pass on stories of family and faith, and love and legacy over the course of nine original compositions, and two covers.

Storytelling has always been central to the Baylor Project’s creative output, and they have shown a particular adeptness at making their personal stories universally felt. They accomplish this and then some on Generations, which shares poignant stories of the Black experience, influenced by their own unique perspective.

Storytelling is also in evidence in nominee Nnenna Freelon’s work. Here’s little about her from Tom Jurek at AllMusic.

Nnenna Chinyere Freelon is a world-renowned jazz vocalist; she has recorded extensively and been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards. While this doesn’t necessarily set her apart from other more prolific female jazz singers, there is one aspect of her career that does: she didn’t begin recording until she was in her late thirties. She was born in Cambridge, MA, in 1954 as Nnenna Chinyere Pierce. She began singing at an early age in church, but didn’t pursue music as a career until decades later. She graduated from Simmons College, with a degree in health care administration. She worked for a time in in social services for Durham, NC’s hospital corporation. In 1979, she married Philip Freelon, an architect. The couple had three children before she began to consider a career in music. She studied with Yusef Lateef, developing her singing through listening to horn players. Her big break came in 1990 while attending the Southern Arts Federation’s jazz meeting, and sitting in with Ellis Marsalis. Marsalis was doing A&R for Columbia Records’ Dr. George Butler at the time, and asked the singer for a tape, which he passed on to Butler, who signed her.

Freelon would go on to become a multiple Grammy nominee, though her life would be challenged by the death of her beloved husband Phil Freelon. This album was her answer to that challenge. 

As the YouTube caption notes: 

Multi-Grammy nominated vocal artist Nnenna Freelon is back, delivering her eleventh album after a decade-long hiatus from the studio. With Time Traveler, she offers a celebration of love and a prayer of hope for those living with loss. The sessions for the album stretched over two years, between 2018 and 2020, coinciding with the loss of Freelon’s soulmate and husband of forty years, Phil Freelon, to ALS. Freelon draws from her & Phil’s shared love of jazz and rhythm and blues, to step through an imagined doorway where past, present and future collide. From the album’s centerpiece, a medley of Marvin Gaye classics, to standards such as “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Moon River,” or her self-penned title song, Freelon reminds us of the grace and elegance that naturally accompanies her approach to interpreting melody. Inspired by her emotive glances to the past, and soulful presence in the here and now, she paints a portrait of reverence and gratitude for the gift of love that permeates every aspect of the human condition.

Freelon talks about her deep feelings and the healing from grief that went into the making of the album.

When I started listening to the nominees for best jazz instrumental album, I saw some old favorites of mine, along with some new names. 

Best Jazz Instrumental Album
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new instrumental jazz recordings.

  • Jazz Selections: Music From And Inspired By Soul
    Jon Batiste

  • Absence
    Terence Blanchard Featuring The E Collective And The Turtle Island Quartet

  • Skyline
    Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette & Gonzalo Rubalcaba

  • Akoustic Band LIVE
    Chick Corea, John Patitucci & Dave Weckl

  • Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)
    Pat Metheny

I was immediately captured by the trio of bassist Ron Carter, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba—they could easily fit into the Latin Jazz category. Their rendition of the classic bolero-sonLagrimas Negras (Black Tears)” for me is sheer perfection. 

On to the next category.

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new ensemble jazz recordings.

  • Live At Birdland!
    The Count Basie Orchestra Directed By Scotty Barnhart

  • Dear Love
    Jazzmeia Horn And Her Noble Force

  • For Jimmy, Wes And Oliver
    Christian McBride Big Band

  • Swirling
    Sun Ra Arkestra

  • Jackets XL
    Yellowjackets + WDR Big Band

Jazz big bands are notoriously hard to maintain between the large number of people required and the expense that comes with them. In the Large Jazz Ensemble Album category, the album dedicated to jazz organist Jimmy Smith, guitarist Wes Montgomery, and saxophonist/clarinetist Oliver Nelson, the Christian McBride Big Band continues the long tradition of big bands—one that I hope we’ll never lose.

Still traveling the spaceways despite the death of Sun Ra in 1993, the Sun Ra Arkestra continues under the leadership of Marshall Allen, who is 97 this year.

I’ve been listening to Sun Ra since I was a teenager, and there’s something magical about the fact that the band has not only continued, but garnered another Grammy nomination some 60 years later.

Last but mos’ def not least is Latin jazz—a genre I’ve celebrated here in the past.

Best Latin Jazz Album
For vocal or instrumental albums containing at least 51% playing time of newly recorded material. The intent of this category is to recognize recordings that represent the blending of jazz with Latin, Iberian-American, Brazilian, and Argentinian tango music.

  • Mirror Mirror
    Eliane Elias With Chick Corea and Chucho Valdés

  • The South Bronx Story
    Carlos Henriquez

  • Virtual Birdland
    Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

  • Transparency
    Dafnis Prieto Sextet

  • El Arte Del Bolero
    Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo

I’m biased in Carlos Henriquez’s favor—he’s a graduate of my alma mater, now the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City. On his website, Henriquez says:

“Music Education has always been a part of my life growing up in The South Bronx. If it wasn’t for the Arts programs that enabled me to have the opportunity to learn about this beautiful music called Latin-Jazz, who knows where things would be. I strive to offer the same to our next generation of musicians with guidance and knowledge!!”

Here’s Henriquez’s musical love letter to the South Bronx.

This is just a small sampling of this year’s nominees. Please join me for more Grammys jazz, past and present, in the comments, and be sure to post your picks. 

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