What’s in a Grammy?

As this issue went to press, one of the big stories in the music world was that 26-year-old Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist, triumphing over such popular favorites as teen idol Justin Bieber and Canadian rapper Drake. Headlines everywhere called the victory an “upset,” and Spalding was profiled in media outlets that rarely even mention jazz, much less feature it.

Our cover subject knows more than a little about the Grammy Awards, including the winning and the losing things. Beginning with his debut album, 1995’s Close Your Eyes, every one of Kurt Elling’s discs has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category. Yet, through 14 years and all those nominations, Elling became something of a musical analogy to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills: the most successful loser ever. His losing streak finally ended last year, when Dedicated to You took home the statuette. Elling says being passed over wasn’t easy, but his respect for his colleagues seems to stamp out any jealousy. “The very first time I was nominated and didn’t win, what are you going to do?” he says. “I lost to Shirley Horn. Who am I [compared] to someone like that? There were several times when there were people in the mix who had put the time in, who were in line in front of me. You can’t be upset about any of that.”

In this issue Nate Chinen speaks with Elling about his new album, The Gate, produced by rock hitmaker Don Was, and about what it really means to be a jazz singer. We’ll place our bets now that this album, his 10th, will be honored with a nomination next round. At least Elling is here to smell the roses. James Moody died less than two months before his Moody 4B was chosen as Best Jazz Instrumental Album. In his Final Chorus column, Nat Hentoff explains why Moody’s legacy is much bigger than one posthumous award.

For his part, Elling, a longtime NARAS member and onetime vice chairman of its board of trustees, was shocked when Spalding’s name was called. “Yeah, I think everybody was,” he says, laughing. “It was great. Sometimes, if there are two or three heavy hitters in the pack and there’s an unknown, the vote can be split and the dark horse can ride on through. The Grammy members are supposed to be the educated listeners, and I doubt that they were altogether excited about a 16-year-old. Thankfully, this time it didn’t go to another pop person, it went to somebody who actually has astonishing creative credentials coming out of the box.”

As Nate Chinen discusses in his column on race and jazz, the backlash against Spalding in Bieberland was massive. In recognizing an up-and-coming and charismatic jazz musician, the award seemed to underscore the larger issue of jazz being in the margins of American culture—and on the sidelines of the Grammy show itself. Elling believes jazz people should get involved rather than simply complain about how jazz is treated.

“If, instead of being on the outside and carping about what the Grammys are or aren’t doing, the jazz people were volunteering for local boards of governors and working on the inside, becoming trustees, then a whole bunch of stuff would change,” says Elling. “The Grammys are trying hard to reach out to all the viable genres of music. They’re not going to be the one fix-it for any one genre that’s struggling for public recognition. Getting on a show one night a year isn’t going to change jazz’s problem.”

Originally published in April 2011

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