Pop fans sing the blues at 2011 Grammys

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Jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding took home the “Best New Artist” award at last night’s Grammy ceremonies, to many people’s dismay. Photo by Johann Sauty

Editor’s note: there’s been a buzz in the air this morning as music fans deal with the honest-to-goodness surprise of last night’s Grammy Awards. MPR’s in-house jazz aficionado David Cazares thinks the outrage over Justin Bieber’s loss in the “Best New Artist” category is unjustified, and he can tell you why. Here’s his commentary:

You could almost hear the collective national gasp Sunday night when a singer most people have never heard of won the award for Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards.

Esperanza Spalding, a jazz singer and bassist who has performed at the White House, won the nod over 16-year old Canadian phenomenon Justin Bieber, the music industry’s superstar hope.

I was thrilled. Spalding, a Portland, Ore. native and Berklee College of Music alum, is among a number of young artists winning critical acclaim for their contemporary interpretations of jazz, America’s art form.

But millions of teenage girls – and a lot of adults — were stunned. Almost immediately, Twitter lit up with posts of “Esperanza Who?” The masses wanted to know how a hero with the perfect voice could lose to someone who performs a “dying” genre. Some defaced her Wikipedia page.

Even some who should know better posed that question. The writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who has a degree in jazz performance from Berklee, told her Twitter followers that Bieber is more fun to listen to than the “mediocre” Spalding, and a better singer.

Valdes-Rodriguez faulted Grammy voters for rewarding a singer who sings like “people who were popular 70 years ago” and decried what she called musical elitism.

“Jazz is the most garrulous, narcissistic form of music on earth,” Valdes-Rodriguez wrote. “For the artist, not the listener.”

Well, I’m glad she at least clarified that.

Valdes -Rodriguez is wrong. Jazz is not dead. It’s alive and kicking, thanks to young performers like Spalding and many others. Despite cuts to the arts nationwide, high school students are still learning and playing this great music.

Jazz also remains popular with international audiences hungry for its authentic, imaginative and improvisational sound. Wed to the majestic blues, it is not a pretentious art.

It is true that jazz is no longer the popular dance music it once was. In perhaps a period of intellectual and artistic hubris, jazz musicians turned inward half a century ago focusing their imagination on complex musical ideas that proved inaccessible to a mass audience. Though such efforts created high art, they were reason for some to worry.

The trumpeter Miles Davis once told pianist Herbie Hancock, that if there were no women in the audience, the music wasn’t happening – a reminder to never lose touch with real people.

There were crucial periods when jazz did fall out of favor, when rhythm and blues and rock ‘n roll lured young fans. That wasn’t lost on the music industry, which is all about the latest thing.

So when I tuned in to the award show, I wasn’t at all surprised to see the heavily produced numbers with legions of dancers trying to channel Michael and Janet Jackson, the mind-numbing auto tuning or the over sexualized spectacles. Or Justin Bieber trying to prove he belonged on the same stage as Usher.

That is what the music business has come to as it seeks to capture all those young fans hooked on simple beats, celebrity and hair.

But Grammy voters got it right. It’s so cool that the awards can still honor an earthy, inventive and honest sound that remains relevant and timeless. In honoring the afro-wearing Spalding, they directed the nation’s attention to a singer and musician with three lively and inventive albums. They honored music over formula.

Yes, plenty of people are upset that the Best New Artist award went to someone they never heard of. She deserved it. And I love her ‘fro.

– David Cazares is an editor for MPR News.

So, do you think Spalding’s win was justified? Is jazz “the most garrulous, narcissistic form of music on earth?” Share your thoughts in the comments section.

  • S.L. Dawson

    Her sound is timeless and rich! What a marvelous, talented musician!!