Is This the Year the Grammys Finally Give West Coast Jazz Its Due? by Tom Meek for LA Weekly
Updated: Aug 10, 2018
When this year's Grammy nominations were announced in early December, I scanned the jazz and related nominations, looking for friends and acquaintances who'd received nods this year. After a couple of minutes I started counting, and it rapidly became clear that the 2017 Grammy nominations capped a watershed year for Los Angeles–area jazz.
In historical terms, L.A. has been viewed as a second-tier locale for jazz behind New York City and, for some, even Chicago. But a distinct West Coast jazz scene and sound has been around since the 1950s at long-gone but not forgotten clubs such as Shelly's Manne-Hole and Donte's, among many others, as well as the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, setting for the jazz-club scenes in the Academy Award–nominated film La La Land.
Even earlier, beginning in the 1940s, South Central Los Angeles featured some of the origins of what became known as bebop jazz. L.A. pianist Nate Morgan once told me he thought Leimert Park was the place where bebop began, with musicians like Dizzy Gillespie borrowing ideas they first heard in Los Angeles and going on to develop them in New York.
L.A. has always been known for its gifted, often jazz-trained studio musicians — most notably “the Wrecking Crew,” who played on hundreds of hit recordings and soundtracks in the 1960s and '70s. But the traditional East Coast jazz establishment often gave little critical notice to what became known as West Coast cool jazz, including Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Shelly Manne (none of whom ever won a Grammy in their lifetimes) and many others.
This year, for the first time in memory, a jazz Grammy category has a majority of nominees from Los Angeles. Up in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Category are recordings from pianist John Beasley's MONKestra, saxophonist (and USC Thornton School of Music's chairman of jazz studies) Bob Mintzer's All L.A. Band, and trumpeter John Daversa's big-band recording Kaleidoscope Eyes, dedicated to the music of The Beatles.
Daversa left L.A. in 2013 to become jazz chair at the Frost School at the University of Miami in Florida but continues to tour and record with both large and small ensembles made up of L.A.-area musicians. Daversa led all jazz Grammy nominees for 2017 with three nominations, while Beasley received two.
Beasley also appears on drummer Peter Erskine's Grammy-nominated Dr. Um album on his Fuzzy Music label for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, which also features appearances from L.A.'s Bob Sheppard on saxophone, Janek Gwizdala on bass, Larry Koonse and Jeff Parker on guitars and Aaron Serfaty on percussion.
Erskine, who also serves as USC's director of drum set studies, played a significant role in Mintzer's All L.A. Band album, which also features Sheppard, baritone saxophonist Adam Schroeder, pianist Russell Ferrante and trombonist Bob McChesney.
Vocalist Tierney Sutton is up for a Grammy for the eighth time, and her recording The Sting Variations, nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album, may well give her the best chance at finally winning the award. Drummer Steve Gadd's Way Back Home: Live From Rochester, N.Y., nominated for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, features a cast of SoCal musical veterans including guitarist Michael Landau, bassist Jimmy Johnson, trumpeter Walt Fowler and keyboardist Larry Goldings.
Daversa, Sutton and Gadd all record for BFM Jazz, an independent label based in Valley Village. The label's three 2016 releases gathered a total of five Grammy nominations, the most of any jazz label, ahead of the likes of Blue Note, Concord Jazz and ECM.
A host of other local jazz artists received nominations, including saxophonist Terrace Martin, trumpeter Herb Alpert, composer/arranger Gordon Goodwin (his 21st) and pianist/composer/arranger Billy Childs.
L.A.-based jazz artists also have scored more high-profile jazz label deals in the past year, including Childs and pianist Cameron Graves, along with vocalist Jesse Palter, all of whom have recently signed with Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records. Vocalist Brenna Whitaker signed in 2015 with noted jazz label Verve and has since released her debut album.
Here at home, labels not traditionally associated with jazz are helping introduce local jazz artists to new audiences. Violist/composer/arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is recording his debut album, Les Jardins Mystiques, for Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, home to Kamasi Washington and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner. Los Angeles–based label Alpha Pup, a predominantly electronic label and distributor, is releasing new music from Washington's fellow West Coast Get Down members bassist Miles Mosley and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr.
The other major jazz story coming out of L.A. in 2016 was the meteoric rise of Washington and his band, The Next Step. Washington's three-disc debut, The Epic, was released in mid-2015 to both critical and popular acclaim, and by August had received enough attention that lines stretched for blocks in New York City as fans tried to get standing-room-only admission to his sold-out shows at the Blue Note club in Greenwich Village. In 2016, he achieved two historically difficult feats for an L.A.-based jazz artist — in June, headlining the monthlong Blue Note Jazz Festival in New York, and in July gaining the cover and main feature story of leading jazz magazine DownBeat.
How many L.A.-based jazz artists win Grammys remains to be seen (they will be announced on Sunday, Feb. 12), but regardless, the past year marks major world recognition and acclaim for some of the great jazz found in Southern California.