Women Set the Agenda, and a New Precedent, at the Jazz Journalists Association Awards

Jun 13, 2018

The Jazz Journalists Association Awards is an annual ritual for writers, musicians, and music industry types — as is the annual group photo of all who attend.

On Tuesday evening, the hundred or so people gathered at The New School’s Theresa Lang Center crowded into the frame. The man with the camera (writer-photographer Michael Jackson) commanded his subjects to “squeeze in,” a process that kept everyone on their toes, quite literally, and brought forth peals of laughter.

There could have been no more apt scene, for an artistic community remarkable for its closeness. But it also captured what might be considered a watershed moment in jazz. Of the 29 awards given to musicians in 2018, a dozen went to women — a record number in this male-dominated field. Singer Jazzmeia Horn won Up and Coming Musician of the Year. And for the first time in the 22-year history of the awards, the award for Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism went to a female writer: Patricia Willard. (A complete list of the winners can be found on the JJA website.)

Nicole Mitchell accepting Best Flutist at the JJA Awards on June 12, 2018
Credit Enid Farber / Enid Farber Fotography

The entertainment featured female talents as well but without making such an agenda explicit. Guitarist Leni Stern’s dynamic trio kicked off the event, and pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen offered a brightly textured interlude late in the afternoon. Polly Gibson sang the blues, and Mimi Jones closed the party with her richly complementary vocals and bass playing. Presiding magisterially as host was Monifa Brown of WBGO (whose Nate Chinen won the Robert Palmer-Helen Oakley Dance Award for Excellence in Writing).

Linda May Han Oh accepting Best Bassist at the JJA Awards on June 12, 2018
Credit Enid Farber / Enid Farber Fotography

Bassist Linda May Han Oh, cellist Tomeka Reid, flutist Nicole Mitchell, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, and Willard were present to accept their awards. For some, it wasn’t the first time they had been chosen for this honor. So with the sweep by female artists, did they feel a cultural shift in the awards from years past?

“I’d never been nominated for Artist of the Year before,” said Mitchell while being corralled for photos in the lobby. “It’s super encouraging to have that acknowledgment.”

After accepting her award, Bloom offered some perspective. “In the 1970s, the first women’s jazz festivals shone a light on female performers and offered one idea of what they could be,” she said. “Today you can see an expansiveness in the musical vision of the women here, a uniqueness, depth, intellect, and full range of expression. I’m so pleased to be in such rich and beautiful company.”

Jane Ira Bloom accepting Best Soprano Saxophonist at the JJA Awards on June 12, 2018
Credit Enid Farber / Enid Farber Fotography

It could be that the voting for female artists was buoyed by the #MeToo movement’s consciousness raising this year. Several women have come forward to share their stories of harassment (myself included), and conservatories like the Berklee College of Music have had to address sexual misconduct among faculty, leading to well-publicized dismissals. New initiatives like the We Have Voice collective’s Code of Conduct have sought to provide guidelines for appropriate behavior in jazz’s nontraditional workspaces.

Patricia Willard, the first female recipient of the JJA's Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism, receiving her award from Benny Golson, winner of Lifetime Achievement in Jazz
Credit Enid Farber / Enid Farber Fotography

Or perhaps it was simply time for accolades where they’re due. Willard, 89, a founding member of the Duke Ellington Society and former contributing editor at Down Beat with three books currently in progress, was quick to point out that “women seldom receive the recognition they deserve, or it’s slow in coming.”

She posed front and center in the group portrait with her contemporary, 89-year-old saxophonist Benny Golson, who won the award for Lifetime Achievement in Jazz. Pressed together by the embrace of a community of men and women, the picture didn’t seem unusual at all. It seemed to say that this is how it should be.