Oakland based pianist and educator Mark Levine returned a certificate from his previous Grammy nominations in protest to the elimination of many ethnic niche categories. Photo Courtesy Mark Levine

Latin jazz musicians in the Bay Area and across the country are turning up the volume on their protest of the elimination of numerous ethnic-music categories from the annual Grammy awards.

NARAS, also known as the Recording Academy, announced in April that it would cut 31 of its 109 Grammy categories. Among those eliminated were many ethnic genres, including Latin jazz, Cajun and Zydeco, Native American, and Hawaiian music.

The academy said these cuts were due largely to the low number of entries for those awards.

The decision stunned musicians and NARAS members, who immediately launched an outcry, which included picketing a NARAS sponsored event in San Francisco. Now, a boycott and pending lawsuit are giving more structured substance to their objections.

Local artists have lent their support to a boycott being spearheaded by New York-based composer, percussionist, and multiple-Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria. The organizers are urging people not to watch CBS (broadcaster of the Grammys) or patronize any companies that advertise during the February awards show.

Sanabria is also bringing a class-action lawsuit against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, organizer of the Grammy awards.

“This is our last recourse,” Sanabria said. Without a Latin jazz category, he said, “We don’t stand a chance at all. We’ve been wiped out completely.”

Manhattan-based attorney Roger Maldonado said he aimed to file suit this week in New York State Court, seeking a reinstatement of the Latin jazz category on the grounds that the NARAS board of trustees violated its fiduciary duties to involve its members in a decision process that he called “secretive.”
The exact number of musicians in the class is yet to be determined.

Oakland pianist and educator Mark Levine said he “fully supports” the boycott and has also made his own personal, pointed protest: taking a blue ribbon and certificate given to him for his 2003 Grammy nomination and 2010 Latin Grammy nomination and mailing them back to NARAS and its Latin-music affiliate, LARAS.

Levine attached a note to NARAS President and CEO Neil Portnow stating: “Your actions in delisting the categories that have most contributed to American music have been racist and go against everything my parents taught me about America.”

When he visits his second home in Idaho next month, he plans to take down the plaque there for his earlier nomination and send that back, too.

While Levine and others sees racism at the root of the category cuts, some people, like Latin and Brazilian jazz vocalis Sandy Cressman—a composer and educator who served multiple terms as a governor NARAS’s San Francisco chapter—say it’s just plain insensitivity.

“I don’t think the people who made these cuts were intending to be racist, I just think they’re clueless, and they’re not aware of a lot of things that are going on in society now,” she said. “The backlash against immigration, for one thing, makes it perceived as racist, even though they didn’t mean it that way.”
Cressman “absolutely” supports Sanabria’s boycott.

“As a member I have very right to buy a ticket and attend the awards, and I’m not going to,” she said. “I’m going to put an ear to who the sponsors of CBS programming are too.”
NARAS has steadfastly defended its decision and denied charges of racism and secrecy in a statement to the Associated Press:

“We were up-front, transparent and painstakingly clear about how and why the awards restructuring was done, and any allegations that the process was carried out in secret or without warning are demonstrably false.”

Artists in eliminated categories can continue to compete for more general awards, but that doesn’t satisfy Sanabria, Levine, Cressman, or supporters of their efforts.

“Now you’re going to have a traditional, straight-ahead jazz album by Nicholas Payton competing against a Latin jazz album by Bobby Sanabria competing against an instrumental rock record by Dream Theater competing against a contemporary jazz album by Kenny G,” Sanabria said. “Guess which artist is not going to win? Bobby Sanabria. The categories that have been absorbed are going to fall by the wayside. Nobody’s going to recognize them.”

Sanabria said he is eager to work in solidarity with musicians from other eliminated categories to try to reverse the cuts.

“Don’t get me wrong, we still believe in the Grammys,” he said. “That’s why we’re fighting for this.”

For musicians, the economic impact of earning a Grammy nomination or award can be powerful.

“It gets attached to your name,” Levine said. “I’m no longer Mark Levine, I’m Grammy nominee Mark Levine. It tends to impress people who run jazz festivals and club owners, so you get more work out of it. It’s not quite the same as the Oscars or the Emmys, but it’s pretty big.”