Inaugural Jazz Music Awards Brings Soul-Stirring Inspiration to Atlanta


The opening performance of The Baylor Project’s “We Swing” with guest artist Jazzmeia Horn (left), The Baylor Project’s Marcus Baylor (on drums) and Jean Baylor (vocals), and special guest Dianne Reeves at the inaugural Jazz Music Awards on Oct. 22.

(Photo: Julie Yarbrough)

It was a historic night of enlightenment, emotion and inspired jazz performances at the inaugural Jazz Music Awards: Celebrating The Spirit of Jazz, held Oct. 22 at the nearly 3,000-seat Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta, Georgia.

The first full-scale awards ceremony devoted to celebrating jazz and the artists who create it left the audience dazzled by the sheer amount of talent gathered on the stage, from the co-hosts — NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater and multiple award-winning actor Delroy Lindo — to NEA Jazz Masters Dianne Reeves, Terri Lyne Carrington and Kenny Garrett, to prominent jazz artists The Baylor Project, Ledisi, Brandee Younger, Lizz Wright, Jazzmeia Horn, Somi, Lindsey Webster, Tia Fuller and others under the musical direction of Carrington, the show’s co-executive producer.

The ceremony was a heady mix of soul-stirring elements: heartfelt salutes to jazz influencers and innovators; the presentation of competitive awards to a range of creative artists; and powerful musical performances by some of today’s best global jazz musicians.

Several moments of the awards show prompted standing ovations: A mid-show medley of “Songs of Social Justice” put Reeves, Wright, Bridgewater, Horn and Ledisi together in a historic round-robin display of vocal virtuosity as they sang anthems of struggle and overcoming. Reeves opened the segment with her powerful composition “Endangered Species,” also sung recently by Emmy winner Sheryl Lee Ralph in her acceptance speech.

Three-time Jazz Music Awards nominees The Baylor Project opened the show with the appropriately titled groove “We Swing” featuring Reeves and Horn. Best Mainstream Artist winners Garrett and Orrin Evans, along with James Genus and Carrington, astonished the audience with inspired saxophone riffs and rhythm section interplay during a tribute to the late pianist McCoy Tyner, who was feted with the Jazz Legend Award. Vocalist Somi, one of two winners of the Best Vocal Performance Award in a surprise tie, brought attendees to their feet with her syncopated and soaring Miriam Makeba tribute, “House Of The Rising Sun.”

A presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to veteran saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter included an inspired medley of his tunes after Shorter shared a heartfelt video message. Henry Threadgill spoke via video about the power of forging new paths not only in jazz but in life during his tribute as Jazz Composer. The show closed with an affecting performance by Lizz Wright and Tia Fuller of “Georgia On My Mind,” a tune that carries more weight during a tight state election season.

Nominee Brandee Younger demonstrated the versatility of the harp over the infectious groove undercurrent on “Spirit U Will” with Terri Lyne Carrington’s All-Star Band, a collective of world-class musicians who played throughout the show. The group included pianist Evans, bassist Genus, guitarist Mark Whitfield, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, alto saxophonist Braxton Cook, trumpeter Milena Casado, keyboardist Ray Angry, drummer Nikki Glaspie and DJ/percussionist Kassa Overall.

The show had emotional moments as well. James Patterson, 91, a beloved Clark Atlanta University Jazz professor, wept with joy upon receiving his Jazz Impact Award from George T. French Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University. Many others, including hosts Bridgewater and Lindo, were sobered and dismayed by the more than 100 jazz legends and icons listed during the In Memoriam tribute who passed away between the latter part of December 2019 and October 2022. And these moments only scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of what the Jazz Music Awards brought to bear: an evening of recognition that was deeply appreciated by the jazz community.

Wendy F. Williams, the creator and executive producer of the Jazz Music Awards, says that the event proved to be everything and more than what she and the team were striving for, particularly as a jazz celebration of this caliber was long overdue. “I was overwhelmed by the talent of all the world-class performers and musicians,” said Williams. “There are so many people to thank, but the event would not have been possible without the full support of Clark Atlanta University, 91.9 WCLK and the incredible teams of executives and creators we assembled.”

Carrington, who served as musical director and co-executive producer for the awards ceremony, delivered a stellar night of musical magic. “The inaugural Jazz Music Awards was a huge undertaking that resulted in a major music award celebration,” she said. “More importantly, after the ceremony many of the artists personally shared with me that this was something that the jazz community needed.”

Winners of the eight competitive awards were Christian McBride & Inside Straight, who earned two awards: Best Mainstream Artist and Best Duo, Group or Big Band; Ragan Whiteside for Best Contemporary Artist; Samara Joy for Best New Artist; Bob Baldwin for Best Contemporary Album; and Norman Brown for Song of the Year. Two categories were tied, with both Somi and Stacey Kent earning Best Vocal Performance, and pianist Evans and saxophonist Garrett taking home statues for Best Mainstream Album. A few of the show’s winners and honorees were unable to accept in person due to the recently opened international touring market, with McBride and Joy on the road in Europe.

As a well-orchestrated assembly of jazz greats, a spectacular concert and a tribute that shed light on several jazz greats, the 2022 Jazz Music Awards more than demonstrated its first-year theme: “Jazz Is The Culture.”

The second Annual Jazz Music Awards is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2023. Jazz Music Awards Week will run Oct. 18–21.

The Jazz Music Awards recognizes jazz as an American musical art form, birthed from the experience and innovation of African Americans, rooted in blues, ragtime, swing, bebop and creative improvised music, including Latin jazz, mainstream, smooth and other contemporary forms or hybrids.

The Jazz Music Awards and its creators recognize jazz as a vibrant cornerstone of all American music that has profoundly influenced American language, style, traditions and sounds. The Jazz Music Awards is a nonprofit division of Jazz 91.9 WCLK at Clark Atlanta University, the Historically Black College and University, owner and licensee of WCLK. DB

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