The ASCAP Jazz Awards, held at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill & Jazz in Los Angeles, was an eclectic celebration of jazz legends and upstarts alike, featuring standout performances that – true to the expansive, ever-evolving definitions of jazz itself- ran the gamut from graceful acoustic solo piano to trippy funk-jazz to blazing, “out there” avant-garde. When you’ve got a room full of crazy-talented jazz cats, the presented awards are simply a congratulatory gateway to performances that let the audience know how and why they earned them.
Though some of the lesser known names offered up the most compelling performances, let’s start with the headlining awards and the marquee names. ASCAP presented the prestigious Founders Award to Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, an idiosyncratic icon whom The Penguin Guide to Jazz calls one of the key figures in avant-garde jazz. In addition to his own work as a bandleader, he is renowned for co-founding the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Jamming at the end of the night with the explosive ensemble of Matt Shipp (piano), Junius Paul (upright bass) and Vincent Davis (drums), Mitchell – to paraphrase Parliament – tore the roof off the sucker with a crazy-cool, way out whirlwind of cacophonous vibes whose whirlwinds of chaos could almost be an anthem for the American Experiment, circa 2018. Didn’t catch the name of the piece, but a title could only limit its emotional impact.
On the opposite end of the sonic spectrum was the coolly elegant and ultimately free-flowing and joyous solo piano gem by four-time Grammy-nominated pianist/composer Gerald Clayton – who graciously accepted the esteemed ASCAP Vanguard Award moments before.
The middle of the evening found a gathering of legends at a long table next to the bar. Current ASCAP President and Chairman of the Board Paul Williams presented the inaugural ASCAP President’s Award to former ASCAP President and three-time Oscar-winning lyricist Marilyn Bergman for her contributions to the organization and for elevating the rights of music creators worldwide, over more than three decades of transformative leadership. Williams read the inscription on the award, lyrics to the classic “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?,” as Bergman’s husband and co-writer, Alan Bergman and Quincy Jones looked on.
Bergman was honored with a soulful and sultry, easy swinging performance of her song “Make Me Rainbows” by vocalist Shelea, accompanied by saxophonist Katisse Buckingham – whose solo was a highlight. Opening the show, ASCAP Foundation Phoebe Jacobs award recipient, trombonist and vocalist Mariel “Spencer” Austin led her vibrant six-piece band in an infectiously melodic yet fresh and quirky musical ensemble “dance.” This award goes to the female recipient of the ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award to honor the memory and work of Phoebe Jacobs, longtime jazz advocate and publicist who was also committed to music education and nurturing aspiring composers and musicians.
Another highlight of the evening was the performance by ASCAP Foundation Johnny Mandel Prize winner, baritone saxophonist Ben Barson, leading his multi-cultural ensemble the Afro Yaqui Music Collective through a trippy sax-violin-vocal fusion of Afro-Asian and Northern Mexican influences. Barson is also an ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Recipient. His award is made possible by film, TV composer, arranger and jazz musician Johnny Mandel and his wife Martha, to further the careers of aspiring jazz composers.