Making Grammy Crossover History

It is just possible that 1989 may be remembered in the music industry as the year of the great jazz Grammy crossover.

The most obvious evidence lies in the quadruple victory of Bobby McFerrin, who was a winner not just in the male jazz vocal category but in two of the top overall divisions, for record of the year and song of the year (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”), as well as for top male vocal.

But consider also the following: Take 6 won not only for jazz group vocal but also for soul-gospel group. Chick Corea won not in a jazz category, but for R&B; instrumental (“Light Years”). Manhattan Transfer edged out a big hit by the Beach Boys to win in the pop vocal group department (“Brasil”).

Roger Kellaway, a distinguished jazz composer, was a winner for best instrumental arrangement, another non-jazz department, for an album called “Memos From Paradise” by the jazz clarinetist Eddie Daniels. “Blues for Salvador” by the Latin-jazz guitarist Carlos Santana took the honors for best rock instrumental.


What these victories add up to may well indicate a powerful trend. Never before in the 31 years history of the Grammy awards have two top divisions been won by a jazz artist, and never before have so many jazz-related musicians been honored in so many non-jazz categories.

It may be argued that such winners as Manhattan Transfer and Carlos Santana no longer belong strictly in the jazz domain, but those lines are thin and have been the subject of much debate; at the very least one can claim that such victories may lead to interest in other, more jazz-inclined works by the same performers. Corea’s career is an important case in point: The attention drawn to him by his R&B; victory could have an impact on his new album with a strictly acoustic jazz group.

The multiple triumph of Bobby McFerrin was at once surprising, gratifying and puzzling. Here is an artist whose jazz credentials are impeccable, but who, over the past decade, has broadened his scope and his audience by developing into a unique entertainer and comedic personality.

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was a surprise winner not only because it was recorded a cappella; unaccompanied (or self-accompanied) Grammy winners are as common as one-armed jugglers. This is just not the normal way to achieve seven-digit sales. It was gratifying because McFerrin, a genuinely gifted artist, has crossed over from the ghetto of jazz categories into the wider world of mass appeal.


Had this expansion not occurred, and had “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” simply sold modestly well, there is not the slightest chance that this would have been voted either record of the year or song of the year.

McFerrin, an honest man without a bloated ego, lost no time in admitting that he is fed up with having to sing “Don’t Worry,” and that the awards obviously are not based on artistic merit. If they were, he could have won years ago.

“Night in Tunisia,” his collaboration with Manhattan Transfer in 1985, could have been a record of the year, and some of his earlier compositions such as the fascinating “Feline” or the intriguing “Sightless Bird,” both in 1982, might have earned him a song of the year victory. But none of these sold in massive quantities, and no matter what producer Pierre Cossette and other National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences bigwigs may tell us, it has been obvious for 31 years that these top awards invariably go to top sellers; if artistic merit happens to be involved, that is sheer chance.

Grammy’s first song of the year in 1958 was “Volare” (a.k.a. “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu”), now a standing joke in the record world, indicative of the Academy members’ inability to distinguish popularity from musical merit. Jump forward and we arrive at “Don’t Worry, Be Happy"--the song of the year for 1989! Hardly a composition, barely a song, really a ditty, requiring about as much talent as a nursery rhyme. McFerrin must be enjoying a secret smile, wondering whether his award-winning opus will enjoy any currency in 2039.

There is still another irony in the McFerrin sweep: Along with the three pop Grammys, he won in a jazz category not for his own album, nor even for a particular song from that album, but for a single tune for which he sat in with the bassist Rob Wasserman--"Brothers,” on Wasserman’s MCA album.

Despite all these paradoxes, it remains highly probably that the achievements of McFerrin, Corea, Manhattan Transfer and the rest will have some salutary effect. They not only indicate the growing acceptance of performers by jazz-related men and women, but more significantly indicate a willingness to accept them as part of the big picture.

The argument that this trend necessarily means major compromises of the musicians’ integrity is not necessarily valid. David Sanborn, yet another crossover artist this year (“Close Up,” best pop instrumental), has made it clear in interviews that he is making music he believes in; he never had any intention of selling out.

The most satisfying aspect of the crossovers is that they have enabled these nominees to circumvent the notorious academy policy of according the Cinderella treatment to jazz. Yet again this year, only two of the jazz category winners appeared on the televised ceremony. One wonders whether even McFerrin and Take 6 would have appeared on the endless pop/rock extravaganza had they not enjoyed victories in areas outside jazz.


All this would be of no importance if the public did not take these awards as seriously as if they had any real aesthetic meaning.

The policy within jazz, as seems to be indicated by this year’s results, must be: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If enough jazz people can make enough modest concessions to popular taste, the end--an end that could bring eventual acceptance to more genuine examples of top-grade jazz--may ultimately justify the means. If it doesn’t, well, don’t worry, be happy; jazz survived long before there were Grammy awards and will be with us long after the Grammys have outlived their debatable usefulness.