Editor’s note: DJB calls this work “an amalgamation of two columns I wrote for The Gazette, the Washington Post’s Newspaper of Politics & Business, in 2000. I added new writing to bring it up to date, and while doing so I discovered it did not need much updating.” He adds he will not be watching the Grammys on TV.


Grammys, Spammys

by DJ Bartel


The 66th Grammy Awards are coming Sunday, February 4, 5 PDT, from the Crypto.com Arena here in L.A. Be sure to plan your viewing experience to include the Premiere Ceremony, to be streamed from somewhere else prior to the gosh-golly, breathtaking spectacle telecast. The Premiere Ceremony, so-called not because it is somehow better than the broadcast but because it comes first, is where all the second-rate Grammys will be handed out to those musicians who don’t rank TV facetime, including Gustavo Dudamel (nominated six times for four different awards), Thomas Adés, whose ballet Dante is nominated three times including for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, and Yo-Yo Ma whose recording with pianist Emmanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” arranged for trio is a revelation. Almost no one knows about the Grammys in the Classical genre because they are viewed by the National Recording Academy of Arts & Sciences as a separate species from the wide range of other nominees. In fact, Grammy’s highest honor, Album of the Year, is chosen from the full spectrum of musical genres except classical.

Miley Cyrus

This year’s Grammy for Best Album may go to SZA’s much heralded revenge record SOS containing the immortal lyrics “I hate everybody, I hate everyone,” one of nine nominations for SZA, or GUTS by Olivia Rodrigo, featuring the charting track “Get Him Back” about Rodrigo’s lust to return to her ex-boyfriend and get vengeance, or the Grammy may go to Miley Cryus’s Endless Summer Vacation, which showcases her usual low common denominator music and probing lyrics such as “I don’t know / Who the hell you think you’re messin’ with / Get the fuck out of my house with that shit / Get the fuck out of my life with that shit,” but it won’t go to Jeff Scott’s oratorio Passion for Bach and Coltrane which combines classical music and jazz with the illuminating poetry of A.B. Spellman:

A.B. Spellman

my swing is more mellow
these days: not the hardbop drive
i used to roll but more of a cool
foxtrot. my eyes still close
when the rhythm locks; i’ve learned
to boogie with my feet on the floor
i’m still movin’, still groovin’
still fallin’ in love

(“Groovin’ Low”)

Anne-Sophie Mutter

Perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that the Grammys hold less cachet in the classical music community than in the public at large. Among the musical elite, Grammys’ smell of competition generally provokes a haughty disdain. Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter once told me, “We’re not sports figures and I’m not competing against anyone, other than my ideals of playing a specific piece.”


Charles Ives

For four decades I observed the reactions of world-class musicians to the annual Grammy orgy. Their response may best be described by recalling a story about Charles Ives. Officials from Columbia University visited the great composer’s New Haven home to inform him he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony. Standing in the doorway to his living room, Ives told the officials, “Prizes are for children,” and closed the door on them.

Michael Tilson Thomas

The devoted grunts who run the public relations engines of record companies and orchestras are not so blasé. Legendary conductor Michael Tilson Thomas said, “It’s a process like the Oscars. There’s a certain amount of positioning and politicking, which you know is going on. There are some people who get very very heavily involved in that sort of thing. I don’t particularly.”

Igor Stravinsky

Originally, the Grammys were a product of Hollywood 1958, where the recording industry was fast gravitating and classical music still held a viable place in the market. The first Grammy for Best Classical Album was awarded in 1961 to Stravinsky’s performances with a Hollywood studio musicians orchestra of The Rite of Spring and Petrouchka. Stravinsky was a darling of the L.A. art set. I can’t imagine any classical music aficionado choosing Stravinsky as the finest interpreter of his own music.


Leonard Slatkin

In ensuing years, controversy tainted the Classical Grammys. Accusations flew of ballot-stuffing! Leonard Slatkin, former St. Louis Symphony and National Symphony Orchestras maestro, as well as six-time Grammy winner, explained to me: “Anyone who makes a recording may vote. The controversies arose when some places stacked the deck by basically enrolling all of the members of their choruses and orchestras into the voting ensemble.”

Sir Georg Solti

What scoundrels these? To name three, the Atlanta Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, and most notably the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which was so skilled at Grammy cheating it resulted in their maestro Sir Georg Solti winning a record 31 Grammys, the first for his Best Opera Recording of Verdi’s Aida, with the Rome Opera Orchestra, in 1963, the same year the Album of the Year award went to Vaughan Meader’s satire of the Kennedys, The First Family, which was a winner over comedian Allen Sherman’s album My Son, The Folk Singer, and Tony Bennett’s I Left My Heart in San Francisco, the title track of which won Record of the Year. Solti won his final Grammy in 1991 when he took home the trophy for his record with the Chicago Symphony & Chorus of Bach’s B Minor Mass.

Slatkin says to counteract such dastardly politics, the Recording Academy set up a committee to screen records and choose nominees. “Therefore, I think it’s quite an honor, even more so now than in the past, to receive the nomination.” Under the new rules, Beyoncé has eclipsed the late Solti with 32 wins, and Quincy Jones has closed the gap with 28, with Chick Corea and Alison Krauss are right behind with 27.
Robert Shafer

You’ll get no argument about the Grammys from Robert Shafer, conductor of the Washington Chorus, who was stunned by the news that his recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, had been nominated for Best Choral Performance. The record was the culmination of Shafer’s nearly 40-year love for the War Requiem. The 54-year-old maestro had the giddy flush of a first-time nominee when he told me, “It would be a great, great honor to win. I would be very moved for this profound work.” He said he considered it the last century’s greatest composition for chorus and orchestra. “The work itself is what’s the most important thing. The awards and the applause, all that is fleeting, but the relationship you have with the music, and with the people that make the music with you is what’s lasting.

Shafer’s entry was up against formidable competition: the then-leading maestro in the world Sir Simon Rattle with his recording of Sir William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Paul McCreesh’s collaboration with the esteemed Gabrieli Players & Consort in a recording of Handel’s wise and soaring oratorio Solomon, and John Eliot Gardiner with his highly lauded Revolutionary & Romantic Orchestra, and the renowned Monteverdi Choir, performing Schubert’s Mass in A-flat. Shafer had no plans to fly coast to coast to attend the Grammy ceremony; besides, the Recording Academy had offered him only one ticket. The prodigious night arrived, and the Grammy went to – dramatic pause – Robert Shafer for Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem!
And yet, after the career-advancing awards are awarded and the applause dims and disappears, we are left with nagging questions. What of this annual exercise of musicians competing for statuettes? What could be more removed from the generous and inclusive spirit of music than the Grammy Awards? Is it not enough that commercial music competes in the marketplace?
Music at its best is a personal and private experience, like love. It is pointless and demeaning to rank one love experience above another, and then to place such high-falutin’ value on which lover wins the gold trophy is vulgar and revolting. Were I King of the World, the Grammys would be seen for the sham that they are, nothing more than a corporate selling tool.
But I am not King. I am but a father who sometimes writes about music in the lives of my own children. I recall Colette, on the cusp of her third birthday, accompanied me as we walked our friendly dog Eddie. In a grassy field, we unleashed the dog and explored the grounds together. Colette enjoyed carrying a stick she found along the way and when we came upon a manhole cover she squatted before the thick cast-iron circle and tap-tap-tapped out a rhythm with her stick. She paused, looked up at me and said excitedly, “Now you do it, Daddy!”
Daddy squatted and tapped out his own rhythm with the stick. Suddenly she plucked a second stick from the grass and now we were both tap-tap-tapping! The little girl became delirious with joy (though managing to maintain her tapping), singing “I’m so hap-py!” The old man looked pretty happy himself, considering.
Stephen Foster

All makers of music, even such music as this which holds no hope of ever receiving a Grammy nomination, recognize our happy tapping as the golden nugget of music. “Dear friends and gentle hearts,” to borrow words from the great Reconstruction era songwriter Stephen Foster, spoken with his dying breath, let me whisper in your ear: The golden nugget of music is communication. How exactly is the Recording Academy measuring such a thing to determine which musician’s communication, its breath and depth, is better than the next?

Who has Grammys, who has fewer Grammys?
Beyoncé 32 – Otis Redding 2
Vladimir Horowitz 25 – Jackson Browne 0 (8 nominations)
Stevie Wonder 25 – Leonard Bernstein 16
Foo Fighters 15 – Pink Floyd 1
John Williams 25 – Brian Wilson 2
Bruce Springsteen 20 (50 nominations) – Frank Sinatra 9 (31 nominations)
Bob Dylan 10 – Justin Timberlake 10
Taylor Swift 12 – Michael Tilson Thomas 11
Lady Gaga 13 – Ella Fitzgerald 13
Henry Mancini 20 – Snoop Dogg 0 (16 nominations)
Barbra Streisand 8 (46 nominations) – Diana Ross 0 (12 nominations)
Michael Jackson 13 – Roger Miller 11
Paul Simon 16 – Simon & Garfunkel 7
Madonna 7 – Prince 7 (28 & 38 nominations, respectively)
Emerson String Quartet 9 – Joni Mitchell 9 (13 & 17 nominations)
Natalie Cole 9 – Nat King Cole 1
Willie Nelson 10 – Miley Cyrus 0 (2 nominations)
Cher 1 – Sonny & Cher 0
Yo-Yo Ma 19 – Aretha Franklin 18 (29 & 44 nominations)
Ray Charles 17 – Eminem 15
Tony Bennett 19 – Al Green 11
Linda Ronstadt 10 – Katy Perry 0
Kenny G, Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Chicago, Bon Jovi, Al Hirt, Queen Latifah, Nirvana, Alfred Newman, Paula Abdul, and America, 1 each.
Jay-Z 24 – Bob Newhart 3.