I really shouldn’t have been there, since I played no role in the creation of the nominated jazz album (“Further Explorations.”) However, my Uncle Paul Motian had. Paul, who was once voted The Greatest Living Jazz Drummer and who passed away last year, played on the album along with pianist Chick Corea and bassist Eddie Gomez. I was there to accept the Grammy on his behalf if the album won. Or maybe not (more on this later.)
Joining me on my odyssey was Katie (a wonderful friend who proved particularly helpful during the moments of confusion referred to above.) Undaunted by the fact New England was experience a blizzard, she wore flip flops to the airport in anticipation of lounging by the hotel pool. She has a positive outlook on life. However, even she had joined me in feeling despondent and pessimistic Thursday night when we received robocalls informing us our Friday morning flight had been cancelled. The airline switched us to a 1:45 p.m. flight, but since the snowstorm would only get worse as the day went on I assumed we were doomed.
Somewhat miraculously, the 1:45 p.m. flight wasn’t cancelled and was in fact the last flight to leave the airport before it shut down. Despite some delays and one glitch (something about an inoperable fuel tank that forced us to divert to Kansas for refueling) we made it to LA crash-free.
Saturday morning, we took a pleasant 10-minute jaunt to the LA Convention Center, where I was given two “Gold” tickets (appropriate, given the Willy Wonka-esque nature of it all.) Then the man affixed two vertical silver stickers marked “Arrivals.” These were my keys, I was told, to getting on the Red Carpet, “where all the media and celebrities are.” Consider this my first moment of genuine excitement. I imagined myself and Katie hanging with Johnny Depp and striking poses amidst a cacophony of flashbulbs. Ironically, we had been told cameras were not allowed at any Grammy events. Throwing caution to the wind, we would bring a camera anyway to document our presence on the R.C. Actually, my thoughts were more along the lines of, “This is the f***ing Grammys. I’m bringing my f***ing camera.”
Later, I began to imagine ugly scenarios involving being tackled by large men with earpieces. I decided to pay a visit to the security trailer, which (somewhat disconcertingly) was unguarded and staffed by a few small- to average-sized young people without earpieces. They were cool with my taking photos, so I was all set.
The first official Grammy events were scheduled for Saturday afternoon. There would be a “Special Merit Awards” ceremony at 3:00 and then a “Nominee’s Reception” at 5:00, both at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. After picking up the tickets, we ended up spending more time than planned walking around downtown LA, visiting the Grammy Museum, and grabbing lunch at Wolfgang Puck. We would have had to make a mad rush to return to the hotel, get dressed, and hail a cab to the Ebell in time.
We decided to take our time and just catch the end of the “Technical and Special Merit Awards.” After all, we’d only be missing some obscure technical awards and then a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award for the 1950s pop singer Patti Page (not that there’s anything wrong with Patti Page.) In retrospect, this was unwise because it turned out there were a bunch of Lifetime Achievement Awards we hadn’t known about.
When we arrived at the Ebell Theater, I was surprised to see jazz bassist Charlie Haden giving a speech after winning a Lifetime Achievement Award. Consider this my second moment of genuine excitement. For those who aren’t familiar with Charlie, I came to know him through some phone conversations after my Uncle passed away. He had played with Paul in an iteration of the Bill Evans Trio. Incidentally, he is also the coolest white guy ever:
I had just spoken to Charlie a few days before to see if we could meet while I was in LA, but he wasn’t feeling well and never told me he would be getting a Lifetime Achievement Award. Or maybe he assumed I knew. Regretfully, I didn’t encounter him for the rest of the weekend.
Carole King (yet another Lifetime Achievement Award recipient) couldn’t be there because she was on tour in Australia, but one of her daughters used her cell phone to call her mother and transmitted all of us in the audience singing “Happy Birthday” (It was February 9, her birthday and mine also.) A surreal moment I was glad to experience.
The Nominees Reception was not exactly teeming with “big name” nominees as I’d hoped, but I did meet Phil Chess (of the Chess record label—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry etc.) He had received a Lifetime Achievement Award prior to our arrival. The guy with him who I’d chatted with introduced me thusly, “Phil, this is Dave. He’s a blues freak.” I thanked Mr. Chess for his role in creating all that great music and told him, “You have a good ear.” He remained silent. Was “blues freak” a term of derision? Was it presumptuous of me to praise his aural acuity? He was in a wheelchair and didn’t seem to be talking much, so either I freaked him out or he was in poor health. I grooved to Norah Jones performing a few feet away.
There was a red velvet rope with people lined up on either side. Having been conditioned at the airport to get in the left line (Economy Class), it felt strange to be striding to the right line (for Nominees.) A sign said something about Nominee Photos. At last, I would be able to get some pictures of me hanging with Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift!
Unfortunately, the A-List Nominees must’ve been way ahead in the line or something because I didn’t recognize anyone in the room. They gave everyone a nice “Grammy Nominee” medallion on a blue ribbon and then a photographer took our pictures individually, with the medallion. People were wearing them around their necks, but that didn’t feel right to me so I held it in my hand. (Apparently there was no protocol for people who were representing nominees.) After consuming some of the free champagne and wandering around, the signature Westin Heavenly Bed® began to beckon. Soon I was back under the covers with more pillows than I could count, planning my acceptance speech and dreaming about Sunday’s award ceremonies.
Only ten awards are presented during the live Grammy Awards telecast. The other seventy (including Best Jazz Instrumental Album) are given before the telecast. This year, the 1:00 p.m. ceremony took place at the relatively intimate Nokia Theater and we were able to sit about 6 or 7 rows back. Apparently the old location (The Shrine Auditorium) must’ve sucked because people kept saying how glad they were to be in the Nokia Theater, the mere mention of which produced enthusiastic applause.
I wasn’t sure what was going to happen if the album won. I’d been told I might have to accept the award if Chick wasn’t there. No one would know this until the ceremony. When I had asked if I could go onstage even if Chick was there, I was given the rather cryptic instructions, “It’s entirely up to you.”
Waiting nervously in the audience, I began formulating various scenarios based upon whether Chick, Eddie, Chick and Eddie, or just I was there. Would I accept on behalf of whoever was not there, or only my Uncle Paul? If only Chick and I were there, who would accept on Eddie’s behalf? Would Chick speak and then give me the podium? Would he even know who I was?
My anxiety increased exponentially as a Darth Vader-like voice ominously warned, “Only nominees are to go on the stage, not their representatives.” A little later, the warning came again, only this time he sounded angrier, “The award is for the NOMINEES only. If you are NOT a Nominee, DO NOT approach the stage.” Even the funny and affable host, comedian and actor David Alan Grier, became serious for a moment when he stressed how important it was that only nominees accept their awards.
Chick Corea actually had a total of five Grammy nominations. Two of his solos, on two different albums, had been nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo. He’d also been nominated for Best Instrumental Composition. He was also competing against himself in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album: along with “Further Explorations,” the album my Uncle played on, an album he made with vibraphonist Gary Burton (“Hot House”) was also nominated. If they announced his name as winner of Best Jazz Instrumental Album, I’d need to be careful to note which album won.
After acing the Jazz Solo and Composition categories, it looked like he would dominate the evening. Arturo Sandoval said it best when he won Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album: “I’m glad Chick Corea didn’t make a Large Jazz Ensemble Album this year.” I became more confident. (I was also relieved to see that Chick was, in fact, present.)
Despite the warnings, I fully intended to accept the award on Paul’s behalf. But I wanted to discuss it with Chick first. I stopped the first guy I saw who looked like a jazz musician and asked him, “Do you know Chick Corea?” He said he did indeed know Chick Corea. “Do you know where he’s sitting? I need to speak with him.” He became frightened and took off, as I realized I was acting the way a deranged fan would act. I was approached by security. “Sir, we really need you to take your seat.”
Returning to my seat, I finalized the plan. Chick was sitting in a sea of people to my left and further back. If I was quick about it, I could jump up, sprint towards him as he walked down the aisle, and corner him before he reached the stage. I would then quickly explain who I was and ask if I could join him onstage.
After sitting patiently through thirty-eight categories, I learned the winner of Best Jazz Instrumental Album was… not Chick Corea. I felt relieved. It was over. I could just sit back and enjoy the thirty-one more Pre-Telecast award presentations. By the time they presented the last award (Producer of the Year, Non-Classical), I was ready to hit the Red Carpet.
Alas, it was not to be. Because it was close to the start of the Telecast, the Pre-Telecast people were unceremoniously herded into the Staples Center. By the way, they still hadn’t fed us. This produced the strangely satisfying image of hordes of hungry and thirsty 1-Percenters lining up at the decidedly unsophisticated Staples Center concession stands. Katie had her photo taken with David Alan Grier in the hotdog line, and then it was time to take our seats.
We were sitting above an exit used by some of the celebrities. Therefore, we were able to see the tops of several A-List heads up close, including Johnny Depp and J Lo. Oh, and I think Jay Z walked by me in front of the men’s room. Thus ended the celebrity spotting.
For me, the best musical moment (one of those moments of genuine joy I mentioned) was the tribute to Levon Helm of the Band and the group rendition of “The Weight.” In particular, the verse sung by soul songstress Mavis Staples, whose presence on stage was an unexpected surprise. (Brief aside: When I told my elderly mother about Mavis Staples, she asked me if she owned the Staples Center. I explained the Center was named after the office supply, not the singer.) I also enjoyed the Dave Brubeck “tribute”—a medley of tunes that lasted all of 45 seconds—performed by the omnipresent Chick Corea, joined by Stanley Clarke and Kenny Garrett. (Jazz is an important part of the Grammys.) The only part of the Telecast that really irked me was when we were FORCED TO GIVE JUSTIN TIMERLAKE A STANDING OVATION. (TV is fake.)
After the Telecast, there was a long line marked “Gifts.” My anticipation grew, since the weekend had been disappointingly short on trinkets. When we finally got to the table, someone handed me a set of in-ear headphones authorized by country singer Tim McGraw. This was the only option. There were hundreds of them, stacked like a price Roll Back at Walmart. At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, I packed my Tim McGraw headphones next to the gold medallion by Tiffany & Co., realizing the duo was the perfect encapsulation of my once-in-a-lifetime experience.