Washington's music community gives itself a pat on the back and a gentle shove on the backside tonight with the first Washington Area Music Awards at Lisner Auditorium. Patterned after both the national Grammys and San Francisco's Bammies (Bay Area Music Awards), the Wammies are the brainchild of Michael Jaworek, a founding member of the Washington Area Music Association (WAMA), a year-old, nonprofit group made up of local music professionals.
"It's a way of showing local and national people that there's a wide variety of good music here," says Jaworek, booking agent at the Warner. "And these people who create it deserve an outlet. It's also a shove to get us looking at what we do even more closely -- just how good are we compared to the rest of the world?"
Coming four months after the first Helen Hayes Awards, Washington theater's equivalent of the Tonys and Obies, the Wammies are the first organized effort to confer respect and legitimacy on a scene that is sometimes disparaged, even by those who participate in it. There will be awards in several categories for best vocalist, instrumentalist, group, song, songwriter, single and album -- 37 in all, plus a half-dozen technical and production awards. A number of people will become the first inductees in the Wammies Hall of Fame.
"It's very important that the industry know what talent is here," says Mike Schreibman, a longtime promoter and a WAMA member. "So often Washington is passed over as a source of talent, and so often in the past, artists have had to leave the area to gain the attention they deserved."
With tonight's awards, which will start at 7 and feature about 20 musical groups and 40 presenters (including Emmylou Harris, Joan Jett and Gil Scott-Heron), WAMA hopes to gain more than recognition, more than a temporary bonding. Though the show will celebrate achievements over the past 18 months and provide an overview of local music history from the past half-century, what's really at stake is the future.
Washington has long been a seedbed of musical activity, but it has never really been a garden. The organizers of the Wammies would like to expand the city's image, combat its longstanding sense of cultural inferiority, and get more tangible results as well. Money raised tonight will be used for educational programs, the formation of an area music archives and charitable events (such as the recent Washington Rocks Against Hunger). Tickets ($17.50) will be available at the door.
Like many major cities, Washington has offered a diversity of musical scenes rather than a single coherent one. While there have been dominant strains in different eras -- jazz in the '40s, country in the '50s, folk and bluegrass in the '60s, go-go in the '80s -- there has never been a musical presence strong enough to define Washington as something more than a political town, and a conservative one at that, that tends to roll up its sidewalks early.
There's also a double-edged transient problem: not only an ever-shifting population of government and military employes, but also a population that has fled to the suburbs over the past 25 years. That's how far we are from the heyday of the Howard Theatre, and the thriving country and rock circuit on 14th Street. Both were unable to withstand the debilitating effects of urban decay; the riots of 1968 were just the final nail in the coffin of downtown entertainment.
The result has been a dispersed audience, one that has no chance to develop a sense of place, much less of history, though one can find local heroes in just about any area of music. You could start an impressive Hall of Fame with Duke Ellington, Roy Clark, Mark Russell, Jim Morrison, Charlie Byrd, Marvin Gaye, Patsy Cline, Roberta Flack and Emmylou Harris, to name just a few.
Too often, Washington must claim those who went away to make their mark. Not that that's unusual; historically, very few musicians have had home-town and national impact -- it seems that everybody has to go somewhere, which is why someone like Nils Lofgren has been precious since he was a precocious Bethesda teen-ager in Grin. The irony, of course, is that over the past eight years, Lofgren has hardly played in the town he still lives in.
Similarly, Roberta Flack, after being discovered at Mr. Henry's and becoming a major star, moved to the suburbs, then to another town. Her performances here are infrequent. Buck Hill and Shirley Horn, jazz artists of international renown, struggle in their home town. Sonny Stitt, a giant of jazz, practically never played here.
Even a band like the Nighthawks, arguably one of the biggest nightclub draws on the East Coast, plays its home town infrequently. There is such a thing as overexposure, and Washington is a smaller town than some people would like to believe. You can ask any number of bands about that.
Which hasn't stopped musicians in all disciplines from pursuing dreams and careers. There have always been opportunities here for young players to pay their dues, and you can find excellent musicians in every genre imaginable. But Washington has never looked with great favor on performers trying to do something new. Many, including those whose talents take them to the top of their professions, are forced into rigid molds by club owners and audiences.
The symbiotic relationship between club owners, musicians and audiences has taken a battering in recent years, with such major showcases as the Wax Museum, Adam's, Cellar Door, Charlie's and The Childe Harold closing, victims of harsh economic realities: When you pay live musicians, you often don't make it to break even; if they choose to perform original material, it's even less of a go. There are other complications as well, including the convergence of an increasingly older population and cable television. In many locations one can find several round-the-clock networks (MTV, VH-1, the Nashville Network) offering nonstop videos and filmed concerts in the comfort of one's home. The whole "home entertainment center" concept has hurt "live entertainment" in general: It may not carry the visceral impact of a live show, but it is hassle-free, cheaper and there's usually plenty of parking available.
In the past few years, Washington musicians have looked to vinyl for relief. Occasionally, someone gets the Big Record Shot (Tommy Keene and Geffen Records are the latest pick to click), but more often it's with small independent labels that have decent distribution but no significant promotional apparatus. While Washington-based companies like Time-Life Records, the Smithsonian Collection and the Organization of American States release excellent, mostly historical records, small labels like RAS, Adelphi, Limp, TTED and Dischord act as a clearinghouse for new talent.
In this era of do-it-yourself, however, there has sprung up a virtual cottage industry of one-shots, with dozens of artists -- jazz, rock, soul, bluegrass, even classical -- producing and releasing what are unkindly called vanity records, but are really the ultimate independents. Luckily, there are stations here (notably WHFS, WAMU and WPFW) willing to expose local product.
The late '70s, generally viewed as the end of the baby boomer era, also marked a significant changing of the guard in audiences, players and sources. Whereas the first wave of Washington underground music in the '60s had been rooted in American music (bands like Grin, Claude Jones, Sageworth, Crank, Love-Cry-Want), those that sprang up at in the early '80s tended to look to England, substituting style for substance. The go-go scene, the healthiest today in terms of drawing power, has succeeded partly because it draws from the past (James Brown and African tribal music) and the present (techno-funk).
But there's a subtler problem here. In the good old days, entertainment was a key virtue of many bands and one didn't necessarily have to be a fan to enjoy them. Nowadays, one often needs to be a fan, and so bands end up developing cults instead of audiences. That limited commercial appeal has its negative side effects, resulting in a starvation circuit.
The Wammies show tonight is the result of a yearlong volunteer effort by a number of dedicated music people. There have been some mistakes, such as the fee charged those who made the nominations, but in fact there was no project funding (though Kodak has stepped in to sponsor the show itself). And WAMA has had trouble convincing some elements of the community to take it seriously, resulting in a let's-wait-and-see attitude. Slightly more than a thousand ballots will decide the winners, and Lisner Auditorium could be only three-quarters full tonight. Then again, San Francisco's first Bammies had similar problems, and they had a much larger base of bankable names to work with.
The question is whether the Wammies will celebrate genuine contributions, best-intentioned efforts or merely the survival instinct. A number of nominees no longer perform, bands have broken up (most of the reggae nominees are kaput) and while there were no classical or gospel categories, there seemed to be too many other categories that stretched to find nominees. If that was intended solely to give an illusion of activity, or to be all-inclusive, it could have unfortunate repercussions.
But one expects kinks in any new project, particularly one linking elements of a community that have long been used to their insularity. That many of these people spent a year working toward this one night is commendable, and it's crucial that the Wammies not only be given a chance, but room for mistakes, and room for growth.