Yesterday, The New York Times published an interview with comedian Chris Rock on a hodgepodge of topics, as discourse with the irreverent, insightful, almost prophetic Rock tends to go. While taking in his thoughts on the rise of Louis C.K., the arts' quality judged based solely on audience mass enjoyment, and Rock's overall career trajectory were all fascinating to read, one point that stuck out most were his thoughts on the backlash against Daniel Tosh for a rather untoward joke (or really the untoward joke, the heckle, and then the turn of the prior joke toward the heckler, likely almost as a kneejerk reaction)1. Rock stated that the real determinant of the weight of Tosh's words would be if it upset his actual fan base. If his following felt it was out of line or think differently of him thereafter, then that's the true judgment of if he went too far. It's a little bit of an argumentum ad populum but it in a way makes sense. A community is able to judge itself.
Also yesterday, Jay-Z's web publication, Life + Times, published an interview with the cast of Black Dynamite, the new [adult swim] cartoon adapted from the hilarious 2009 cult Blaxploitation parody film. The cast of the show conveys the same jubilation discussing the show as they seem to have in making what has quickly become a Sunday night staple. Yet it's worth noting that a large reason why Michael Jai White, Tommy Davidson, Scott Sanders and others are so happy to make this show is because they not only have free creative range and the medium to show it but also because they have total control of how they want to represent their community. A resounding note from the L+T piece was how blacks in the acting industry don't often have the ability to represent themselves honestly, instead working through the filter of another (usually white) arbiter. This cast and crew, mostly carried over from the film, have a certain relief because this is one of those rare times when a community is able to present itself to the rest of the world as it so chooses.
Another article from yesterday comes from NPR2. Half the country of India has recently undergone a massive blackout, subjecting 350 million people to go without power for nearly three days. Yet the fascinating thing about this piece was how despite what an extraordinary circumstance this is, many people of New Delhi who journalist Elliot Hannon encountered were more than somewhat irritated but not overwhelmingly incensed to the fire and pitchforks level one would anticipate Americans would feel under a similar situation. Quite a few folks of considerable wealth have generators, particularly store owners. Most people already have candles. It's not that the people of India were prepared for such an incident en masse, but when problems crop up a lot in a densely populated country of 1+ billion people, you tend to make like a Boy Scout and be prepared. In a country of over a billion people, folks just know to get used to things and learn not to get worked up about stuff when there's so much one must encounter everyday with such a congested infrastructure. The circumstances that a community endures builds the community's culture and, to a degree, its mentality.
These notions of community identity -- to discern what it is, what behavior is tolerable, how it presents itself, what from its shared background shapes what it is -- are as crucial concepts as knowing that we are what we see everyday. While our surroundings are crucial for building our personal personae, they in some way are also constructed by our communities -- physical, ideological, and generally associative. In that same sense, our communities are also progressively formed by external elements. Thus, when we think about the jazz community3 and its placement in the global landscape, it's helpful to think about how it as a whole was formed, has developed, how it has prospered, where it is, how wide it has spread in ideology, and all the disparate directions it's going creatively, commercially, and perceptually.
When the jazz community laments no longer being a popular music, while it's helpful to understand that genre dominance fluctuates over time, a hearkening for a heyday isn't necessarily uncalled for; thus a yearning for that sort of renaissance would only seem natural. It helps to understand the source of the feelings of those in the community in order to determine how we should move forward, individually and generally as a community. When external genres influence jazz in order to expand its umbrella, it's understandable that there are those who would feel this creates something altogether new as opposed to being the next mutation of a current form. It's sensible that some would feel this way, although it's arguable (clearly, since I've apparently been arguing the point for years) that it's more sensible that we're seeing new versions of the same thing, not an entirely new thing. When we think about the future of music journalism -- the validity of artist profiles, long form writing, album reviews, etc. -- it's helpful to understand how there are those who may think that the format is somewhat antiquated as the medium with which we consume such information changes, but it's also helpful to understand those who believe that there is still basic information that must be conveyed in the midst of the journalistic format while exhibiting authorial creativity throughout that format, otherwise, the basic elements of who, what, where, when, why, and how that an audience should pick up in an informative/entertaining medium might very well be lost and the main intention of the work could be rendered irrelevant.
The complication of community is that it involves a melding of individuals under a common attribute. The community is constantly changing as the individuals change and as the general society adapts to the community as it constantly analyzes and reanalyzes itself -- what it stands for, what it includes, how it functions. Concretely discerning these things, while necessary, is understandably a task constantly in flux. Yet it's recognizing the challenge of this, putting this struggle in as many aspects as possible in its proper context, that will enable our community (or any community in general, hence this week's column's very general tone) move forward and hopefully temper our discourse when folks flare up about banishing musicians from the genre or exiling ourselves from a name out of some effort to put lipstick on a pig and call it the prom queen.
Yes, communities are constantly defining themselves, even in this era of rugged individualism wherein so many of us are so reticent to take on titles (which at times sort of borders on namby-pambyism). Communities define themselves because they must be discerned from everything else in the world. They do so out of necessity. They do so out of pride. They do so out of nature. Remembering all this is key to discussing them. Remembering all this is key to understanding them. Remembering all this is key to understanding ourselves.
Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.