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Jazz Hipsters

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief
anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius

One of my best friends and I often have arguments about hipsterism. We both share many of the attributes of hipsters but while I in some ways embrace parts of the culture, she tries to distance herself from it all. Compile this with the fact that we’re both black and that the original idea of hipsterism is a white appropriation of black culture and things get muddied between she and I on the subject. Yet, the fact of the matter is that she follows the credo of Groucho Marx that she wouldn’t want to be part of a club that would accept her as a member. This, of course, makes sense because there aren’t that many folks out there who others can identify as part of a group but most of those same members would cast off that label. If there’s anything that hipsters hate, it’s other hipsters. If there’s anything that hipsters hate even more, it’s being called a hipster. I bring all this up to say that the jazz fan fits quite squarely in this category, because I can’t think of anything else that celebrates elitist, obscure art more than jazz.

In fact, I touched on this about a month ago. The indie rock-centered world of hipster culture and jazz overlap surprisingly well. Both are progressions of cultures based on musical genres and other adjacent lifestyles whose seed are rooted in black culture. Both pride themselves on knowledge of obscure music out of the cultural zeitgeist but still recognized as a part of the tableau. Both have niche audiences that are able to sustain its artists at just above starving levels. Both have fans who can be just as obnoxious. The reason why I so often compare these two is because jazz could try to share more attributes with indie's business model, even if most jazz musicians wouldn't (and probably shouldn't) take on its genre qualities.

If there's anything we as a fanbase should do, it should be to do one of two things-- we either play this hipster thing up as much as we can or we run frantically away from this image and be as warm and welcoming as possible. Yet in either of these scenarios, this image of the jazz hipster must be accepted. If there's anything that connects the classicist and the modernist jazz fan other than a love of the genre and its desire for it to grow, it's the fact that both of them are hipsters and they generally don't know it. Even now as you, skeptical reader, ponder these words, you're prattling off reason after reason in denial. But I say again, most hipsters deny being hipsters. I'm not one of those pretentious asses who goes on and on about some obscure band most people don't know, you think to yourself. Those people are total tools with their ridiculous outfits and their wasting money on going to shows all the time just to say they were there, spending far too much on drinks and... Oh...

Of course, there's a heck of a lot more that fits in the model. We're not full fledged hipsters but you can't deny that a genre that can call Brooklyn its current home has to be a little suspect. Either way, the ties are close enough that we can at least consider it a baseline for us to come up with ideas for what we should do about the image. The status quo is right now being a group of fans who share hipster qualities and are one wool cap away from being a Carles post (Dave King has already gotten that ball rolling). We can either accept that status quo with confidence or toss it aside entirely, but in order to do that, we're going to have some changing to do.

Changing this involves being a lot more lax. When jazz speaks of its need to grow, most people are talking about the supportive fan base who buys albums and attends shows. The entirety of the music industry is still trying to sort out the first problem but as my recent post on festivals has indicated, we're attempting to make strides on the latter. We're still trying to find our sea legs but I never want to deny good work being done. But being lax also involves casting aside our curmudgeounly veneer, especially in the face of ignorance. Time and again, I advocate for the new fan who feels forever lost at sea with a century of jazz music s/he feels he or she needs to know as if a pop quiz could come up any moment. Even as one who is part of this community, my eyes widen like saucers every time I'm at a jazz show where I mingle with other jazz lovers. In no other context do I say "I did not know that" more often (always said purposefully without contracting "did" and "not" into "didn't" to show emphasis of my overwhelming, shameful ignorance). I've loved jazz for twenty years and I feel like I'll never know enough about it. And this is the climate we want to grow? Yet, even if the slights of the jazz community are merely perceived, a laxness in attitude concerning knowledge and purity of the genre could also involve a laxness in the standards that maintain it. The worst thing about hipsters is that they're thought to be underground but are so commonplace that they seem like each one is deluding himself and herself. I'm pretty sure once Grizzly Bear was used to sell Volkswagens (which made me love "Two Weeks" no less), Pitchfork's Best New Music picks were no longer a big secret. That’s a swing of the pendulum further than we as a genre may want to go.

My suggestion would be to embrace, to a certain extent, what we are and to play it up as jazz being the cool music we feel it to be. There’s only a slight shade of tone between a perplexed “You don’t know [insert artist here]? He’s (because with this genre, the artist is typically male) totally important to the history of jazz.” to an incredulous “Oh, you don’t know [insert artist here]? He’s totally important, especially his live album that he recorded in Japan in 1982, before everything went downhill with jazz.” You’ve just bundled smugness and an “everything was better before ____” comment that’s already not too far from what we’re currently fond of doing. Throw on a pair of skinny jeans and you’d be a spitting image of an American Apparel ad. You know, if most of the fan base weren’t old and would look terrible in deep Vs.

I know this is a hard fact to confront but this is who we are. Embrace this fact or not, but the image is pretty inescapable. Now we have the choice of delving deeper into this visage of hipsterdom or refining who we are into who we want to be seen to be. Still, I prefer to follow the advice of my old pastor, “Be who you is, ‘cause if you ain’t who you is, then you is who you ain’t.” Now those are words to live by.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a co-editor of the online magazine, SunDryed Affairs, a contributing writer for African-American Reflections and 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.