In the third season of the AMC series Mad Men, the firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Price, takes on a new client, the dog food company Caldecott Farms. Caldecott Farms was recently exposed as having horse meat in its dog food which has essentially ruined the business, thus the head of the family-owned company was seeking out help from SCDP to save Caldecott Farms’ image. It didn’t take long for the savvy Don Draper to say they needed to change the name of the company-- the talk of horse meat has done irreparable harm. There was no trying with a new ad campaign, the focus testing did no good, there was no hope in keeping the name because the brand has taken on irreparable harm.
Once again, I find myself discussing the same issue, working quite diligently to convince people who I would consider colleagues to neglect the idea of running away from the name of a genre that has served as a banner that many in this community have waved so proudly. All the while, I’m fending off the occasional lazy argument that I’m not qualified to speak on the subject because I comment on artwork that I cannot make out of resentment, instead of it being considered that the words I make on a subject I love are a form of art themselves and that the people culled together here in this place are not their own helpful contribution to the scene. I attempt not to be weighed down by these arguments and not lose the main focus of this argument. I know for certain that the community, in order to move forward, needs to break out of its echo chamber of commentary and lamentation. Thus I continue to inculcate this point until I can convince others that this constant decrying of the death of an art form is counterproductive to the community’s progress and proliferation. The jazz community is akin to the Ouroborus. Its fixation on itself is constantly causing its own destruction and yet it never dies for, as Marcus Strickland recently stated, “If something died in 1959, it would not be up for debate in 2011.” The community may be ill at ease with its diminished popular status, but the genre lives on. It moves forward. It takes on new influences. It evolves. The next phase of that evolution should not be cutting and running from its own name if it has not undertaken irreparable harm.
Back in my time at Morehouse, one of my many revered professors, Dr. Melvin Rahming, once taught me something particularly insightful in my African-American Literature class. He said African Americans have never at any time in American history unilaterally agreed on anything with the exception of wanting freedom from slavery. At the time he was saying this, he was professing on the rift between W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington in their approaches to education and black empowerment. However, what nags at me to this day is how even the exception of slavery doea not apply in this case if one takes into account the works of Phillis Wheatley so openly stating her appreciation that Africans were enslaved so that they may find Christianity. But I digress. Of course, this all seems obvious. No community believes unilaterally on anything. There is always dissension, for this comes with the freedom of choice, the distinction of individual background, and one's own free will; that's the nature of humanity. There may be those who agree and disagree within a community. That disagreement could be seen as a pivotal moment in the community’s history. It could create an all out rift. There may be DuBoisians and Washintonians and Garveyites, but all those people were still black (both then when these schools of thought were being formulated and now as those same ideals are still being considered today). It is natural for there to be disagreement, but the community is still a whole. It is not as though the rift in ideology has ultimately created irreparable harm.
A large part of the job we do at Nextbop is to make jazz cool again. We believe quite strongly that this is an incredible music that has been through many different permutations in its rich past. Jazz does indeed have black roots and it does sound different from what it was in its founding, but that’s natural for anything that has existed as long as jazz has. It’s natural for any artform that is as inclusive and permutative as jazz is. We as advocates for the music are not shying away from the title of jazz because we feel it does not need a rebranding. The masses aren’t running from jazz because the name is too imposing. If the same music were to be played for a crowd of newcomers, whether it is called stretch or Postmodern New Orleans music (both of which sound like terrible, not all that catchy [and thus rather counterproductive] names), the listeners would still know the music to be jazz. It’s an easily distinguishable music, branding and various branches not withstanding, and believing that culling the entirety of the community to sign off on a quick name change is trying to play the overall music-listening public as fools. Yet highlighting the vibracy, dynamism, and overall groove that we all know jazz to have is the way to sell it to the masses. It is the perception of the genre needs to change. That is the work that we here at Nextbop undertake and hope that other writers, musicians, commentators, and fans of the genre should take on themselves. We do this because we know that the music we love, the music that we all continue to make and hear and collectively enrich, is still alive. We do this because we know in the century of its magnificent existence, it has yet to undertake irreparable harm.
If it seems I have taken umbrage for some of the charges that have been levied against me, I would concur that in some way I have. It’s difficult to constantly hear, especially after attempting to quash the idea so often, that the work to which I am dedicated should be rendered irrelevant. It’s upsetting to hear that just when our community is making a real footprint in a new digital terrain, that just when touches of our craft are spreading out in saxophone sections for indie bands, backing on keys for rappers, accompanying rock impresarios on film scores, and doing just plain cool stuff on its own in constantly evolving new ways, that all that work has been for naught. No, the music is not at its 1959 heights. Yes, we are conflicted about the future of the genre and the relevance of its ever growing past, but the mere fact that we’re still here now, the mere fact that we’re having this discussion, the mere fact that so many of us are so incensed that we’re having this fight yet again, should imply that we are far from dead. There are far too many of us fighting for the life of this thing and far too many of us still supporting what we have for us to concur that we have undertaken irreparable harm.
And if jazz has truly died, what’s next? Are these legions of musicians expected to depart from the isle of Manhattan in some sort of mellifluous exodus? Are the brass bands receding from New Orleans as the waters have after Katrina? What will draw young, sophisticated couples to tapas bars now? No, this is not a reality that I am willing to accept. This is not a reality that even currently exists. Of course, jazz still lives. Of course, this genre still thrives. There are those who make this music with closer ties to its black roots and there are those who have diverged from that form while still holding to the improvisational tenets of the genre. The umbrella of the genre has widened. This is nothing to fear. I contend that those who decry jazz’s "death" are truly lost about their status as artists and musicians, confused about an ever-shifting plane that they may no longer recognize, altogether realizing that it may not be jazz that has died, but merely jazz as they know it that has been left behind for its current iteration, all the while casting out the idea that the genre has splintered off into so many different branches that this lamentation may not be relevant after all. Jazz has become, to some, unfathomably wide. It is this limited perception of the genre has undertaken irreparable harm, not the genre overall.
Ultimately, we may not agree on this subject. There are those among us in this community who have felt battered by this storm enough. There are those who feel it may be best to rebrand the genre in the hope that it would bring new life, however I feel such a move would ultimately ring hollow. Yes, my friends, our fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves. It may take the boisterous rantings of our flamboyant figures to rattle our cage and make us search ourselves, but the answers we find may yet be the same: we have a fight for the future of our art ahead of us, as we always have. Some of us may find that fight to be worthy and others of us may not. But nevertheless, those of us who feel that we in this community have not taken on irreparable harm should not be hindered by those of us who do. We need not be discouraged by our peers, the landscape tries quite a bit to do that to us enough. We can indeed move forward, but it helps, at least in this regard, not to look back.
Anthony Dean-Harris is editor of the online literary blog, SunDryed Affairs, a former contributing writer for the late 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.