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On Civil Discourse and Maligned Classifications

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

I'm the kind of guy who likes classifying things. Take any look at my past written work and I'm sure that's easy to discern. Everything should have a place and everything should be able to be described to others. Classification is the means in which we make sense of things. Judging from most of the discourse in the jazz and general music communities, I'm certain most people feel the same way.

There seems to be a bit of a problem with our collective need for classification, though. We have failed to realize some folks may be working with different sets of definitions. The largest rift as it pertains to our community is the question of what truly constitutes jazz. Yet this is only one in a long line of definition disagreements we share. Add to that our recent question of the necessity for the traditional album form, what constitutes mastery, the skill and enjoyment of certain subgenres, and a wide cadre of other questions that seem to make us collectively devolve to name calling and extremist speech (well, as extremist as jazz fans can be).

Our disagreements should not cause us to mourn the state of the genre or the state of music overall. Our disagreements should be praised for sparking new discourse and the beginning of new discoveries in our own genre, music overall, and our own better nature. When the operations manager of a jazz station asks if we still need the traditional album in the face of new media, it's not time to mourn the state of radio but to find new ways to innovate the music industry. When the editorial force behind a modern mainstream jazz website speaks of his early love of jazz music, one shouldn't raise an eyebrow but instead praise yet another member of the jazz communities sense of diversity. When someone feels a group was given an award unjustifiably, we should stand back and examine the award and the recipient, not immediately cast aspersions.

Our discourse should be just that: discourse. We should cherish our conversation and seek to find answers, not just take stands. We should comment on matters to move discussion forward, not simply disagree for the sake of ruffling feathers. If anything, it would help us get on the road to classifying things together. It would help us make concessions and allow our classifications to get a little closer to alignment.

Some time ago, I was talking with my esteemed editor, Kathy Caly-Little, about her columns in the San Antonio Express-News. Little, if you're attentive to my bio line at the end of my columns (and the hyperlinks therein) publishes some of my work in her newspaper, African-American Reflections. Needless to say, I hold her and her work in high regard, so it was to some surprise when I first noticed her columns received a lot of hateful comments each week. What surprised me even more was that she used to reply to all the myopic vitriol she received late into the night. It felt odd to tell a woman who has been a journalist for longer than I've been alive to stop answering her hate mail, but I had to do it.

Discourse should be civil. It should be pointed. It should have intention. It should be motivated to persuade. It should ultimately be geared toward aligning our respective classifications of the matters of the world but fully cognizant that it sometimes won't be able do that. It is this eveb tempered spirit that thrives my discourse and shapes my classifications of the world. For the rest, I tend to ignore the snippy comments from the peanut gallery.

Anthony Dean-Harris is 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.