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You Cannot Quite Put Your Finger On It

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

Last week, my radio station, KRTU San Antonio completed its annual fall pledge drive. (Yes, I’m going to harp on this one more time, but it leads to a point. Also, it’s not like we’ve closed our invitation to membership or anything.) While volunteering answering phones and hijacking all the free snacks I could take, I had a conversation with a gentleman about the wonder of America’s diversity (yes, I’m also harping on American ideals again). He was speaking on the wonder of our inability to define an American to one distinct image, but all while he was talking, I couldn’t help but think how jazz works the same way.

Let me give you a little bit of context first. One of the phone calls that came in was from a guy who said he’d donate to the station but he was concerned about the constant Latin jazz he was hearing and he wondered where all the other music was. I tried to explain to him that the station plays a wide variety of jazz on purpose to show everything the genre could be but he just stopped the call short if only to let out his racist diatribe. I tend to get that kind of call once every pledge drive. You tend to just take it for what it is and move on. I find it rather humorous, really. It’s better to find it funny than to let it piss you off.

So I tell this story to everyone in the room and this gentleman, a Vietnam vet and former Freedom Rider, noted how this is a testament to America’s diversity. If one were to ask someone to picture a Chinese person, there’s a clear image at which one can point. Someone from Senegal typically looks a certain way. Someone from India typically looks a certain way. There is no all encompassing image of the American (and to give some credence to my benevolent founders, there technically isn’t one for Canadians, either).

The same could be said of jazz music, especially as we constantly bicker over its form (and now, more recently, its medium). While originally, one would be able to define jazz as strictly having a swing rhythm, distinct syncopation, and a standard 4/4 time signature, the genre has grown, just as America has grown, to be wide and diverse and nigh-unrecognizable. Yet while there are traditionalists who would say that this is an absolute detriment, I would say that’s what makes the genre so distinctly American.

The roots of jazz are the roots of America. What began as an African adaptation of European dance music has grown from that very amalgamation. If the genre’s beginning is a technical perversion of what came before it, for it to move forward to welcome other influences is not the travesty many may make it out to be. To consider it as such is to be as close minded as those who only see one picture of America.

The strength of jazz is akin to the strength of America: we take from what’s around us to become better than we were before. We cherish each part of our past as part of ourselves and we draw from that to make new work in the future. America and jazz make their own tapestries. America and jazz looks like how you’d picture it, and not at all like how you’d picture it. America and jazz are melting pots, made stronger through their diversity. Most importantly, American and jazz are two things where you know exactly what they are, even if you don’t quite know exactly what they are.

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.