I want to take things back to 2006 (if read aloud, do me a favor and say “Twenty aught six,” I’m trying to make old prospector talk for the 21st Century into a thing). For much of that spring and summer, my friends and I were frequently discussing the potential of the upcoming film Snakes on a Plane starring Samuel L. Jackson. Some of my friends, one more vociferous than the others, often clamoured about how great the movie would be and how well it would perform in the box office because of the legions of people on the internet (especially 4chan‘s /b/ [trust me, you don’t want to click that hyperlink unless you brace yourself for the insanity first]) who have taken part in shaping the film and would clearly support it. I took a much more precarious stance on the matter, largely because I believed quite strongly in a certain maxim I was bandying about at the time– internet celebrity is not real celebrity.
Unbeknowst to my friends at the time, I would end up being right. The film ended up making just over the estimated budget domestically. Figures like that are respectable but not monumental, just like much of the internet in our lives. It makes an impact but it’s still a medium that is one aspect of the various attributes that make up our society. On a side note, think about that the next time someone says liking democracy on Facebook is what brought about regime change in the Middle East. I’m pretty sure there had to be a protest or two in the actual countries. The internet is not the end all and be all of our culture, but it is most certainly not negligible. Keeping an objective frame of reference for this is a healthy way of looking at the world around us and figuring out how it works. Keeping this same objectivity with the prominence of jazz is, for our field, just as crucial.
Over the past few years, the jazz community has tossed around a term of affection to those more prominent among the ranks in a rather tongue-in-cheek demeanor– jazz famous. Who originated the term? I do not know, but the most obvious flag bearer has to be the mysterious, infamous Twitter persona @jazzfamoose who regularly and adeptly skewers the jazz community as the king of our carnival in an almost Bahktinian sense. Still, we can all tell he does so out of love. It’s that same lovingly caustic wit that has propelled the term “jazz famous” through our little corner of the internet in much the same way Stephen Colbert has propelled “truthiness” through the media at large. Presently, the term has most prominently hit the public sphere in an interview Vijay Iyer gave a few weeks ago. It generally means that someone is not necessarily famous in the mainstream sense but certainly famous in jazz circles, much in the same way that there are memes that are quite popular in various corners of the internet but the public at large can have little clue of what’s going on.
This is typically the case in any subculture. There are those who rise to prominence in some subset of the culture at large. It’s not odd or some unheard of concept. Like a high school valedictorian going off to an exclusive college and finding s/he may not always be the smartest person in the room, such is the culture shock folks feel when we realize our little corner of the world may not be the full representative sample of all of humanity that we first thought.
We make these distinctions because fame is a social construct. The value and meaning of fame shifts from individual to individual and, especially in this case, from population to population. Some folks are just going to be more well known in a given population, satirize this notion if you so choose. Some folks are going to be admired more or less at different values depending on the person or community ascribing such a valuation. It’s this kind of thinking that led me to being paralyzingly nervous to speak to Nicholas Payton (who is quickly becoming the less anonymous version of @jazzfamoose on his new Twitter account) in his visit to San Antonio as I was not even endeavoring to speak to punk rock webcartoonist Mitch Clem at a show in Austin last weekend (why I was at a punk show in Austin is still beyond me but it was a fun, interesting observational experience to say the least). Both of these figures are very relevant in their respective fields and communities but are likely unknown to the vast majority of the 300 million people in the United States or the six billion people across the globe. Does this mean Payton and Clem are not famous? Not necessarily, but these two are jazz and internet famous respectively. There are considerable numbers of people who follow their careers, find them personally interesting, and are intrigued by their respective works.
The issue of fame and celebrity are precarious ones with which man has always grappled. It’s based so strongly on how well we are known. It’s both a quantitative and qualitative aspect of our individuality. People often want to know their status in the opinion of others. On our own, we should value ourselves for being ourselves but it is still just as crucial to leave our mark on the culture at large. In this modern era of internet nichification that sequesters us all to our respective corners of interest (the conclusion of Sean Fennessey’s October 2010 article in Pitchfork on the rapid rise of OFWGKTA perfectly encapsulates this point, although I’ve made it before), the boundary lines that make up what E.D. Hirsch would call “culturally literate” are constantly blurring. I have friends who have never heard of Prince or Al Green and co-workers who never had a television when growing up (which makes it really hard to have pop cultural reference-based conversations at work). Some people are just going to need more context and, for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t make things more or less famous; it means that as we as individuals grow more and more cognizant of humanity’s diversity and backgrounds, our modifying qualifiers grow ever the more important.
Such is to say, unlike @jazzfamoose, I’m really not mocking when I refer to anything as “jazz famous.” My language is precise. I mean what I say. Some folks are famous in their respective fields but it’s not like they’re unable to do their own grocery shopping anymore. As long as one can live comfortably, provide for one’s family, and continue to make good work that the artist and the public loves, there’s no need to be sardonic about describing it. That’s just plain old objectivity.