How a Decade of Momentum Built and Gave Out

I've often said that I have always done what I've done because of sheer momentum. Sure, I try to move cautiously in life. I once said while in the middle of a particularly altered state of mind, sitting on the rocky shore of a lake, certain that a part of my consciousness could travel through time, that if I could make it here to this place to tell the story, surely it must have all worked out in the end. I forgot that I was still living in the story that I was yet to tell. I forgot that the telling of the story is an element of the story. I forgot that the telling of the story, like all other elements in life, takes up the currency of time.

At a certain point, I realized that I had locked myself into writing about jazz music. I knew long ago that I was lazy, but also that I could find a way to reframe things well. It's a habit common of writers, those of us who have a way of using communication, a thing nearly all of humankind is able to do, and find a way to make such a common thing amusing enough for others to spend time with it. I found a thing for which people found me amusing. It also doesn't help that writing is also the only situation where every affirmation our parents told us long ago isn't actually true-- I actually do have to care what people think about me. I found myself tripping into a role as a semi-authority figure. I managed to make work as a voice in an important niche for a tenth of its existence. I was a voice of the canon. I tricked the jazz world into listening to me by being entertaining and somewhat poetic while describing the contents of my email. I could have done more in the interim while giving half a mind to running a blog about jazz music semi-consistently. I could have pitched to other publications instead of relying solely on my own turnaround and discretion in publishing. I could have attempted to flex some other muscle and try to make other more varied work in the same time period. I could have not put all my eggs in one basket, but I honestly wasn't all that stoked on maintaining an all-egg diet. I frankly wasn't thinking about eating past the day-to-day anyway, at least in this regard.

Time passes. Fatigue sets in. Even through sheer momentum, I knew I would still write about jazz music. I know I still will write about it. I've built an audience. I know the field. I still care a great deal about it. I'm still devoted to hearing all that I can (which more and more I realize "what I can" is a literal, finite amount that I can while still maintaining a fullness in my life) of what is new, of what is contemporary, of what is an artform that is always alive and always growing. It's hard to want to pull away from such vibrancy, like holding onto a live wire, drawing from its power while cognizant of the danger of the shock, that and electricity's literal clamping hold on the nervous system.

Let's start at the beginning. The way I tell the story at parties, gatherings, art openings, mixers, and all the like where one has to give the Cliff's Notes version of one's existence, is always the whittled down but still essentially true version of the story. Shortly after graduating college, returning to my hometown, working on a city council race, and then falling into freelance writing, covering jazz concerts in San Antonio for a community newspaper, I stumbled into taking over a radio show on Friday nights all about new jazz music. I was current but could be stronger, but I was always one to find something and build upon its model. I took over The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST at KRTU San Antonio, the radio station I loved since I was a teenager when the smooth jazz station in town switched formats and I felt as if I had nowhere to turn until I realized that at the other end of the dial, one of the classical stations was switching formats to jazz of all sorts at about the same time. I met the music director, a pianist who went off shortly after taking me on to get a doctorate in music and study in the jazz mecca for a spell before returning back home, and the operations manager & program director, a hippie with good taste who is one of the best friends of someone who would later become one of my best friends who went off shortly after to become the program director for one of the best jazz stations in the country, in March of 2009. I had meetings with them in July, underwent training, and hosted my first show on September 11th, 2009. I pre-recorded it earlier that afternoon.

I prerecorded all my shows for about the first five years of my hosting The Line-Up. I don't drive. Driving is just one of those things in life, those regular rites of passage, that I just never got around to doing. After the Great Recession of 2008 when I graduated from Morehouse College with an English degree and no real understanding of how to conventionally hunt for a job, I lived with my parents far off on the Northeast side of of a car-centered city where the last bus to leave from downtown to my neighborhood departed at 8:38pm, and my mama always raised me with the credo deep into my soul, "Never wander too far from the keys." My show airs at 9pm. I pre-recorded my show for the first five years of its existence until I moved out of my parents' at the age of 28.

Around the same time that I took over The Line-Up, NPR's jazz blog, run by a journalist who got largely swept aside when the internet pivoted to video, was also building up its voice to become an authority of the contemporary jazz scene. He, in an interesting turn, asked in 2009, various music writers of all assorted publications for a list of albums they would put together for someone to get into jazz, but all the albums had to have been released between the last twenty years, i.e. 1989-2009 at that time. This is directly in response to the problem of jazz-- people often associate the music with a bygone era. People associate the music with dead people or the elderly. People associate the music quickly as something to be cast aside as "something to relax to", as background music. This is always the problem of my story. For years, I would tell people that I was a jazz blogger. I felt cornered into it in conversations.

And what do you do?

Oh, I do a lot of different things. I'm a writer primarily. 

Oh, you're a writer? What do you write about?

I run a blog about jazz music.

Oh, I love jazz. I love to come home and relax to Miles Davis, John Coltrane. I should listen to more. What should I listen to?

It's worth noting that much of my social life is around the contemporary art scene of the Southside of San Antonio. They're a fantastic crowd, but it's full of artists who have learned this biography (and its repetitive stories) over time and the patrons who wander through it and my bartending within it at an artist-run gallery that I have cleaved to in the last half decade or so because it, like everything else in life, was an interesting thing I've undertaken that continually seems like a good idea at the time. Bartending is an interesting occupation in that if done in a particular way with particular qualities will inevitably lead to one repeatedly telling one's life story. Depending on the context of the evening, one's aural autobiography can have various degrees of abridgment. Nevertheless, I'm faced with the question, so I have to provide some sort of answer. I have never been great at answering this question. Even answering with some names of folks I played in the last week doesn't feel sufficient.

Oh, you should get into Makaya McCraven, Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Linda May Han Oh.

Oh, cool. Cool. All the while, one can tell this discourse meant nothing. It's a context-less list. These names aren't connected in a narrative. The other person, for the most part, isn't taking out their phone to jot all this down. This is polite conversation. I'm fairly certain they aren't going to remember this conversation. Every now and again, real effort is made. Ears are opened. But the emotional labor it takes to have so many conversations to get to that earnest point is most certainly a bear. This is an intellectual exercise, the pleasantries one holds when navigating the day to day. This person one has encountered in life is a little more interesting than usual, there should probably be some additional discourse underway in case this momentary interaction is actually incidental. At the very least, it's not unpleasant... to them. To me, it is frequently a draining experience I'd much rather circumvent most of the time.

So, yes, I used to run a blog about jazz music. A little while after I took over a modern jazz show, I ran across NPR's inquiry about suggestions for album suggestions from the last twenty years. The project seemed interesting, so I sent the blog my own list attached with my fledgling credentials. They published my list. Nextbop, one of those who was published in the project, reached out to me after reading my submission and the personal blog that held my unedited editorials from the school paper while I was still in college and the playlists from my radio show so shortly thereafter, and I started writing for the website. It didn't take long for my English language writing to appear prolific to a pair of French-Canadian dudes who wanted to talk about a scene. I felt more confident writing in English than they did, particularly the white guy who kept running things when his creative partner went off to establish a promising law career. It didn't take too long for my skills to show themselves and I ended up as the editor of the website.

There's a funny thing about expectations, particularly with parasocial interactions. There's always this idea hanging over one's head as a creator that an audience exists in the ether that waits with bated breath for whatever nuanced dispatches one may have from on high. As time passes and the blogosphere finds even more and more degrees of democratization, these insightful droppings fall into the categorization of run of the mill content, yet another thing to be consumed in an ongoing stream of even more things to endlessly consume. Sebastien and I, the fundamental leadership of Nextbop, saw the changing tides of the internet, as blogs fell away as Facebook shifted all of publishing to pivot to video with fabricated evidence that has destroyed the artist class of content creators to this day, and yet I encouraged him to keep his head down, to run our race against every other blog and channel with blinders on, to continue to make dope shit despite those around us who are also making things that seem even more dope. I drove him to think of everyone around us who do the same or similar things as we do as all part of a community who all make this coverage of the music we love even better. I could stem the tide of his discomfort for a while, but there were always those rumblings to various degrees that we deserved more love, more attention, more devotion, fame, and fortune. I was always a student of the late Rev. R. L. Archield Sr., who said, "Christians always ask God, 'Why me?!' and I always thought, 'Why not you?'" I was content to keep making a blog, plugging along and building a reputation as being a voice as one of a panoply of things that I do. Seb, on the other hand, always seemed to have an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, that we weren't getting everything that we deserved. It could be argued that we may have deserved more for our role in the modern jazz scene, but I also, because of my upbringing as a black man in America learned early on that no one deserves anything.

Our field is one of time-- of describing the actions and elements of how others manipulate it. Our field is one of relationships-- of learning and disseminating information constructively to share it with others. It is a wide and varied field, and some may tire of the journey. When I felt tired, and I did every now and then over the years, I took the time and stepped back. I reined in the content I made, realigning my relationship with the community and recognizing that if my role in it is publicly having emotional reactions to creations, that I had to go back to the well until I felt I was capable of having something of value once again to give. I had the background, peace of mind, and the learned ability over time to understand this about myself and the work I do. I don't know if Seb ever quite did.

I strive not to waste anyone's time, in large part because I hate when my own time is wasted. However, while I always endeavor to make great radio every week, I have learned to accept imperfections from time to time. I have accepted that the nature of radio is temporary. There's another hour of air to fill. There's no need to lose one's head over it. I always think of my responsibility to the community that has taken me in, but I wasn't going to be unearnest and not put my whole back into it if I wasn't still enjoying it. There may have been a part of me that was always concerned that maybe I was wasting Seb's time. Time and again I pressed him along whenever he talked about shutting down the website, but I couldn't see myself not continuing along in whatever capacity, full of vigor or drained to the dregs. I didn't necessarily need him to keep going along for the ride, I had my own momentum, but it would have been good to have him there. Yet in our discussions in the matter, he seemed to have the same feelings that he didn't want to be the one wasting my time. He felt that perhaps it was him holding me back from something greater. Time and again, I would talk him back from the ledge, letting him know that I always determined my own involvement in this endeavor, that I knew how I would build my own body of work and that I took pride in the idea of building a thing, of becoming an institution. If we kept plugging along, even meagerly, the inertia of our work would build a reputation in itself. The spending of the time itself wouldn't be a waste at all as long as he kept running the race with the blinders on.

This isn't to say I didn't see the incompatibilities coming. In our present era of telecommunication, every now and then, our internet friendships sometimes end up with in real life interactions. Seb and I met in person twice-- in New York in 2015, to cover the release cycle and Harlem Stage performances for trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah's Stretch Music and in Seb's hometown in 2016 to cover the Montreal Jazz Fest. One can only make so much surmission about a person through the curation of digital interactions, but everything is revealed when in someone's presence. Everything is out there when wandering streets, making plans, waking in the morning and getting underway (or waiting for the other party to do so), in drinking and moderation of drinking, in abundant energy and intermittent somnambulism, in irritation and management.

Let it be said that I am highfalutin'. I've never not thought of myself as highfalutin'. I've always been wary of the notion of being so, but somehow I have always rationalized it that somehow because of the way that I can adapt and function, by how I can make things straight or how folks of a certain sort have always found me of value enough that I could lead the life I do, that I can have the tastes that I have, that I always recognized myself as being highfalutin'. In many aspects, it's really just being ahead of the curve, but my ability to not want for much but to want exactly what I want and solve my own problems if need be has always given me a particular, prickly nature that can rub some the wrong way, and over time has given me less distress about those I bristle by those I find bristling, and thus generally negligible.

So I walk with purpose, because I should know where I'm going or make the appearance of doing so. Because why walk slowly? I wake early and tend to want to move on with my day, because the sun is up and so should we all, and (particularly when travelling) my time in this place is limited. I make mountains out of molehills; I'm a writer, of course I make metaphors, dripping with deeper meaning, finding insights from details. Love is often full of sacrifice and forgiveness of those red flags, still working with the guy, hoping he'd get his mind in order. Or maybe I too, like the musicians who look for reviews that pack my inbox everyday, was valuing the platform more than the person I encountered and worked with largely as yet another thing existing primarily in my phone. It's hard for me to say, even now, even still in a position of hurt about the destruction of the institution.

So when I felt he lagged too much in walking in Manhattan, I read it as him having less direction and intention, more easily distracted; much like when he was too distracted reading a hoax article on the subway to notice we missed our subway stop in the same way I was too comfortable of my surroundings to have subconsciously felt it okay to fall asleep at the same time, representing my own overly trusting nature. My fascination in his ability to gulp down beers with gusto turned into an anecdote I melded with another friend of mine about folks from up North and some inherent superpower instead of a tendency for overindulgence. The pauses in conversations that passed politely instead of hinting at gaps and gulfs.

Some time in the last year, the end reared its head. Seb had been institutionalized again, something that came up as less of a surprise than the first time he had been many years ago in our working together after he spoke to me in a manic state and then disappeared for a month. His mother had to email me some time later to let me know that he was alright but had walked into a lake in January, nearly freezing to death. So many times in our working together, cognizant of his history of mental illness, did he speak about moving to the United States so we could work together in the same place, all the while us both noting that he truly couldn't without the aid of the Canadian healthcare system that he very much needed. So in the last year, when my semi-regular fatigue with continual coverage melded with his new interest in the website's analytics resulting in numerous exacerbating messages about getting back to work and increasing traffic, or about espousing negative comments about the jazz community, not entirely invalid complaints, but certainly said with an intonation that certainly bristled, I began ignoring his messages until I was in the state of mind to address them or to return to a better slate of productivity when I felt inspired to write again. In nearly ten years of working with him, I felt we had an established rhythm that I could navigate well enough. Apparently, I was wrong.

In November of last year, after expressing some minor irritation about an artist submitting music to me in a format I didn't want for the umpteenth time, Seb messaged me saying that he fired me, removing my access from the website and one of the email addresses for a short period. I was understandably perturbed considering for half the website's existence, I was its primarly lifeblood, that Seb had considered me a partner in this endeavor at a certain point, that I was largely considered the public face of the website to a large degree. I spent the next day at the movie theater, at the Alamo Drafthouse where, due to their strict "no phones" policy, I was certain not to be distracted for the day. I saw the three-and-a-half hour Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman, and followed up it with Bong Joon-Ho's Academy Award winner, Parasite. I was out, and out of contact, the whole day. The next day, I blew up Seb's phone calling him for two days until he picked up, browbeating him into talking with me in real time instead of in our usual discourse of prepared missives. I knew this had to have been brought about by his irrationality. My actions weren't new, or even all too different from his own online discourse from time to time. His timing, however, was the real indicator. Shortly as the publication was about to rally the staff and make our annual centerpiece, our Favorite Albums of the Year lists, the publisher fired the editor. Objectively, it's bad planning. Contextually, it, like many details that can be extrapolated through metaphor, is indicative of a larger issue. Yes, the relationship was deteriorating over time, but the rashness of the action itself is not not a cause for alarm.

We had a frank discussion about my commitment to the website, since I had certainly lagged in my engagement at the time. I told him that it didn't make sense to fire me if we were just determining how often I would be involved in the website, which meant if I wanted to refer to myself as the emeritus editor and function as a contributing writer, it would be the best thing to do for the sake of appearances. This was why I knew this was all amiss-- he had forgotten about the importance of appearances, of reputation, all the things necessary to maintain an institution, something larger than himself. I talked my way back in. I felt shaken up about it, but I also had my own grounding, and in that grounding, I reflected… Yeah, it was time to leave.

A few days later, I sent him an email orchestrating my exit from Nextbop. I would work through the end of the year, sporadically as I was so inspired (though I clearly wasn't much at that point). I would still post my playlists for The Line-Up on the site until the end of the year and would take my part in the Season of Lists, what I called the work surrounding our year-end lists. He found it acceptable and we had a way forward. Things felt right. I soldered along. I wrote one or two more reviews. My last non-list piece for the site was an obituary for a young musician who was a fan and internet friend since before I ever got into music journalism. It felt right to close on that note.

We made our lists for the year, individually and as a staff. A couple writers and I also as individuals made lists for favorite albums of the 2010s, wherein I wrote a letter as an introduction to the list as well as, what I thought, was an elegant exit from the website which I referred to as "pull[ing] back from the everyday of this" but probably should have used more firm terminology considering the degree of my disengagement, but I still wanted to maintain appearances. I wanted to keep things looking alright on the outside, the way an institution should.

We released our lists in late December. It didn't take long into January, with Sebastien functioning as both editor and publisher to run things off the rails. Initially, he proposed financial based incentives to the staff for pieces with the most impressions-- an idea that would make sense for other publications at an earlier time of the internet, but something that never fit the ethos of Nextbop, particularly since such a strategy could easily lead to sensationalism and from the focus of highlighting new artists who may be unknown instead of balancing them with the more prominent figures on the scene for the sake of traffic. It was an editorial direction coming purely from a publisher's perspective and the staff bristled at the notion. Not long after that came the sharp turn in the social media.

I've never been great at headlines. It shouldn't be that surprising considering my rambling nature. Back in elementary school when being tested for the Gifted & Talented program, I was ahead of my grade level in every regard except for the concept of the main idea. My editorials in the college newspaper had lofty titles that were hard to grasp, and rarely if ever did I suggest the pieces be accompanied with photography or graphics. I didn't have a visual aesthetic, I said of myself at the time. It's still hard for me to grasp onto one outside of my own wardrobe, itself a collage of taste like most other things in my life. In all the time I wrote for Nextbop, it wasn't infrequent for Seb to complain about my unflashy, matter-of-fact headlines for pieces, particularly in the back end of my time with the site when we seemingly found what appeared to be a direct formula that worked. I felt I had too much integrity for SEO and didn't want to defer to such basic notions, even if they may have truly been to our benefit. This, amongst other reasons, is why it wasn't too far fetched for folks to contact me with confusion about the new direction the website was taking at the start of the year. I didn't indicate that I wasn't technically involved with Nextbop in my decade-end list until the fourth paragraph of the list's introduction. The half-hearted resignation wasn't exactly the highlight of the piece.

From the start of the year onward, the Facebook and Instagram posts for Nextbop made a decided turn. Posts that typically were press photos of artists attached to links about new posts to the site about their music shifted toward stock photos overlayed with motivational quotations, like a constant feed of "Hang In There, Baby" posters from a novelty aisle in a big box store. Then came the questions to stir up the pot, like those with the intonation of the lower reaches of reddit or 4chan, initially pitting artist against artist (which was posed first on his personal social media then posted on the publication's accounts) and evolving to other targets. I kept my distance. I made assorted subtweets and posts noting the lack of my involvement in the site. I responded to private questions from concerned parties that I was no longer involved, that I was giving Seb his space to work this new dynamic out. I kept up appearances. It seemed like the right thing to do, for the sake of the institution.

In the midst of this, I messaged him. We were on the outs but I had my concerns-- for him, for what we built. I told him folks were asking me what was up. I let him know I was politely telling them I was out but using discretion about it. I let him know that if others had concerns, that this may very well be a concerning situation. He was nonchalant about the whole deal, brusque, dismissive. I may not have been the best one to bring the communal concerns of the modern jazz scene, but they had to be presented somehow.

Eventually, Seb broached on outright sexual suggestiveness entirely in the realm of bad taste. Last month, on the first Wednesday in February, my phone blew up. Folks who never contacted me before and numerous others who have asked me what was happening with the website. Sebastien had posted about an artist, decrying her credits and talents and questioning her accomplishments for cosmetic purposes (which is most certainly the nicest way to describe what he said). I spent the morning fielding questions from publicists and artists, distancing myself from my former partner and showing the same bewilderment as they were, trying to explain how a ten-year relationship went wrong. When I felt I had reached a stopping place, I went off to my friend's house to meet up before heading downtown to help set up the new art opening at his gallery the next day. In the midst of this, another friend called asking what was going on and advising me to make my resignation from the site more clear, more pronounced, in bold with graphics. I would have to make a good and proper headline. I'd have to get to the main idea.

"I have had no connection with Nextbop or its content since the end of 2019 and I share the same concerns (and outrage) as you all do." For a statement, one sentence in bold white text over a black background, it felt like it did the job adequately enough. Assorted friends and colleagues agreed and appreciated the clarification. I was clear and concise. I had separated in public and felt a sense of relief from it. Folks were angry or disappointed about the reputation tarnished, but much of what I felt was fatigue, and yet a different fatigue lifting, like being tired for so long and finally heading to sleep. When asked now about my place in the jazz world, I talk about how it no longer feels like every email is coming from a teacher whose homework I forgot to complete. I talk about getting to listen to music and enjoy it again without it feeling like an obligation. I've taken on another two hours of modern jazz radio -- evölve, Saturdays from 3-5pm CST -- but I get to talk about the new challenge of additional programming and not the turmoil of constantly producing new content. I could be doing more in the music, but I'm happier doing what I currently am. I'm still working out when I will wake from this slumber. Perhaps this is part of the dream, my mind making sense of what happened and putting it all in order.

I don't know what I'm doing next. I certainly don't know what Sebastien is doing next. I hope he's well and continuing on the path to wellness. I don't check in with him, but I still don't have the heart to. Whether his implosion of Nextbop's good will was due to another psychotic episode or his "performance" of one, I may never truly know, but I do know that my trust of him has been shattered for a while. My sense of identity has been shifting for a while, so this may just be another capacity of that change.

As I finish writing this document, I'm currently socially distancing myself in the wake of a global pandemic that had been cooking and simmering since January and has shaken the globe seemingly suddenly in the last few weeks to the point that all of our social order has been upended. As many of us as possible are isolating and quarantining ourselves, shifting our plans drastically in the face of chaos. Some of us are trying to make the best of it, most of us are more than a little concerned, but we're all doing what we can to adjust to sudden change. Considering the fight I've had to protect my reputation, to redefine my placement in the world, to establish who I am now and where my ripples should spread, this new way for the world to buckle beneath my feet is less jarring than I thought it would be. I still don't know what I'm doing next, though it helps that most of us don't know what any of us are doing next right now. It seems we all have some time to figure it out. Let's all just hope the next thing works out better, more stable.

And hopefully, it'll have a much better name.


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