There’s a point of near-madness that occurs when I undertake one of our articles, like this month’s cover story, based on a comprehensive poll of musicians and JT contributors. It usually occurs on a sunny Sunday afternoon, when I’m holed up inside counting votes for “Ko Ko,” then I realize that some voters have spelled it “Ko-Ko,” with a hyphen, which throws a wrench into my search-and-tally method. I recount. Uh-oh. Others have opted to list it as a single word. Re-recount. So which one should be printed? My Real Book says no hyphen, yet this nearby reissue LP is pro-hyphen. Also, what the hell am I doing with my life?
Arduous as they may be, I feel immense gratification after they’re completed, whether year-end critics’ polls or roundups of classic tenor LPs. On an editorial level they’re fun to read and they disseminate useful insights culled from experts; on a commercial level they tend to do well at the newsstand. Long before BuzzFeed began its inanity, list-based articles were a coup for magazine publishers. We can put sexy sell lines on the cover—with words like “special” and “collectible” and, in this case, “essential.” And a number! Media consultants tell us you love numbers. Anyway, my sense of satisfaction is at once superficial, like I’ve finished cleaning out a storage unit or filing a tax return, and near-spiritual, like I’ve made meaning out of something vast and uncontrollable. Writing should always create that sensation, but in these instances the feeling is less self-serving, as if I’ve worked for the greater good.
The late Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco thought long and hard about most things, including the importance humans place on creating lists. “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature,” he told Germany’s Spiegel Online in 2009. “What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. … [H]ow, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.” (Have the artifacts of our culture ever felt more like an infinity of information than they do in our age of streaming and partisan media?) Jazz improvisations, being the spontaneous, limitless, ethereal phenomena they are, seemed especially ripe for a little bit of consensus. So take a look at the results, and remember that in addition to outlining accomplishments, lists provide a context for meaningful interaction with other people—to cheer, to critique or even to complain. That’s fine too. [email protected]