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The Jazz Story, Conventionally Told


When I was a kid falling in love with jazz, I loved reading books about the history of the music. There was a reliable narrative I learned about its origins, about its fairly rapid transformation through different periods and styles—and there was even a neat way in which jazz history seemed like a stand-in for other histories: it paralleled the development of Western painting and European classical music, for example.


cover art

Why Jazz Happened

Marc Myers

(University of California Press; US: Dec 2012)

And of course, jazz history seemed neatly to line-up with—or, arguably, tell—the story of the United States in the 20th century. For a little jazz nut like me, The Great Migration was Louis Armstrong, the roots of the civil rights movement were in Benny Goodman’s integration of his big band with Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson, Brown v. Board of Education had been articulated by Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus”, The New Frontier of Kennedy seemed to live in Dave Brubeck’s blasting through time signature conventions with “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, and Miles Davis simultaneously encapsulated the ‘60s explosion of black pride, hip style, and then the power blast of rock ‘n’ roll.


As the above paragraph implies, these key moments in jazz may have paralleled cultural trends, but they were typically told as the stories of great individuals: a history of artists as visionaries, essentially. That kind of thing always makes for a great story, right?


Why Jazz Happened as Marc Meyers Sees It


There’s a new book out by music writer Marc Meyers that takes a different run at the story of jazz, and it’s worth checking out. Meyers has written a great mass of articles for The Wall Street Journal about jazz, including many to-the-point interviews, and he also has a masters in US history from Columbia University. So Why Jazz Happened has the pedigree of promise.


And it is a different take on jazz history—a refreshing look at the music that argues forcefully that a series of key turns in the music were the result of social factors that had less to do with the artistic vision of “great men” (or women) than with how connected jazz was to the culture—in business, technology, and otherwise.


Like a good journalist, Myers focuses on a clear story, backed up by copious interviews with sources that certainly know what really happened. One criticism I have of the book is that it’s maybe too narrow and defined—almost as if it doesn’t want to muddy the clarity of the argument it’s making, despite that fact that—c’mon man—there’s never one reason why things happen in the arts.


That said, Why Jazz Happened makes its points like a snazzy lawyer in the courtroom: zip, zam, zot. And here’s the book in a nutshell: since World War Two, a series of non-musical events in the culture had a huge impact on the direction of jazz, with changes in business practice, technology, recording format, and social developments pushing the music to places it might not otherwise have gone. Each of Myers’ arguments constitutes a chapter in the book, and each illuminates a part of the story of jazz that has only partly been told before—and never with this focus.


Thus, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the book only starts this kind of analysis at 1942 (the rise of bebop, essentially) and extends it 30 years forward, neglecting the first 30 years of jazz history. Myers begins, pro forma, with an anecdote about the famous “first jazz recording” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band that demonstrates how issues of technology and culture would influence jazz even early on. He argues that the period from 1942 to 1972 was the period of most rapid change in the music’s history—and that during this period the non-musical influences were particularly strong. And that is true.


The opening chapters of Myers’ argument are the toughest to read but probably the most intriguing—a confluence of recording and radio technology and business that hasn’t been well-explained before. Radio and its ability to broadcast recorded rather than live music—and music that had excellent fidelity to live music by the mid-to-late ‘30s—was a threat to the livelihood of working musicians. Much like the concern in the last two decades about the threat of music downloading from the Internet and the much lower cost of digital recording techniques, a panic by established musicians created opportunities for the little guys. A recording ban engineered by the major musicians union and the large record labels that employed the big bands meant that smaller labels had an opening to record small bands playing outside the mainstream. In the early ‘40s, that meant that bebop got a chance to make a mark despite being an unknown style.


The argument about the rise of jazz DJs and critics as champions of bop later in the ‘40s is equally fascinating and makes a jazz fan wish for a longer work on the lives and careers of these characters: Barry Ulanov, Leonard Feather, “Symphony Sid” Torin, Fred Robbins. Myers suggests that, during the post-war years, “artists in all fields were beginning to pursue a new radicalism… that combined unrestrained expression and a personalized vision.” In New York, particularly, there was a community ready to champion the new jazz that fit this pattern. It’s not entirely clear, in reading this section, whether the impetus for this pivot point is really a non-musical element in the culture, however. Did not the music itself inspire the DJs and critics rather than the culture changing the music?


Still, the role of concert promoters, magazines and writers, and other folks that recognized the boldness of the new jazz and made it “fashionable” rather than forbidding seems valid. (Or, at least, what critic would not want to think it so?)


The Dangers of Linear Narrative


There can be a hint of formula in Why Jazz Happened, and it’s most obvious at the end of each chapter as Myers wraps up one argument and moves to the next. Maybe the impulse to make everything fit together inspired this, but its over-neatness can be irritating.


“As [bebop] became more commonplace and predictable, a new, more complex, form of jazz emerged. This new style would be pioneered not by blues musicians or big band exiles..  but by black and white jazz musicians who had studied formally with teachers and in music schools.”


That’s how Myers introduces his chapter on the importance of the GI Bill to jazz—astutely tracing the impulse to join jazz and European music (whether in “cool jazz” or in “third stream jazz” eventually) to a rise in music education for jazz players. The problem isn’t with the reporting itself, which again makes you realize how little of the inside story of jazz evolution has been told, but with the way the transition itself makes it seem like bebop died on the vine or was somehow put out of business by the GI Bill.


All those old jazz books I read in the ‘70s feel prey to this, as well: New Orleans to swing, swing to bop, bop to cool, cool to hard bop, hard bop to free jazz—as if these “jazz style periods” were like presidential administrations that began and ended with elections and inauguration ceremonies. I wish Myers did more here to explain that his research shows why the music shifted at various times, but that these shifts were far from linear. Cool jazz hardly pushed bop to the sidelines, just as bop did less to end the popularity of the big bands than did the simple economics of keeping an 18-piece band on the road (a subject that might have fit neatly into a part of this book).


Subsequent chapters detail the importance of new formats (the 33 1/3 rpm LP promoting longer solos for the musicians because “sides” could not be 20 minutes long) and technologies (magnetic tape allowing producers to splice together bits and pieces of different takes to create better master takes) and new business practices (the rise of BMI and more composers being able to collect royalties for original tunes). These chapters are very persuasive, showing that jazz—like any art form that relies on distribution through capitalism (and maybe that is all art forms these days?)—will be pushed and influenced by the realities of business.


Objective Reporting and Acceptance


This gives a particularly loud voice inside Why Jazz Happened to people like Creed Taylor, the producer for Verve and later CTI who helped to pioneer the kind of pop-jazz that would find guitarist Wes Montgomery recording Beatles tunes but also trumpeter Freddie Hubbard wasting his time on albumfuls of schmaltz.


Taylor comes off as a cool-headed businessman who can hardly be blamed for giving the jazz-buying public (that shrinking thing) what it wanted, for good or for ill. And Myers does his best to stay away from being a critic in his chapters on the rise of pop-jazz or fusion. Given the way the book sets up each style period as a recognized Step Forward In The Evolution Of This Music, however, Myers’ objective tone can be taken as an endorsement of each shift. Does he really think that Hubbard’s Red Clay—a terrific record on Taylor’s CTI label but one that uses a splash of rock groove, Herbie Hancock on Fender Rhodes, and about a minute of free-blowing on one tune but otherwise is a conventional hard bop date—is really the equivalent of Miles Davis’s free-form experimentation on Bitches Brew? I long for Myers to allow his book to be a little messier so that the coincidence of those albums’ release years doesn’t become more important that their artistic content.


These later chapters can be confusing for this reason, and because the linear narrative Myers sets up just can’t hold water against what we all know to be the reality of overlapping music scenes. So, in his chapter on the rise of electric instruments in jazz, Myers writes: “By 1970 the electric guitar, with its high-pitched shrieks and blues notes, had replaced the trumpet and the saxophone as the lead instrument of choice for rock fans” (emphasis added). It’s hard to imagine too many “rock fans” (or historians) saying that in 1969 the sax or trumpet was the predominant lead instrument. Frankly, its hard to imagine that being true in 1960 or even 1955. Surely Myers doesn’t think so either, but the book’s argument sounded neater if this is true.


My quibbles don’t come close to diminishing the pleasures of reading Why Jazz Happened, and they don’t change the fact that students and fans of jazz will come away enlightened about a huge part of the jazz story that has been mostly untold, before this otherwise intelligent and well-reported book was published.


Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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