WHY JAZZ HAPPENED (University of California Press), the new book by Marc Myers, whom many know for his blog JAZZ WAX, his liner notes, his articles in The Wall Street Journal, is a great accomplishment.
I have written here before how disappointing I find much that is written about jazz — a tepid stew of theorizing, of ideological scraps, an inedible pottage of what everyone else has said. Readers like myself long for some bracing first-hand research, new points of view that illuminate rather than divide.
WHY JAZZ HAPPENED does all the right things. For one, it moves away from the star system: Louis begat Bird who begat Miles who begat Trane. It leaves behind the understandable (but sometimes worn-out) historical cliches; it takes jazz beyond the sound of the recordings: too many “jazz books” sound greatly as if the writer had decided to create “reaction” papers to every track X played in chronological sequence . . . an audio diary of one’s iPod.
I knew Marc was capable of arresting writing from reading JAZZ WAX, and I also was eager to read the book-in-the-making he was creating from his candid, searching interviews with jazz players otherwise ignored. But he has done much more than assemble a pastiche of voices telling their sweet or odd stories. He has written a social history of jazz, measuring the effects of non-musical forces on the music.
He has chosen to examine the period 1942-72 (which he feels is the music’s “golden era of improvisation, individualism and recording freedom”) through an analytical lens that is both microscopic and panoramic. His premise is “approaching jazz history from the outside in,” which means a clear-eyed historical reading of the factors outside the studio and the clubs that shaped the music we adore, the way we hear it, the way it developed.
Thus: the long-playing record; suburbanization in California and the G.I. Bill; the role of concert promoters and disc jockeys; ASCAP and BMI, the role of the “British Invasion”; the connections between late Sixties jazz and racial tension. If any of this sounds like a cultural anthropologist’s work, I assure you it is far from academic (although the book’s research is beautifully documented.)
The book is consistently lively because Marc, like the best investigator, is deeply curious and not easily satisfied with the pat answers previous works have (sometimes) offered. And his curiosity has taken him to contemporary reporting . . . but most often it has taken him to the primary sources, for which relief much thanks.
Rather than assuming what the battle over 78, 33, and 45 rpm record technologies was like, he has spoken at length to George Avakian. Other figures who pop up to add their irreplaceable, salty or affectionate stories to this study are Dave Pell, Creed Taylor, Sonny Rollins, Rudy Van Gelder, Burt Bachrach, Lou Donaldson, Chico Hamilton, and three dozen more.
Faithful readers of Marc’s JAZZ WAX have delighted in these interviews, but one of the pleasures of this book is the beautifully organic way the material is handled: it never feels like pastiche, and the balance between fact, interpretation, and a quick-moving narrative is delightful.
My only regret is that this book begins — because of Marc’s perspective, which I would not deny him — in 1942. I can only imagine the much larger-scale book he might have written which would have spoken of Prohibition, of the Great Northern Migration, bobbed hair, of the role of Thirties radio . . . and on.
But to his credit, WHY JAZZ HAPPENED has a true feeling for jazz as a seamless whole, so that Louis Armstrong appears alongside Joseph Jarman in the pages of the index, and the book begins and ends with a truly moving episode devoted to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. My hope is that other writers genuinely devoted to an accurate analysis of how and why this music happened — for the world of an art’s development is much larger than a survey of the individual musicians’ idiosyncracies and a list of record dates — will use WHY JAZZ HAPPENED as a flexible, energetic model and write their own books that look back to Marc’s. Because he is neither didactic nor over-emphatic, I can even envision books based on his model that say, “No, these are MY ten events or forces that made jazz what it is.”
For its ingenuity, subtlety, surprises, and depth, WHY JAZZ HAPPENED deserves to be ranked along the best recent studies of jazz — Randy Sandke’s WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET and Ricky Riccardi’s THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG.
Visit here to see Marc speaking about WHY JAZZ HAPPENED in a multi-part video interview. It won’t satiate your desire for the book. I suggest you go here for the next logical step . . . your own copy.
May your happiness increase.