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Marc Myers: Why Jazz Happened

David Rickert By

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Why Jazz Happened

Marc Myers

248 pages

ISBN: 978-0-520-26878-4

University of California Press


Many books have been written on how jazz happened, but few have focused on why jazz happened. In Marc Myers' new book, Why Jazz Happened, he does just that: explore the economic, technological, and social forces that allowed jazz to flourish. This is not a book about the artists that shaped what jazz became, but rather a book dealing with people on the fringes: inventors, promoters, label reps, and those involved in cultural movements. Jazz, like any art form, is a product of several forces combining together at the right time and place, and Myers details those changes.

Why Jazz Happened is divided into chapters dealing with each of the big movements in jazz and the various events that helped them to emerge. There are a few common threads that run through all of the narratives. The first is the technological advances that occurred in the recording industry from the original wax cylinders to the invention of tape to the advent of the LP. For the most part jazz was an accidental benefactor in these developments. Records and radio allowed for the spread of all music, and jazz was no exception—not only were more people able to listen to jazz without leaving their home, but recorded music also allowed musicians to learn from each other thereby helping jazz spread. Another innovation that accidentally extended the reach of jazz was the LP, which was originally designed for the classical market. The LP allowed jazz musicians to record extended works beyond the confines of the 78 and allowed the music to escape the singles market. Myers details the format war as record companies fought over which format would dominate the market, a story that has been seldom told.

The LP market also contributed to the rise of the producer and the engineer. Not surprisingly, Rudy Van Gelder, who was at the helm for many Blue Note and Prestige recordings, is covered by Myers as a key figure, one who learned how to shape the sound of jazz records while splicing together takes to form the best record possible. Thus, Myers implicitly argues, the LP era made the most significant advancement in the way jazz was presented allowing for high-quality recordings of longer pieces that captured the way that musicians were creating jazz live.

Of course jazz has always been open to influences from other musical styles, and Myers explores both sides: integrating new sounds in the name of creativity and also survival. Naturally rock music played a large role in determining the course that jazz would take in the 1960s and beyond. Record label executives marginalized jazz and signed anyone that might be the next Beatles, which forced many jazz musicians to adapt or risk becoming obsolete. Myers captures the initial desperate response of trying to turn rock songs into the new standards (most of which failed miserably). Some abandoned radio friendly music altogether, such as the AACM in Chicago, while others ditched the horns and cranked up the volume to appeal to a younger audience.

But perhaps the most significant influences on jazz were social movements, in particular the racism that many jazz musicians encountered. Myers describes how in the mid-century many musicians became expatriates to escape the stifling climate in which many black musicians were not treated well; the upsurge of African influences that emerged in the 1960s also led to jazz becoming a vehicle for social change. The moves were subtle at first— Sonny Rollins' "Aregin" is Nigeria spelled backward—but eventually evolved into an outspoken denunciation of prejudice.

Myers covers a lot of ground in a very short amount of time. His book is written in an accessible fashion that makes it a quick, yet informative read. However, a few movements are forgotten. Myers begins with bebop in the 1940s and thus much of the swing era is neglected. Bossa nova, which grew out of a fusion of Brazilian music and West Coast jazz, only gets a brief mention. There are also times when Myers oversimplifies the cause and effect that certain events had on jazz; frequently several ideas were responsible for the evolution of particular styles; Myers clearly knows this, yet at times his writing suggests that jazz was predominantly influenced by one thing over the exclusion of others.

Readers versed in the history of jazz will find little here that they weren't aware of, but will be interested in the in-depth look at some of the background influences that most jazz books mention in passing. As a result most of this book isn't about jazz directly; many jazz musicians are mentioned only as is related to the outside forces that shaped what they did. Myers' angle on jazz is welcome, and Why Jazz Happened makes a convincing argument about the forces that shaped jazz behind the scenes.


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