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Marc Myers: Why Jazz Happened


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Why Jazz Happened

Marc Myers

266 pages

ISBN 9780520268784

University of California Press


Jazz's timeline and the iconic figures of each of its successive stylistic movements are well known to aficionados. Less well understood, however, are the underlying conditions that created these changes. Advances in recording technologies, social trends, radio, the incursion of pop and rock, and socio-political factors all played major roles in shaping the evolution of jazz, says music journalist and jazz blogger Marc Myers. Whilst these arguments aren't entirely new, Myers brings them all together in cogent manner and gives compelling evidence for the many non-musical reasons that influenced jazz's evolution in the 30-year period from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Jazz prior to the 1940s, asserts Myers, was mainly dance music and blues-based-music for entertainment. The real upheavals, he claims, began in the 1940s. Thus, the author dives in at the deep-end with bebop and draws a line under his compelling narrative with the emergence of jazz-rock in the 1970s, arguably the last significant movement in jazz's development. By focusing on this 30-year period, Myers succeeds in highlighting the rapidity of the changes that beset jazz. What also emerges strongly from these pages is that of all the driving factors in bringing about new styles, the overriding one was simply the need to survive as musicians.

The birth of vinyl, Myers recounts, signaled unemployment for thousands of musicians nationwide who were employed to play live in radio and film studios. The author carefully charts the evolution of the record and the consequent effects on jazz musicians. The dissemination of the 78rpm single via jukeboxes and the birth of hugely influential DJ personalities on a rapidly expanding radio network helped to promote jazz, though it also conditioned and restricted jazz's creative growth. The production of the long-playing record, observes Myers, ushered in a new dawn of individualism and extended improvisation in recorded jazz. As "the vice-like grip"-as Myers puts it-of the major record labels weakened due to labor actions, the proliferation of independent record labels had a profound influence on jazz, allowing as it did much greater creative independence.

Myers' examination of the effects on jazz of the G.I. Bill is fascinating. This legislation offered free education to the 15.5 million soldiers returning from World War II in a bid to stagger their return to the job market. Musicians such as pianists Dave Brubeck and John Lewis, trombonist Britt Woodman, trumpeter Shorty Rogers, saxophonist Buddy Collette, arranger Nelson Riddle, producer Teo Macero and pianist/impresario George Wein were a few of the better known beneficiaries of the Roosevelt administration's initiative. And, in a nation riven by racial segregation and prejudice, the G.I. Bill enabled many black musicians to have a musical education formerly beyond their reach.

Enrolment in music courses-many hastily created to meet the demand-resulted in formal education with classically trained professors, many of whom had arrived in the US as European immigrants or refugees. These musicians learned to read music and studied composition. They absorbed the European classical canon and studied musical theory such as counterpoint. The impact on jazz was inevitable and considerable, and, Myers states, gave rise to the jazz-classical style, perhaps best typified by the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The military draft itself impacted on jazz, with trombonist/bandleader Jack Teagarden losing 17 musicians to it in the first four months of the war. Not only did the shortage of professional musicians accelerate the development of lesser qualified musicians who filled their places, it also led, states the author, to the creation of over 100 all-women bands.

The advent of magnetic tape brought greater freedom to artists and producers and it's amusing to read of a jazz magazine editor's sense of outrage when he learned that producer George Avakian had spliced a Brubeck recording.

West Coast jazz is explained as the natural result of the seemingly utopian lifestyle enjoyed by white jazz musicians, who composed and arranged in L.A.'s burgeoning film studios in the morning and played golf in the afternoon: "We woke up happy, drove around optimistic and ended the day content," recalls saxophonist Dave Pell in an interview with the author. However, California's segregationist policies in housing and discrimination in the workplace meant that most black jazz musicians did not enjoy the same fruits of the dramatic post-war urban development.

Myers explains the rise of hard-bop, the effect of the civil rights movement on jazz, and the embracing of a greater spiritualism in the music in lucid manner. Another chapter relates the enormous impact of the Beatles, when once again jazz's audience shrunk as record labels, radio stations and clubs rushed to jump on the Brit-pop bandwagon. The rise of the avant-garde is explained as a reaction to conformity and dissatisfaction with the status quo, socially and musically. Jazz-rock and jazz-fusion were, Myers says, jazz's response to electrification, mass amplification and the explosion in rock bands, huge record sales and vibrant audiences.

In the final chapter, the author summarizes trends in jazz since the 1970s, and concludes a highly engaging, thoroughly researched book thus: "Jazz's challenge going forward will be to attract new musicians who are able to find new ways of expressing the music that not only pay tribute to jazz's past but also interpret contemporary life in a way that resonates with new listeners." Recommended.

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