When I first read the introduction to Marc Myers’ new book Why Jazz Happened, I was a little surprised. The title led me to believe that this was going to be a book about the deep historical roots of the music, rather than a tightly focused study of the period between 1945 to 1972. I guess I was so used to reading scholarly, and often very boring treatises on the subject, I expected more of the same here. Myers' no-nonsense approach promised a unique take, which is something that has been lacking in both the music, and in the writing about it for a long time.
The Introduction takes us back to 1916, with the recording of the very first jazz record. The group were The Original Dixieland “Jass” Band, and they recorded “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step,“ and “Livery Stable Blues,“ for release as a double-sided 78. Naturally (given the time), they were an all-white quintet. The author then explains his basic premise, how the events of the post-World War II era so dramatically affected the development of jazz.
The first chapter is titled “Record Giants Blink,“ and explains the situation that forced the labels to finally pay artist royalties on records sold. This all came about because of a ban called by the muscians union on the recording of new music. They held out against doing so for a long time by releasing material they had stockpiled before the ban. But when that supply ran out, the companies were stuck for new product. In 1945, they finally blinked, and the agreement to pay the musicians marks the first of Myers’ significant events in the post-war history of jazz.
As even the most cursory jazz fans probably know, those years were a tremendous time for the music. Prior to the arrival of The Beatles, jazz was it in terms of “cool” music. And there were quite a number of varieties within the genre of jazz as well. Myers takes us through the development of some of the most important of these, as they appeared.
We begin with the underground style of be-bop, which eventually dethroned the swing bands. Then, in what would become a familiar pattern, the whole scene splintered into numerous styles, with their own sets of fans, leaders, and fashions.