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.
Many of the events that were responsible for the explosive growth of jazz in those years were outside of the musical realm. One is the introduction of the long-playing album, which could hold over 20 minutes of music per side. For the first time, fans could hear long, uninterrupted jam-sessions in the comfort of their own homes. Previously, the only way to hear someone like Sonny Rollins and his band really let loose was to see them live. But with the advent of the LP, we could hear the whole performance, with all of the solos intact. This was a major advance.
That development is fairly obvious, but there is another one which Myers brings up that may not be so readily apparent. This is the impact of the G. I. Bill. I had never really considered just how important the Bill was to the African-American population in the US, but it was enormous. Regardless of color, returning soldiers were able to go to college courtesy of Uncle Sam. This was certainly a first in American history. Myers talks about how many men were able to get formal training in music composition and theory, which had never happened before.
One stylistic offshoot in those years that reflected a more intellectual approach was “cool” jazz. Myers traces it to the post-war suburbanization of the country, and especially California. This was a very fertile time for the music, and as we have seen, it both followed and commented on the changes going on in the society surrounding it. In a chapter titled “Bias, Africa, and Spiritual Jazz,” Myers draws the connections between the Civil Rights Movement, and that of a much more “Black,” and/or spiritual focus in the music.
John Coltrane was easily the biggest of the “spiritual” jazz musicians, and his A Love Supreme remains one of the greatest albums (in any genre) that I have ever heard. I consider myself a fairly big Coltrane fan, yet there is a story Myers relates in the book that I had never previously heard. In the late ‘50s, he began to develop a unique manner of playing that critics dubbed “sheets of sound.” When asked about it, he generally said something to the effect of trying to “get all of the notes in.” This, coupled with his spiritual conversion following his kicking a nasty heroin habit seemed to lift Coltrane’s music to a higher level. He seemed tuned into something much deeper than anyone else, long before LSD arrived on the scene.
The story Myers relays through the words of Yusuf Lateef adds another tantalizing piece to the puzzle of the Coltrane legend. Lateef says that ‘Trane’s first wife Naima bought him a harp, and he was fascinated by the rippling glissandos it made. Lateef says that the sheets of sound were his attempt to re-create this phenomenon on the saxophone. The fact that he would leave Naima to marry harpist Alice McLeod a few years later also becomes a little more curious with this revelation.
The world of The Beats, coffee-shops, and incredible jazz is now a late ‘50s cultural cliché, but for those who were there, it must have been a great time. The arrival of the British Invasion, and especially of The Beatles took the world by storm in the early ‘60s, and nothing has been the same since. As jazz vocalist Carole Sloan put it after seeing The Beatles at Shea Stadium; “The kids had been drifting away from jazz for years. But by this concert in 1965, they were completely gone, and they were never coming back.”
There were a few attempts to respond to the changing musical landscape. The first is what the author refers to as “Jazz-Pop.” Producer/arranger/composers such as Burt Bacharach and Creed Taylor were the leaders in this field. A more resonant approach came from the ever-evolving Miles Davis, who pioneered what would come to be known as fusion. For many of us, fusion represented the last innovative advance in jazz, at least until it lapsed into self-parody in the late ’70s.
John Coltrane kind of stood apart from the crowd, as he kept pushing his music to the outer edges, all the way up to his death in 1967. His albums for the Impulse! label were both avant-garde, and successful. With ’Trane leading the way, there were a number of artists who shunned the commercial path in lieu of their own vision. An early, and extremely important organization along these lines was the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which led to the formation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. A few other notable names in avant-garde jazz are Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Ornette Coleman.
As mentioned, the bulk of Myers’ book details the years 1945-1972. So what has occurred in jazz in the past 40 years? His final chapter is titled “Jazz Hangs On,” which is just about all that it has done, at least as the mainstream is concerned. The high-octane fire of fusion bands such as Mahavishnu Orchestra and Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis was slowly adapted into more radio-friendly fare by Weather Report and others. All too quickly though, this became the dreaded “hot-tub” jazz of Spyro Gyra and John Klemmer, and it seemed to have very little connection to what many of us considered “real” jazz.
The ‘80s saw the rise (or return) of acoustic jazz, in the form of brothers Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and Harry Connick Jr. There was also a brief vogue for the provocatively named (and incredibly dull) “acid jazz” movement. What jazz has really settled into it seems is “Quiet Storm,” or “Smooth Jazz,” basically the elevator music of today.
Outside of the purview of the book, I would say that there is still a fair amount of interesting things going on in jazz, but you have to search for it. As far as the mainstream goes, it has been over for a very long time. But many labels still have their jazz departments, even if they have been downsized considerably, and there are quite a few jazz websites dedicated to getting the word out about new releases.
I have been playing “catch-up” with this music since I first developed an interest in it as a teen-ager in the ‘70s. That was over 30 years ago, and there are plenty of artists and records (both old and new) that I find to sustain my interest all the time. The way I look at it, an album is brand new to me if I have never heard it before. Whether it was recorded in 1952 or 2012 is irrelevant.
Why Jazz Happened does an excellent job of exploring the most significant period in the history of the music. It is hard to believe that so many changes happened in just 27 years. This is a fascinating read, and one I think every jazz fan will enjoy.