Why Jazz Happened

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"For the past ninety-five years jazz's survival has been based on the ability of musicians to interpret their times without relinquishing the characteristics that define the art form. These characteristics include the blues, a deep feeling for the poetry of the music, and a burning desire by musicians to stand out through improvisation. From 1942 to 1972--when much of the jazz that's consumed today was created and recorded--musicians were able to forge new styles. Such events continue to occur today. 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."

Thus writes Marc Myers, whose new book WHY JAZZ HAPPENED has just been published by University of California Press. The history of jazz's evolution has been explored by legions of writers, but Myers has still managed to come up with a fresh take on the subject, thanks to his analysis of the social forces which have helped shape jazz's evolution over the years.

A case in point is the G.I. Bill. Passed by Congress in 1944, it provided benefits for qualifying veterans that included enrollment at accredited colleges. Jazz musicians who had served in the military could now afford to study musical theory and composition on a high academic level, perhaps for the first time. "Many emerged with classical skills they would never otherwise have acquired," writes Myers. "They went on to develop new jazz forms that were tempered by counterpoint and modern classical theories.

"Musicians like Dave Brubeck, John Lewis, Bill Holman, Dick Hyman, Shorty Rogers, Buddy Collette, John Carisi, Bill Triglia, Britt Woodman, and many others who studied under the G.I. Bill developed jazz styles with a sophisticated formal flare. Musicians who combined classical and jazz also influenced other skilled jazz musicians who no longer found bebop as radical or challenging as it had once been."

Myers then investigates the impact of technology on jazz. The long-playing record, for example, paved the way for deeper, more complex music; equally, the invention of magnetic tape also provided producers and artists with lots more leeway. "In some cases, producers called for additional takes of the same song to strive for the best possible version of it," comments Mayers. "But there was another motivation--insurance against takes with flaws that producers heard only during the playback and mastering process after the musicans had departed." This allowed the producer to cut a bad note out of the master and replace it with a good note from another take.

Myers also deals with some of the more lesser-known influences on jazz history: the importance of radio and such popular disc jockeys as Symphony Sid and Fred Robbins; the emergence of the West Coast television industry as a musical force. "For the white jazz musican who could compose, arrange, sight-read perfectly and socialize comfortably on golf courses with the contractors and producers who did the hiring for studio jobs, Los Angeles was idyllic...Many musicans had to organize their calendars and hire telephone answering services to field all of the job offers...In this intoxicating culture of long horizontal lines, rhythmic surf, lingering sunsets, prefabricated neighborhoods, curvy cars, cocky narcissism, drugstore stardom, and stubborn expectations of fame, a new modern jazz style emerged in the 1950s."

Myers doesn't neglect the political, racial and legal battles that also helped alter the face of jazz, but for the most part he concentrates on the smaller touches in the music's portraiture, the brushstrokes that give it its unique character.