THE history of an art form is more than just the biography of its exemplars. But you wouldn’t know it by reading most histories of jazz. (I’m speaking here of some books I really like, by the way.) A fresh, engaging new book by Marc Myers, a Wall Street Journal contributor, tells the story so differently than the way we normally hear jazz history that reading it is a kind of unfolding revelation. Even if you know the overall story pretty well.
Why Jazz Happened, published this month on the University of California Press, calls itself the first social history of jazz; it concentrates on structural factors – economic developments, demographic shifts, changes in technology, and so on. We get appearances from Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, but we get recording bans, suburbanization and race riots as well. And it’s told smoothly and often briskly.
Unlike most cultural histories, this one doesn’t overlook the role of the West Coast. (Speaking of the West Coast, RIP to Concord, CA native Dave Brubeck.)
Here’s my exchange with Myers, whose award-winning blog JazzWaxis well worth a look as well.
Part of me wonders why it took so long for someone to do this. But: What made you want to write this kind of atypical, outside-in musical history? Did you have a specific historian or historical school in mind as a model?
Most jazz histories have been written from the inside out—meaning the writer’s perspective and conclusions were based largely on the artists and the albums they recorded. Such books don’t often account for external forces or the economic, business, cultural and technological events that took place and had an impact on artists and how they thought and created.
When I was studying history in Columbia University’s graduate program in the 1980s, social history was hot. “What” was important but so was “why,” and “why” was often much more interesting in explaining timelines and outcomes. So whether you were researching the Civil War, Imperialism or the Depression, the facts themselves were essential but so were the socio-economic issues that enabled such events to take place when they did.
I wanted to approach jazz the same way. Instead of treating it as a string of musicians and recordings, I wanted to see what forces outside of jazz caused jazz styles to change so rapidly between 1942 and 1972. By forces, I mean the opportunities that musicians faced and he pressures they faced. What I discovered is that the 10 major styles that surfaced between 1942 and 1972 did so for reasons that went beyond the genius of the artists.
You concentrate mostly on the years 1945 to ’72 – less than three decades across the century-long span of jazz as a distinct musical form. What made those the key years?
Before 1942, jazz was largely dance and folk music. From the start in 1917—when jazz was first recorded in New York—the music had a practical purpose. Its fast pace and steady tempo was background for those spending a night out in restaurants or ballrooms. And if you liked the music you heard there or on the radio, you bought a phonograph and records. Or jazz was the blues—a folk form imported from the South and interpreted by ever-larger orchestras. There was some jazz improvisation during the period, but not much.
After 1972, jazz becomes a repertory form and remains so today. Musicians specialize in one or more established jazz styles—bebop, hard bop and jazz-fusion, for example. And audiences attend clubs and concerts to hear music that was once played by musicians in their record collections.
But between 1942 and 1972—what I call jazz’s golden three decades—you see the rise of improvisation, composing, arranging and artists with socio-political statements to make. This trend doesn’t happen out of thin air. Unlikely events outside of jazz create opportunities for changes to occur and put economic and social pressures on musicians to re-invent jazz repeatedly.
One of your best chapters, “Suburbia and West Coast Jazz,” is primarily about L.A. in the ‘50s. Why did that time and place seem crucial to the music’s story?
West Coast jazz has long been thought of as a movement led by white musicians who left big bands and settled in California. The laid-back contrapuntal, sound of sextets, septets and octets at the time has been viewed as a byproduct of Gerry Mulligan’s influence after he arrived in Los Angeles in 1952 and formed his piano-less quartet.
All of this is true to some extent but it doesn’t tell the full story. The suburbs of Los Angeles developed faster than any other part of the country after World War II, resulting in millions of new homes, wider freeways, bigger shopping centers and a white society completely detached from the inner city. With new homes came phonographs and an interest in high fidelity and LPs, which were relatively new.
Economic segregation was enforced by local police and real estate covenants, which kept blacks grounded in South Central Los Angeles. The result was a white mass culture existing in ever-growing suburban rings around the older city. The expanse of Southern California had little in common with the density and diversity of New York. So the music came out of a different culture and experience fed largely by bliss. Interestingly, widespread drug use in California by jazz musicians at the time didn’t intensify the music.
West Coast jazz isn’t bad or good. It’s just another style that emerged from a different set of environmental factors—like the jazz that came out of New Orleans, Chicago or Kansas City. Certain factors contributed to its development and success. Interestingly, the sound of West Coast jazz owes a great deal to the surf, the longer sunsets and the unbridled optimism that many musicians, particularly white ones, felt at the time.
Your book feels especially fresh on the issue of race. Did the civil rights movement help assemble the coalition of the jazz audience during the good years, and drive it apart – or at least destabilize it – later on?
It’s impossible to study the development of jazz in the second half of the 1950s without considering the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. From the 1920s through the mid-1950s, black musicians who toured the U.S. faced unspeakable indignities, harassment and racial terrorism. Even though many of these artists and bands played in black communities, they had to travel long distances through a racially charged landscape, often at their own peril.
By the late 1940s, the climate started to change rapidly. Baseball starts to become integrated in 1947, the U.S. Armed Forces is integrated in 1948 and music becomes a unifier among teens in the early 1950s with the rise of the 45-rpm and independent radio. The Supreme Court decision made government segregation laws unconstitutional. Which sounded great on paper until it became clear that many parts of the country were continuing their segregationist practices as though nothing had changed. Those who had been assumed racial equality would take place overnight found the civil rights struggle dragging, particularly in the South.
Throughout the ‘50s, what you hear in the music of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and virtually all jazz musicians—black and white—is growing frustration with the status quo and a need to express how they felt as individual artists. While not every track recorded during this period is a political statement, the spiritual urgency that surfaced along with the celebration of Africa and other homelands has much to do with the need to be heard.
By the 1960s, racial injustice is still an important issue for many black musicians. But for millions of white and black teens, the Beatles and Motown become more important. Jazz during this period grows increasingly avant-garde—partly a result of jazz musicians’ frustration with shrinking opportunities in clubs and recording studios and the rise of pop-rock and soul, which they found aggravating. Jazz in the 1960s becomes disenfranchised, leaving musicians despondent and angry, which creates schisms between black and white artists and audiences.
The usual critique of a work of social history is that it is somehow deterministic. So I’ll ask: Given all these outside factors – technology, economic and demographic shifts, cultural trends, and so on – could things, with a different cast of characters on the artistic side, ended up differently for jazz?
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that someone like Charlie Parker existed in the 15th century and someone like him exists today. What I mean by this is that if recording technology, records, radio, the jukebox and all of the other factors that existed in the 1940s had been around in 1045 and consumers could afford them, someone with a saxophone might have invented bebop back then.
We know about Parker only because his music was documented, and that was possible only because smaller record labels emerged in the mid-‘40s to capture him. We’re just lucky that Parker was up to speed artistically when these events took place.
So, it’s my belief that jazz history—like all history—is 50% individuals and 50% conditions. The telephone would not have made any sense in the 1700s. If Alexander Bell invented it then, the phone would likely have been used to hold horseshoes in place or weigh down broadsheets. Artists have nothing to say if no one is listening, and people only listen if the artists’ works are accessible and meaningful.
The same is true of jazz. Parker, Hawkins, Silver, Clifford Brown and Hank Mobley were motivated to create and recreate the music they make because there were economic incentives and technological developments to do so. Count Basie led quite a few bands from the 1930s through the early 1980s. Each was different because Basie shrewdly re-invented his sound to suit commercial needs. The fundamentals were there—the piano, the swing and soloists. But the arrangers changed as did the soloists, and they were recording what would sell to new audiences.
Your book closes with guarded optimism on how jazz has survived all these decades of tumultuous changes without losing its soul. What are some of the great careers or albums since 1972 – what we might call, borrowing from Arthur Danto on art, jazz after the era of jazz?
Jazz continues today but the re-invention of new jazz styles has pretty much ground to a halt. It’s not that jazz musicians have run out of ideas. There’s just less of an economic incentive to take risks. There’s also nothing to prove by inventing new forms of the music. I suspect that dozens of new jazz styles have surfaced and evaporated since 1972—largely because none of them excited audiences or record labels, or other forms of music were a better investment.
I doubt jazz will ever change at the same rate it did between 1942 and 1972, when roughly 10 major styles surfaced, each one topping the one before it. Why not? First, concert audiences now expect a visual component. Rock and pop concerts deliver music and performance to stimulate excitement. Jazz, like classical, is largely static—musicians on stage playing. Second, universities aren’t putting a premium on teaching jazz and exciting young minds.
Young music fans have little interest in jazz because they haven’t been exposed to it in schools. I constantly hear of students who don’t really care for jazz because the professors they had were nasty or boring.
Unless jazz musicians today recognizes that they must do what jazz musicians have always done—integrating other contemporary forms of music and re-inventing jazz to say something more exciting and relevant—musicians will always be standing on stage playing the music of someone who died 30 years ago. And unless schools hire teachers and professors who are excited by the social history of jazz—the dramatic story of how jazz came to be and evolved—jazz will remain a classroom elective in which students use the time to text friends. For jazz to reach younger generations, it must be positioned as a dramatic story, not a series of albums.