Monday, December 31, 2012

'A Highly Personal Music'

'A Highly Personal Music':
Jazz Happened
, by Marc Myers, University of California Press,
267 pages, $34.95.

Jazz personalities have provided material for some of the best
biographies and autobiographies written in modern times, and some
histories of jazz qualify as significant contributions to the
cultural history of the United States during the twentieth century.
In Why Jazz Happened, Marc Myers of has given
us another important contribution, but this is a contribution with
a difference.
Myers opens and ends his book with discussions of the Original
Dixieland "Jass" Band, a quintet that, on February 26, 1917, played
the two songs that constitute the first jazz
ever released. The band, though commercially successful, was far
from the best ensemble of its type. Its members never improvised,
and their tunes incorporated corny barnyard effects. But they were
partially responsible, Myers writes, for "the dramatic moment in
time when jazz was first documented on record. As I listened to the
music, I couldn't help thinking about the irony—that jazz may have
been born in New Orleans, but the music's documentation began at
RCA Victor's studio on West 38th Street, in the heart of New York's
Garment District."
Few jazz enthusiasts would see anything "dramatic" in the first
recorded jazz tunes, except perhaps that they were performed by an
all-white New Orleans ensemble instead of by superior black and
Creole musicians who (for the most part) were the true pioneers.
Myers' comments typify the unusual nature of his book. Most
histories of jazz focus on what might called its internal history:
the biographies of notable jazz musicians, composers, and
arrangers; the various stylistic developments of particular
musicians (such as the early and later styles of John Coltrane,
Miles Davis, or Bud Shank); and the nature of jazz music itself.
Myers focuses on the external history of jazz—on those
"nonjazz events" that significantly influenced the genre's
development. Among these influences were the invention of
long-playing records (which permitted long solos to be recorded),
the postwar G.I. Bill (which enabled many jazz musicians and
composers to study classical music), unions (especially the
two-year ban on recording, beginning in 1942, by the American
Federation of Musicians, which led to the emergence of many small
record companies), DJs, promoters, and much more.
Myers concentrates on developments in jazz from 1945 to 1972. It
was during these postwar years that "influential nonjazz events
became more abundant and potent," he writes.
[D]uring the twenty-seven years that followed World War II, jazz
was reshaped frequently by external events. After the war, the
vise-like grip of the three major record companies [Columbia, RCA
Victor, and Decca] on the industry weakened in the wake of labor
actions, increased competition from new labels, changes in the
radio industry, and the promotion of concerts. As a larger field of
record labels emerged and competed, jazz musicians gained greater
creative independence. From 1945 to 1972, the ten major jazz styles
that emerged certain reflected their times. But instead of
conforming to proven blues and dance models, jazz began to be
filtered through the views of individual artists rather than solely
through the commercial interests of a few large record companies.
For the first time, jazz play an assertive role, reflecting and
shaping America's values and culture rather than merely mirroring
them. As all the arts began to reflect the personal vision and
freedom of the artist, jazz's natural reliance on self-expression
allow the music to pivot neatly from syncopated dance music to
individualistic statements.
A refreshing aspect of Why Jazz
is its richly nuanced treatment of the relationship
between commerce and creative individuality. Although the story
here is far from linear and uniform, Myers makes it clear that
market processes, such as the competition among record companies
and the persistent efforts of jazz artists to adapt to changing
musical tastes, frequently had a beneficial influence on jazz. The
old chestnut—as told, for example, by the Marxist Sidney
Finkelstein in Jazz: A People's Music (1948)—that jazz
musicians have typically been "exploited" by capitalists and
entrepreneurs does not hold up to historical scrutiny. More than a
few of those supposed exploiters were jazz enthusiasts who took
considerable risks to underwrite and promote their favorite
I have been a jazz buff since the early 1960s, and I counted
Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper,
Bud Shank, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, and
Charlie Byrd among my childhood heroes. As I later became
interested in political theory, the relationship between the
cultural individualism of jazz and the political individualism of
libertarianism seemed so natural to me that, with all the innocence
of youth, I frequently expressed surprise upon discovering that few
of my libertarian friends shared my interest in this form of
The improvisations that characterize jazz have produced the most
individualistic form of art in American history. Solo jazz
musicians are at once composers, arrangers, and performers; and the
variety found in their solos reflects the individuality of the
musicians themselves.
"No two persons ever hear jazz the same way," the celebrated
bandleader Woody Herman wrote in 1964. "It is a highly personal
music. It is complicated. All of us, musicians and laymen alike,
enjoy or dislike a performance because of an infinite number of
intangibles—our personal background, listening experience,
knowledge of vocal and instrumental skills, even our age. Part of
the charm of American jazz lies in its variety."