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Marc Myers puts the 'murders, risks and beauty' back in jazz history

Giant Steps

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A frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a prolific historian and critic, Marc Myers has plugged into the digital revolution on behalf of jazz. He began the blog JazzWax in 2007, putting the spotlight on interviews and recordings. It has since branched out into commentary and reviews of both vintage and contemporary discs, and it has become a must-read for lovers of the form — so much so that the Jazz Journalists' Association just named it their 2012 Blog of the Year. Myers' scope, while predominantly jazz, isn't limited to any one genre. He also covers soul, R&B, and rock (plus art and architecture elsewhere).

But his breadth isn't all that's different about his approach to jazz. His new book Why Jazz Happened (University of California Press) views the music's history from a social perspective, rather than the usual evolution through the innovation of individual performers. He examines events, profiles personalities, and offers analysis of cultural developments through the lens of a sophisticated, knowledgeable critic and trained historian.

Via email, Myers recently fielded questions about his new volume, which is essential reading (and an excellent gift) for anyone truly interested in both jazz and history.

When did you get the idea for a social history, and why did you decide on that approach?

As a historian, I’m a big believer that nothing happens in a vacuum. All major changes in art require the passion and drive of individuals, of course. But those factors alone are not enough. You need external forces and opportunities to line up for artists to succeed, to get their message across.

To that end, as gifted as Picasso, Fred Astaire and Charlie Parker were, their cultural contributions were possible only because of events unrelated to their own genius. The camera’s realism allowed for Picasso’s inventive art to be tolerated and appreciated. Sound film allowed Astaire to gain national recognition. And the rise of small record companies documented Parker’s bebop.

Up until now, the critical role of technology, business, labor, economics, politics and culture has been largely missing from jazz history. I simply wanted to tell the jazz story between 1942 and 1972 through these events — to show that other forces were at work beyond the minds of artists that enabled jazz styles to change roughly every five years during these three decades.

How did you pick the topics for the book?

As someone who believes that external events play a critical role in the development of any art, I began by looking at how jazz’s 10 major styles surfaced between 1942 and 1972. Yes, musicians were key, since without their inventions and determination, there would be no bebop, cool, hard bop, or any of the other styles.

But was that really all of it — just coming up with a great idea? Or was there more? So I looked at the social, technological, economic and cultural events going on at the same time and realized that jazz changed as often as it did because our society was changing rapidly and exerting pressures that allowed for the music to make sense.

Were there any areas that you wanted to do, but then decided against it?

No, but there was a jazz movement that I initially overlooked and ultimately added. Jazz in Chicago in the mid-1960s underwent a major upheaval. As rock and soul gained traction, Chicago clubs increasingly booked blues and R&B acts, and Chicago jazz musicians found themselves forced to re-invent the art form.

To do so, they needed to organize, so they had some means of financial and creative support. Chicago had a history of community organizing dating back to the late ‘50s, when parents citywide moved to ease crowding in the public schools attended mostly by black students.

With the Civil Rights movement in full flower in 1965 and the push by Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to hold demonstrations in the city, these jazz musicians decided to form the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

What unified the AACM was the music — which group leaders insisted had to be purely original and not derivative of anything that came before it. While much of this avant-garde music is a bit hard to listen to today, it represented a cause and a determination by artists to make an original statement.

But without the city’s history of community organizing and the spirit of the Civil Rights movement, the AACM may have foundered, like so many other similar jazz collectives in other parts of the country. I knew little about the AACM when I started the book, but doing the research and interviews was a real education.

I noticed that while you also cover blues, soul and rock & roll in your blog, none of those categories were addressed in the book to the extent of their impact on jazz. Do you plan to cover those in the future?

Actually, they’re all in the book. R&B’s rapid rise in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s puts commercial pressure on jazz and the result is hard bop. The Beatles’ arrival in February 1964 puts pressure on jazz to change again, and the result is the jazz-pop recorded by Wes Montgomery, Stan Getz, Count Basie and so many others.

What role has the growth of jazz criticism had in the music's history?

The jazz media first emerged as an influential force in the mid-1940s, largely as a champion of the new style known as bebop. In fact, if not for the jazz media — Down Beat, Metronome and the many newspaper columnists — as well as disk jockeys and concert promoters, bebop may never have caught on outside of New York.

The jazz media — critics in particular — shape jazz and inadvertently mainstream it throughout the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Jazz writers were read by jazz fans, which became particularly important with the arrival of the 33 1/3 rpm album in the early ‘50s. What jazz writers praised and panned had an influence on who record companies hired and promoted. Which in turn influenced who concert promoters and club owners wanted to hire for stage performances. By the ‘60s, the influence of the jazz critic is less potent simply because the demand and money shifts to other forms of music.

But jazz criticism remains vital for those who follow jazz, since jazz is not only about music, but ideas and taste as well.

You picked LA as a separate topic due to its suburbanization. Why no separate focus on NY, New Orleans or Chicago?

The time period I chose to focus on in the book is 1942 through 1972. New York, New Orleans and Chicago as well as Kansas City are pre-1942 developments as jazz centers. And I do spend a chapter on the AACM, which was a Chicago-based organization. But by the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the jazz movement that is having the greatest impact on jazz is taking place on the West Coast. Gerry Mulligan’s move to the Los Angeles and the formation of his quartet is important. But so is the rise of television, color movies, independent radio, the 45-rpm and LPs for the home market. All of these become an employment magnet for musicians, many of them white.

All of this wasn’t lost on East Coast labels, and you see the rise of hard bop and other forms partly in response to West Coast jazz activity and popularity. Remember, one of Clifford Brown and Max Roach’s earliest concerts takes place at the California Club in Los Angeles in 1954. And Sonny Rollins’ recording of “Way Out West” in March 1957 happens for a reason. Hard bop was the East Coast response to the success of West Coast jazz and R&B.

Have opportunities for women players gotten better, worse or not changed as you evaluate jazz history?

There have always been exceptional women in jazz. Mary Lou Williams, Marjorie Hyams, Marian McPartland, Patti Bown, Terry Pollard, Shirley Scott, all of the female vocalists and on and on. They didn’t receive the full credit they’re due largely because of the culture in which they were performing.

For a long time, post-war jazz was a man’s world — a club form where creative men were free to exhibit male confidence, male risk-taking and male competitiveness. Male listening audiences and their dates liked it that way, and women artists were viewed more as a novelty.

Female players back then had the same feelings of ambition as men and different ones. But to earn a living playing jazz between 1942 and 1972, you had to tour. Albums merely supported appearances, and touring was hard, particularly for women and for obvious reasons.

Today, more women are pioneering jazz — including Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington and Geri Allen — and they are bringing female assertiveness and ambition to the game, which provides greater variety and nuance.

You are both a music writer and a historian. Not that many historians have delved into jazz, though certainly a few have. Why haven't more historians also looked at jazz, especially given its intersection with so much social change?

Generally, many historians prefer to focus on world leaders, wars and social upheaval. Part of this trend is a result of the professors who inspired them. Many of those professors were hired based on their pioneering work in those areas. The other part of the trend has to do with publishers, who want books on these grand topics because they sell.

For decades, jazz history has been based on the biographies of different jazz musicians. To understand bebop, for example, you read biographies of the great bebop musicians. As a result, jazz history has largely been told through the lives and recordings of jazz musicians.

I view jazz history a little differently. Jazz to me is a 95-year film noir — a sweeping dramatic arc of shadows, independence, danger, joy, triumphs, murders, risks and beauty. But all of these things are attached to a time line, with turning points and suspense. Jazz becomes much more exciting when viewed this way — and it’s easier for lay audiences to understand and appreciate the music’s value when framed like this.

You deal far more with events than personalities. If you had to pick them, who would be the most important (as opposed to greatest players) in jazz history?

Interesting question. In order, during the period covered in my book, I’d say Dizzy Gillespie, for his ability to co-invent and promote bebop internationally; Gerry Mulligan, for his ability to change how big bands sounded in the late ‘40s; Lionel Hampton, for his maverick devotion to R&B; producer Norman Granz for his ability to marry Tin Pan Alley and jazz greats; Lennie Tristano, for his influence on the jazz-classical movement; Shorty Rogers, for his pioneering of West Coast jazz; Sonny Rollins, for his brazen leveraging of social issues to make a jazz and justice statement; Horace Silver, for his keen unification of gospel-funk and jazz; John Coltrane, for his spiritual sensibility; Art Blakey, for renewing jazz's emphasis on a swinging beat; Bill Evans, for his sophisticated introspection; Wes Montgomery, for his ability to integrate pop and jazz; Miles Davis, for his ability to grasp the importance of rock and soul, electrified sound and arena jazz; and producer Creed Taylor, whose vision for the CTI label and its subsidiaries in the ‘70s not only kept jazz artists employed during its most difficult period but also gave jazz and jazz albums a competitive look and feel, tiding it over until the acoustic jazz revival emerged in the ‘80s.

Are you optimistic, pessimistic or undecided about the future of jazz, both in America and globally?

For the longest time, I placed all of the blame on jazz musicians for jazz’s woes. My thinking had been that jazz musicians had done themselves a huge disservice by standing motionless on stage while performing, barely engaging audiences, and then grousing about not being better known or better compensated. I’ve since revised my thinking. If jazz has suffered or been forgotten, it’s also partly because educational institutions haven't done enough to teach the story of jazz. They teach the music and the recordings instead of the drama. Young minds listen to music but they respond to drama, because drama is about the human condition, the ups and downs of life. Which is why I wrote this book. This is a jazz book for those who like drama and suspense. My goal is simply to get people excited by the jazz story. My feeling is if you can get people to fall in love with the story, they're surely going to love the soundtrack.

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