'A Highly Personal Music'

Jazz, commerce, and individualism.


Why 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 record 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 Happened 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 musicians.

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 music.

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."