Excerpt of our interview with Why Jazz Happened author Marc Myers

November 5th, 2013

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Marc Myers is a busy guy…In addition to being a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal (where he writes about jazz, rock, and other culture), he also posts daily on his award-winning blog Jazz Wax.  Perhaps his most important contribution is his book Why Jazz Happened, described by his publisher (University of California Press) as “the first comprehensive social history of jazz.”  Myers’ perspective is fresh and thorough and wonderfully entertaining.  For those who love the history of this music, it should be on your night table. 

I recently interviewed Myers about his book, which he took the time to converse in great detail about — topics like how the G.I. Bill altered the direction of jazz; the advent of the extended jazz solo that came with the introduction of the LP; and how the suburbanization of Southern California ushered in a new harmony-rich jazz style in contrast to the music played in urban markets.  It is a great read!

In anticipation of the complete interview (probably another couple of weeks before it is published), here is an excerpt dealing with the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban that eventually led to the recording of bebop…

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JJM Your book is described by the publisher as being “the first comprehensive social history of jazz.” It focuses on social events that, as you write, are “unrelated to the music or the artists have influenced the emergence and direction of major jazz styles.” You break the book into 11 chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of history that impacted the music itself. You start with the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban of 1942 – 1944. How did this impact the direction of jazz?

MM  From 1917 to roughly 1941, jazz is primarily dance music. It’s a convenient extension of the café or the dance hall or the ballroom, and it’s music you can actually put on at home and reproduce the dancing experience that existed when you were out the night before. That’s true through the 1930’s into the very early 1940’s. At the same time, there’s a large amount of music going on that is undocumented, and it’s undocumented because there were three major record labels dominating the field: Columbia, RCA and Decca. There were, of course, some minor record labels, but they’re not really doing very much other than capturing some entertaining piano player or trumpet player. There was no broad sweep to gather up all these musicians who were not part of the big band movement of the 1930’s or the hot jazz period in Chicago.

What happens that allows Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to become documented is not their genius – and that’s an important thing to remember about all this stuff. Genius in-and-of itself does not result in important art, and that’s true of those who invent the telephone or those who invent the Internet or those who invent the high speed modem. Genius needs opportunity, and the opportunity in the case of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and others who could play this new form of music was a labor strike that took Decca, Columbia and RCA offline. The musicians’ union was at war with technology through the 1930’s – the jukebox, the phonograph, records and radio were all putting musicians out of work. So by 1942, the musicians’ union had enough, and they told the record companies that if they want to keep cranking out records, that’s great, but we think you owe the musicians some money each time you sell a record.

The record companies said there was no way they would agree to that because the musicians weren’t full time employees of theirs, and that they shouldn’t have to pay money for musicians who were out of work. The musicians responded by refusing to work. This was in August of 1942. A year later Decca was practically bankrupt, and they decided to sign the contract and pay money into a fund that the union set up for out-of-work musicians. When Decca did that a slew of small labels emerged to take the same deal, and they began recording musicians who were not tied into RCA and Columbia. A small label couldn’t go out and hire Harry James and Artie Shaw because they were under contract to a major label, and were not supposed to be working.

What these minor labels like Apollo Records did is turn to their neighborhoods in Harlem and 52nd Street. The first bebop recording occured with Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas in February of 1944, and by the end of that year, Columbia and RCA came back online by agreeing to pay the royalty into the musicians fund as well. By then the genie is out of the bottle – bebop has been recorded and it becomes popular in urban markets, and more record companies begin to record this new form of music. It’s more affordable to record bebop than it is to record big band music, and it gains a foothold and emerges because of the musicians’ strike. So, since the major record companies were fallow, small labels emerged to record the music that, for the most part, was already in existence.

JJM  Regarding bebop’s rise, you wrote, “To raise bebop’s profile and expose the new music to the larger white jazz audience, bebop needed champions who could take this music, known then only as ‘New York jazz,’ and make it a phenomenon.” Who were bebop’s champions?

MM  You have to remember also that bebop was hated at first. People couldn’t stand it – some would call it “Chinese music” or they just called it weird or it sounded to cacophonous or too fractured and disoriented. What they were basically trying to say is you can’t dance to it.

JJM  When radio station KMPC in Los Angeles instituted a ban on playing bop recordings, they said; “The currently popular style of Bebop music is degenerate, a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency. It is suggestive and nothing short of dirty!”

MM  Exactly, and I believe they went even further and they had anti-bebop days. There was real animosity toward bebop in L.A. It was just viewed as corrupting music…

(To be continued…soon)

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