Interview with Marc Myers, author of Why Jazz Happened

February 7th, 2014


Marc Myers, author of Why Jazz Happened

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 and travels around the world promoting his pursuits.  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!

What follows is part conversation/part history class about Myers’ fascinating cultural study of why, in his opinion, “jazz happened.”



The suburbinzation of Los Angeles — including this 1950 development of Lakewood — created an environment in which West Coast Jazz could blossom


“From 1945 – 1972, the ten major jazz styles that emerged certainly reflected their times. But instead of conforming to proven blues and dance models, jazz began to be filtered through the viewpoints of individual artists rather than solely through the commercial interests of a few large record companies. For the first time, jazz played 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 allowed the music to pivot neatly from syncopated dance music to individualistic statements.”

– Marc Myers


JJM    Before getting into your book, I wanted to talk with you a little bit about your career.  How long have you been writing about jazz?

MM    Probably since 2007 for the blog and then since 2010 for The Wall Street Journal.

JJM You hadn’t written about jazz prior to the blog?

MM    No. I wanted to for many, many years, but the need to make money compelled me to write about other subjects like finance that were more lucrative. As far as listening to the music, jazz has been a passion of mine since about 1967 or ’68, when I was 11 years old.

JJM Were you a journalist prior to writing for The Wall Street Journal

MM Yes, I studied journalism as an under-grad, but putting words down on paper for all to read and inform has been in my blood for the longest time.   I suspect it has something to do with watching all those episodes of The Adventures of Superman on TV in the ’60s. The Daily Planet probably planted the bug unconsciously, and moving forward into high school, I was the editor of the school paper, and in college I did the same. I attended Northeastern University in Boston, which had a terrific work-study program. It was a five-year school-half the year you went to school and for the other half you worked in the area of interest that you were studying.  For me, thanks to a series of lucky breaks, I worked throughout college at The New York Times.

JJM Nice!

MM After college I worked full-time for The Times in the sports department and wrote for many other sections of the paper. In the mid-1980s, I left to work as an editor at several national magazines and financial newsletters before helping to start a financial dot-com in 1999. I started my own company in 2001. Then, in 2007, Terry Teachout insisted I start a blog.  Terry and I had been getting together on Saturday mornings in front of our stereos for about ten years to listen to jazz. Terry insisted I knew too much not to write about it and said I should start by blogging. I laughed and told him I was way too busy for it. Terry pointed out that there was no one busier than he was and that he was blogging. So I said I’d start a blog in two weeks and I did – JazzWax. This was about the time when jazz blogging was emerging, but I think you predate me, don’t you? 

JJM Jerry Jazz Musician started in 1999…

MM Yes, well, there you go.

JJM How often do you write for The Wall Street Journal?

MM I average two to three pieces a week.

JJM Who are some of the jazz critics that you most admire?

MM Like everyone else my age, I came up reading the backs of albums.   I would say Nat Hentoff was a big hero of mine as a kid because I always felt his writing was closest to magazine journalism. Whitney Balliett as well, since his essays in the New Yorker were so personal and expressive. Ralph J. Gleason, too, and a couple of others were the ones I most admired.

JJM Nat Hentoff continues to be a big influence.  I understand he was inspirational in getting you to write your book?

MM Yes, if Nat hadn’t answered the phone when I called to run the idea by him, the book probably wouldn’t have gone out.  When told him what I had in mind, he immediately liked it, said nothing had been done like it in the past and told me to call his editor right away. So I did.

JJM What are some of the books you read that inspired your interest in jazz history?

MM Almost nothing related to jazz.  I did my master’s degree in U.S. history at Columbia University, so in addition to being a trained journalist, I’m also a trained historian, which means that I know how to do the research. My journalism background lets me take that information and turn it into a compelling narrative. 

Most of my favorite history books are not jazz history books.  What I simply did for this book is I took the discipline of applying social history to jazz history, which really hasn’t been done all that much.  Jazz histories are often stories about a guy who shows up in town with a trumpet and he’s replaced by a guy with a saxophone and then a big band comes through and they become hot.  Then the next thing you know eight guys are hot, so it’s the transference of the music from artist to artist to artist — like a relay race of sorts.  But I was much more fascinated by why jazz styles were happening, not what was happening. I also was fascinated by the overlay of all these other things that were going on around jazz, including technology, economic trends and social, labor and civil rights issues. All of these external issues put unintentional pressures on jazz, creating either opportunities or hurdles that led to change. 

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 who have influenced the emergence and direction of major jazz styles.”  You break the book into 11 chapters, each dealing with 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 1942, jazz is primarily dance music.  Jazz recordings become  a convenient extension of the café or ballroom experience, and it’s music you could 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 and into the very early 1940’s.  But during this latter period, there was a great deal of music going on that was undocumented, and it’s undocumented because there were three major record labels dominating the field — Columbia, RCA and Decca — which focused largely on big, bank-able artists.  There were, of course, some small record labels, but they weren’t doing very much other than capturing a few lesser-known artists playing jazz popular at the time or in the past. So there was no incentive by labels to gather up musicians who were not part of the swing era. 

What happened that allowed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to become documented? It wasn’t their genius alone — and that’s important to remember.  Genius in-and-of itself does not result in important art gaining visibility. That’s true of those who invented the telephone or those who invented the Internet or the high speed modem.  Genius needs opportunity to be appreciated, and the opportunity in the case of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and others who could play this new form of jazz known as bebop was a labor strike that took Decca, Columbia and RCA offline.

By 1942, the American Federation of Musicians had been at war with technology since the early 1930’s. The jukebox, the phonograph, records and radio were all putting musicians out of work.  By the early ’40s, Union membership was sliding and the Union had decided it had had enough. They told the record companies that if they wanted to keep cranking out records without compensating the Union, that would be fine but the Union’s musicians would no longer be a part of it. 

The record companies refused to pay into a Union fund to support unemployed musicians because the musicians weren’t full-time employees of theirs, and they didn’t want to set a precedent whereby they’d be providing out-of-work musicians a form of welfare. So in August 1942, the Union prohibited all of its members — which meant virtually all musicians — from recording. For a year, no new records were recorded by Union musicians — singers and players of odd instruments like the harmonica were excluded since they weren’t Union members. But a year later, Decca was nearly bankrupt and decided to sign the Union agreement, paying a fee on every record sold into a fund that the Union could use to hire out-of-work musicians.  Once Decca signed, a slew of small labels emerged to take the same deal and began recording musicians who were not signed to RCA and Columbia. 

The musicians who were recorded by small New York labels like Apollo were playing regularly at clubs in Harlem and on 52nd Street.  The first bebop recording came in February 1944, soon after the Decca deal, and featured Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas. By the end of that year, Columbia and RCA agreed to the Union royalty deal, but by then, the genie was out of the bottle — bebop had been recorded and was becoming increasingly popular in New York. It was more affordable to record small bebop groups than big bands, and the music began to gain a foothold and was documented thanks to the musicians’ strike.  

JJM Regarding bebop’s rise, you write:  “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 that bebop was hated at first.  People outside of New York couldn’t stand it — some called it “Chinese music” because it sounded odd, fractured and disoriented.  What they were basically saying in shorthand 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 had anti-bebop events.  There was real animosity toward bebop in Los Angeles — it was just viewed as corrupting music, the way R&B and rock and roll were viewed in the ’50s.  So the question is, how does bebop go from a despised music nationwide to a form so popular that by 1948 and 1949 the likes of Benny Goodman, Harry James, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey are playing it?  There are Dizzy Gillespie fan clubs, many leading film actors and actresses are fans. What happens in just four years?

Record-lovers didn’t wake up one morning and say, “Yeah, bebop — that’s the thing.” In fact, there were three major champion groups of the new music.  The first was the jazz writers and columnists for newspapers and magazines like Downbeat and Metronome who covered the new music because they were young and what they heard sounded hip and fresh and unlike swing, which had become primarily a pre-war, adult sound.

The second was the rise of the jazz concert promoter, people like Norman Granz who saw artistic value in bebop. Granz featured it in his “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts that traveled the country. The third champion group of bebop evangelists were radio station disc jockeys.  Prior to the recording ban, the musicians’ union was livid that records were being played on the radio. In fact, in the late 1930s the Union insisted that the labels on records be marked, “Not for home use,” or “For radio use only,” and even wanted record companies to break them in half after being played on the air once. But once the record labels agree to pay the Union a fee, the Union was overjoyed to hear records on the radio — the more the merrier. Record sales mean greater fees. As records become a mainstay of radio, you see the rapid rise of hipster disc jockeys like Symphony Sid who are responsible for choosing what to play and entertaining audiences with banter that matched the hipness of the music itself. By the late 1940’s bebop wasn’t just music, it was a popular fashion statement, especially among teens.

JJM So bebop presented itself as a nocturnal hip culture…

MM Yes, its nighttime, neon mystique grew thanks largely to radio and disc jockeys.

JJM And it came off being a little dangerous and a little off base…

MM Yes, because the focus was on the soloist and his or her artistic independence, not the sound of an uptight swing bandleader or his arrangers. Independence was a big deal after World War II across the board. Look at independent radio, which expanded rapidly as federal radio licenses were handed out in greater number. Prior to World War II, the government restricted the number of licenses it handed out to small stations to limit the risk of anti-war or enemy information being broadcast while the country was fighting on two fronts. After the war the government began handing out radio licenses hand over fist, especially toward the late 1940 when television made inroads in many markets.  The great fear at the time was that markets would be glued to television and that monopolies would form in many markets. So, licenses were granted to independent radio stations to stimulate competition.

As the number of radio stations grew, the broadcast power of their towers were increased as well. So late at night, some kid in Virginia could pick up Symphony Sid broadcasting from Birdland or the Royal Roost in New York and fall in love with bebop and the romantic experience taking place in the city’s clubs late at night. In this regard, bebop’s popularity owes everything to the evangelism of the jazz promoter, the jazz media, and the disc jockeys.  That’s how the word spread and how millions of people came to hear it and appreciate the genius of the artists.

JJM   In another example of how you connected social history with jazz, you wrote an interesting chapter on the GI Bill, and how the bill “allowed millions of returning veterans to attend college for free, giving musicians who had served the opportunity to enroll in accredited schools and colleges with intensive music programs.” Dave Brubeck said, “For most of the musicians I knew, the G.I. Bill gave us a chance to study.  We were pulled away from worrying about how to make a living.  I was in the service for four years, from 1942 to 1946, and was out of touch with the jazz world when I returned.  Under the G.I. Bill, you were able to study with the best teachers right across the country.  The sound of jazz changed as musicians became more educated.” Do you want to talk a little about how the GI Bill impacted the sound of jazz?

MM By the late 1940’s, just as bebop was catching on, many of the better players were sick of the style.  At first, few musicians knew how to play the complex form. Only a small group of musicians who were exposed to the artists could perform and record it authoritatively. By the late 1940’s, so much bebop had been released on record that musicians were able to transcribe what they heard and unlock its structural mystery. As a result, better musicians wanted to break free of bebop and create a new jazz style. Musicians, like all artists, are restless by nature and eager to replace what exists with their own invention. 

Thousands of musicians took part in World War II, many of them playing in bands either in the United States or in Europe, where they entertained troops at bases to build morale and remind troops of the home front and why they were fighting. Toward the end of World War II, the federal government was terrified about what would happen when 15 million troops returned to the States. The government feared a repeat of the violence that occurred when World War I soldiers returned and couldn’t find work. The fear, of course, was that returning vets without work would become angry and violent, leading to a change in political party in Washington. In June 1944, the government decided to pass what became known as the GI Bill — which gave returning vets a variety of benefits, including low-interest home loans and a free college education. So, when discharged musicians couldn’t find work after returning from the war, they had the option of attending music school for free. Thousands of jazz and big band musicians went to college. But jazz wasn’t taught at most music schools at the time, forcing these musicians to study classical music. By the late 1940’s, many of these musicians graduated better educated and more exposed to modern classical music.  They soon would integrate modern classical music into jazz and produce music that required better musicians to read the music. “Cool jazz” emerged during this period of exposure to modern classical music and was even more highly improvised than bebop.  You listen to Lee Konitz or Lennie Tristano or Dave Brubeck and you hear highly sophisticated music that not longer clings to the blues. It’s largely jazz with a modern classical infusion.  To be clear, not all were in World War II or studied under the GI Bill, the trend in jazz was toward better-educated musicians and modern classical expression.

JJM It is what Gunther Schuller called “Third Stream Music.”

MM Eventually, yes, since he was eagerly trying to fuse jazz and classical- -viewing both forms as important.  Artists like Schuller, Gil Evans, Lee Konitz, and Lenny Tristano were all formally trained. Clearly, by 1949 and 1950, some form of training was necessary to compete in the new, sophisticated jazz market. 

JJM You remind readers of your book that almost all members of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool recordings in 1949 and 1950 had received some formal musical training in school, privately or in military bands before and after the war…

MM Yes, John Carisi, for example, who wrote “Israel,” studied under the G.I. Bill.  Miles Davis, of course, had been at Julliard — though not under the GI Bill.  The others had studied formally years earlier and were more than familiar with music theory and classical forms.

JJM Another chapter of your book is devoted to how the advent of the LP and magnetic tape altered the sound of jazz…Can you talk a little about that?
MM This is yet another example of how forces external to jazz placed new pressures on artists and created new opportunities, resulting in new jazz styles. As exciting as jazz recordings had been prior to 1948, all recordings were confined to a little over three minutes per side of a 78 RPM record. That’s how long it took the needle to travel from the beginning of a record to the label at the center. In other words, whatever improvisation a musician wanted to play had to take place pretty fast to make it onto that record. 

But let’s revisit that agreement signed by record companies and the American Federation of Musicians in 1943 and 1944. By the end of December of 1947, the contract that all parties signed to end the recording ban was due to expire.  The Union knew how well the record industry was doing after the war and wanted to renegotiate the rate from .02 cents a record to .05 cents or more.  The Union warned the record companies in 1947 that if the labels didn’t agree to its terms by year’s end, its musicians would once again stop recording. The record companies were determined to balk because they viewed the Union’s demands as blackmail and they had already stockpiled records that they planned to issue through any future strike. At the end of the year, with the two parties at odds, the union instituted a second national ban, shuttering the studios once for much of 1948. 

But years earlier, record companies were looking for a way to end the battle with musicians once and for all. Toward the end of 1947, someone at Columbia Records came up with what seemed at the time like a dumb idea. As executives met to talk about a second recording ban, someone suggested that one way to avoid trouble was to put their emphasis on the home market rather than radio. At the time, their business model was to make money on the sales of records by getting them aired on the radio and in jukeboxes.

For years, Columbia had been trying to develop a longer playing record that would hold more music and allow consumers to stay seated longer. After the signing of the G.I. Bill, returning vets had access to affordable home ownership thanks to low-interest loans. Homes meant a range of new conveniences, including a phonograph. The demand for a longer record to play on that phonograph was looming.

So Columbia developed the long playing record — now known euphemistically as the album — and introduced it in June of 1948.  The 12-inch version was originally for classical music, and the 10-inch disc was for pop and jazz.  At first, the pop and jazz divisions viewed the 10-inch LP as a convenient way to offer multiple 78 RPM recordings.  Their narrow way of thinking at the time was to put five three-minute recordings on one side and five on the other, with the result being that the listener just didn’t have to get up as often to flip over the disc.  But, that was all they were getting.  Eventually, jazz solos lengthened as producers realized they could abandon the five, three-minute song formula for fewer tracks that ran longer.

The second thing that happened was the widespread use of magnetic tape in recording studios.  This is important because magnetic tape — a technology developed in Germany during the war and captured during the Allied invasion — allowed recording studios to be more flexible and cost-efficient.  Tape could be rewound, spliced and even used again and again.

In fact, recording long jazz solos began as an accident. In August 1951, Prestige’s owner and producer Bob Weinstock brought Zoot Sims and other musicians — including Art Blakey — into the studio to record a blues.  Weinstock had a stop watch and had planned to stop Sims when he reached the three-minute mark. But Zoot being Zoot got into a groove and blew through the three-minute mark, despite Weinstock’s initial protest viewed through the window of the control room. Rather than stop him, Weinstock let Sims keep playing and recorded 15 minutes of Sims’ blowing.  Realizing what he had just done, Weinstock aksed that the other side be recorded the same way. So the B-Side became “East of the Sun.”

This mistake led to the realization among the record companies that they could record longer, much more involved solos, and with fewer tracks on each side, recreate the nightclub experience.  As the LP became popular, record companies began looking for musicians who were schooled and could arrange entire albums of music that skilled musicians could play with fewer costly retakes.

JJM It also created more marketing opportunities for the music in the form of representing it artistically on the jacket art, an important way of inspiring consumer appeal for the music. 

MM Yes, a larger disc needed a larger package to hold it. 

JJM CD’s have never come close to effectively communicating the culture of the music in the way the LP did — no matter the genre — because it didn’t have the packaging real estate that the LP does… 

MM Yes, that’s true. Back in the LP era of the 1950s, record companies could do things like put photographs of attractive female models on the cover, or communicate moods like “blues for a rainy day,” where, for example, you might see two lovers holding an umbrella while walking the streets.  So, the cover could create an appetite for the music inside, and the back of the jacket — which at first was used to simply promote other records that the company was releasing — could be used as a space for someone to write about the musicians and the music on the album.  The real estate on the front and back of LP jackets became almost as important as the longer solos and the arrangements on the jazz albums themselves. 

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