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Why Jazz Happened Hardcover – December 10, 2012
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This accessible history of jazz by frequent Wall Street Journal writer and blogger Myers focuses on the years 1942–72, when that music emerged from its beginnings into a period of ferment, from bebop to fusion. It is not necessarily for the musically sophisticated but rather for the layperson interested in the midcentury development of jazz, and Myers’ critical contribution is in the why of his title (which might have profited from a subtitle). Though utilizing interviews, Myers relies primarily on secondary sources; as a result, he offers little new in the way of detail or musicology, but he supplements the voluminous jazz literature by cogently analyzing the business and cultural contexts—technological (radio and jukebox, LP and 45 rpm records, electronics) and social (the GI Bill, suburbanization, the civil rights movement)—that enabled the growth of jazz in mid-twentieth-century America. --Mark Levine
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Top Customer Reviews
So, Why Jazz Happened is a history of jazz, yes; but it is as much a history about American culture told through the story of jazz. West Coast jazz (a favorite of mine), for instance, is largely 'explained' (though Marc Myers is no reductionist) by the housing boom in post-WWII West Coast and the fact that many touring musicians decided to settle there, developing a laid back sound to match the laid back weather and atmosphere. Spiritual jazz (from Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" to Rollins's "Freedom Suite") is argued to be largely an outgrowth of black musicians' disappointment with legal and cultural segregation, and the lack of progress toward equality; many black artists increasingly wrote spiritual-influenced jazz expressing their anger at the present and hope toward the future. Soul jazz (from Lou Donaldson to Grant Green) is seen as jazz musicians' and record labels' attempts to get R&B record buyers to come back and buy jazz records. I hope I am not making Myers's explanations sound too simplistic; his story makes use of an impressive array of primary and secondary sources including interviews with the musicians (and 'behind the secenes' folks like record executives) working at the times in question.
If I have one complaint, it is that the book goes off in many different directions, sometimes, feeling a bit long winded. The chapter on West Coast jazz, for instance, gokes on for 20 or so pages on the ins and outs of Los Angeles's post-WWII booming housing market and the urban planning involved in dealing with the sprawl. Sections like these (another is an in-depth story of the creation of the LP record) are interesting for 10 or so pages, but the reader can get a bit bogged down in these details. (I suspect that during these times, most readers will be saying "let's get to the jazz part." I know I was.)
But all in all, I kept reading. The book was very interesting, particularly because it was both about jazz and the cultural surroundings that advertently and inadvertently shaped it. I know I will never listen to some of my favorites the same way again. Now, these favorites will come a bit more to life. And I think that is a good thing.
I believe the true audience for this book is much wider than just those interested in the history of Jazz. The book actually covers social and economic topics such as the advent of the LP and 45rpm records and the business rivalries that led to the emergence of pop, rock and even classical music as an at-home-entertainment industry. This book is probably just as important as an MBA case study as it is to the history of Jazz. Myers' coverage of the GI Bill and how it led to a generation of "schooled" musicians is another interesting social and political phenomenon that is of general interest, and helps explain why there is such a proliferation of music majors even today.
I don't mean in any way to diminish the importance of this book as a history of Jazz. My point is that it is much wider in scope. Myers set out to explain why Jazz happened, and he ended up explaining why the music industry as a whole happened, and the central role America has played in its evolution. A must-read for all music lovers.
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often in the Wall Street Journal...but even better is his daily blog JAZZWAX.Read more