Jazz writer Marc Myers, LA’79, is a true modern journalist. He’s a daily blogger who feeds and maintains his own site, jazzwax.com, with a mix of long-form interviews and shorter posts. He also regularly contributes to the print world, with profiles and columns in one of the most respected newspapers in the country, The Wall Street Journal.
In his first book, Myers attempts to explain how jazz evolved during the 20th century by putting the music and its creators firmly in the context of various political, social, economic, and technological events.
Every nonfiction book should have a thesis, as well as present some new material on the subject. Myers succeeds much more with regard to the former than the latter, but that’s not surprising, given how many hundreds of books have been written about jazz’s history.
In Why Jazz Happened, Myers posits that what most people think of as jazz was created between 1942 and 1972. He doesn’t ignore the creation of jazz in the Swing Era, in which jazz became a truly popular music. However, he maintains that bebop, the style of improvisation over chord changes created by people like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, is the basis for all modern jazz, or at least all jazz that really matters.
The meat of this book is in the way it places the music in a broader context of historical events. Specifically, Myers points to eight major events, with the first being the recording ban from 1942 to 1944 by the American Federation of Musicians and the last occurring in the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s, when electric instruments and powerful concert speaker systems became accessible.
In between, Myers asserts, the music was redirected by all sorts of events, some of which (the GI Bill and the suburbanization of Southern California, for example) may surprise even the most knowledgeable jazz fans. He underplays the impact of the Great Migration—the huge demographic shift in which African-Americans moved from the rural South to industrialized cities of the North—but he does include the Civil Rights era when jazz became its most political.
Which is not to say that, in focusing on events, Myers leaves the stories of individual innovators out of the mix. He cannily leverages the long-form interviews and oral histories he did over the years as primary source material for this book, including interviews not only with artists such as Sonny Rollins and Chick Corea, but also with various producers, radio hosts, writers, and promoters, such as Nat Hent-off and George Wein. The anecdotal testimony of those voices propels the narrative forward and ensures that the book doesn’t get bogged down in historical detail.
Deftly written to accommodate those who don’t know much about jazz, Myers’ matter-of-fact style holds a steady rhythm. The book also contains plenty of nuanced interpretation for the serious jazz aficionado and should encourage another listen to this music genre.
Lee Mergner is the publisher of JazzTimes, where he has worked since 1990.