Friday, December 7, 2012

A Look At "Why Jazz Happened"

There is much to fascinate here. It's rare to find a book with so much information which also reads so easily. Marginal Jazz fans will find a ton of material to interest them. Hard-nosed jazz-istas will too, but they may find themselves at odds, as I did, with some of the broad conclusions Myers forwards here.  

I admit up front that I tend to be uneasy in the face of someone else's certainty concerning musical/ historical constructs. Even a dizzying array of facts seldom nails anything down for me. Take the truism that artists reflect the times in which they operate: 
Easy to say, sez me, 
But much harder to prove specifi-cally. 

There are, for example, many jazz musicians born in 1985 who fashion their playing after bebop heros long mouldering in their graves. Maybe the fact that these musicians have heard hip hop or watched Dancing With the Stars is in there as part of their internal art-making process along with many hours of listening to Charlie Parker, but it's not so easy to parse out those influences. The process is always subject to conjecture, projection, bias, limited information; even with (especially with?) the words of musicians to back up your case.

On a larger scale, this is what Myers is trying to do in this book: anchor specific musical changes and content to historical, non-musical events. In service of this, he brings a laudable amount of research and scores of interviews, creating a book that is always interesting, sometimes enlightening, but occasionally too apt to push what is really conjecture into the realm of the authoritative.  


Myers gives us an interesting account of the reasons for the growth of L.A. after WW II and tries to tie those events to the onset of "West Coast" jazz. His chief witness is saxophonist Dave Pell, who clearly had a hell of a time, but I don't buy the case that tract housing developments, sunshine, beach, golf and the movie industry made specific musical things happen. Myers says: "The sound suited its surroundings, placing a new emphasis on instrumental harmony, fluid execution, and polished teamwork"(p.94). Hmm. If Gil Evans and the whole New York Birth of the Cool crowd wasn't fluid, polished, etc., who was? Myers also talks a lot about how L.A. separated musicians because distances, driving, running between studio gigs, etc. meant that there was much less hanging out in the kind of places that thrived in NYC. Is this also the kind of environment that would promote the sound of "instrumental harmony, fluid execution, and polished teamwork" noted above? Don't think you can have it both ways.

A clear tale is told here of how racism operated to close down jazz activity on black Central Ave. and provoke black musicians to move to the East Coast. But there are also enough stories in jazz folklore about racism in NYC, harassment over drugs, cabaret card suspensions, etc., that the idea of NYC as a racial refuge doesn't ring true; even more so because the book acknowledges that on neither coast did racism between jazz musicians seem to be a problem.

The section on how R&B affected jazz gathers much interesting information, but the underlying thesis is not convincing: hard bop as an attempt by jazz to "remain relevant" by infusing jazz with the beat and funk of R&B. Myers quotes Gene Seymour here: "Instead of grasping for greater complexity, hard bop provided jazz music with an innovative way of keeping things simple (p121)." I don't hear it in the music. Myers cites Elmo Hope, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson as hard bop composers. He says that hard bop had a "harder, more unified sound. (p.134)" and that it "added a back beat-a strong accent on the second and fourth beats of each measure(p.134)." I just can't buy it, even with Lou Donaldson kind of backing up the case. There were certainly some tunes that were more funky, but the predominating modality was instrumental virtuosity and a bop approach in the rhythm section. I can't see "Joy Spring" wooing away Earl Bostic fans. (It's cool, though, to learn that William Kunstler was the lawyer who helped Gigi Gryce incorporate to gain control of his music).

The chapter on the G.I. bill enabling a lot of musicians to acquire more formal music lifts a veil on the jazz-classical connection. I agree with Myers that formal classical training impacted jazz, but we disagree on what that specific impact was. Myers says that the result of this training was "a more complex form of jazz" (p.47). OK, if you're just talking about Third Stream music-and I see that music as more complicated only in terms of form, not improvisation. 

I think the major effect of this training was not that jazz itself became more complex, but that trained jazz arrangers were able to move into film and television work and to work with more popular artists on recordings. Examples: Buddy Collette, Teo Macero, Dick Hyman, Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini, Andre Previn and Bill Holman. 


Jazzwax, Myers' blog, is superlative. It contains scores of interviews with musicians and music industry people. By putting many of his interviews in service here, Myers seems to want to make the tone of the book something in between just plain history and an oral history like Hentoff's "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya." But it sometimes begats a pastiche feeling. A sub chapter will start; you will see a quote; there will be a digression, then other quotes arise that recapitulate the start of the sub chapter, sometimes saying essentially the same thing. A story or a quote sometimes shifts chronology in a way that doesn't completely make sense. In the chapter on the rise of amplification in rock, we start out with Woodstock and go back to the mid 60's.  

The internationalist Indian and African aspect of John Coltrane's playing is referred to, as is Trane's few allusions to the civil rights struggle in the titles of songs. But there is no effort to explain the spiritual influence Coltrane had and still has on the music and the musicians. The interior voyage of a musician is fueled by an incalculable number of personal experiences and is not easily quantified. I think this is where the difficulty of relating musical processes to historical events comes home to roost. 

Does this mean I think it's a vain exercise to try and connect historical/technological events to musical content? Definitely not. There are conclusions here with which I take absolutely no issue-the ramifications of the Musicians Union recording bans of the 1940's; advances in recording-tape, the LP, the 45 and with amplification; Black separatism influences and others. If just as a gathering of information and oral history, Myers' effort is invaluable.

But wrapping things up into a too-neat theoretical bundle can be problematic. As with Dr. Frankenstein's efforts to create life, you can try and make sure that all the parts you put into the body are top grade and even then, there are no guarantees. You have to be ready to accept that your creation might pique the ire of restless villagers armed with pitchforks, torches and blogs (nothing personal, Marc).


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