Why Jazz Happened

Why Jazz Happened

by Marc Myers

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Why Jazz Happened is the first comprehensive social history of jazz. It provides an intimate and compelling look at the many forces that shaped this most American of art forms and the many influences that gave rise to jazz’s post-war styles. Rich with the voices of musicians, producers, promoters, and others on the scene during the decades following World War II, this book views jazz’s evolution through the prism of technological advances, social transformations, changes in the law, economic trends, and much more.

In an absorbing narrative enlivened by the commentary of key personalities, Marc Myers describes the myriad of events and trends that affected the music's evolution, among them, the American Federation of Musicians strike in the early 1940s, changes in radio and concert-promotion, the introduction of the long-playing record, the suburbanization of Los Angeles, the Civil Rights movement, the “British invasion” and the rise of electronic instruments. This groundbreaking book deepens our appreciation of this music by identifying many of the developments outside of jazz itself that contributed most to its texture, complexity, and growth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520305519
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/26/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 597,741
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Marc Myers is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, where he writes about jazz, rock, soul, and rhythm & blues as well as art and architecture. He blogs daily at www.JazzWax.com, winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's Blog of the Year Award.

Read an Excerpt

Why Jazz Happened

By Marc Myers


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95398-7


Record Giants Blink

On February 16, 1944, a dozen jazz musicians met at a New York studio to record three songs for Apollo Records. The band's leader was the tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, who at age thirty-nine was the oldest jazz musician present and easily the most famous. Almost five years earlier, Hawkins had recorded "Body and Soul," on which he seemed to improvise seamlessly for about three minutes without once playing the famed song's original melody—except for the opening four bars. Hawkins's brash reworking of the Tin Pan Alley standard had become a jukebox hit for RCA Victor and made Hawkins a saxophone sensation. But jazz reputations in the 1940s required reinvention and fresh achievement. To remain ahead of the creative curve, Hawkins frequently invited younger jazz musicians to challenge him in clubs—a risky move because it exposed him to a possible besting by up-and-comers. But the open invitation also allowed Hawkins to stay sharp and remain in control. The musicians who assembled that day for the Apollo Records session were both his admirers and his stylistic rivals.

The February 16 gathering at Apollo was the label's very first recording session. Apollo had been founded just weeks earlier by Teddy Gottlieb, the white owner of the Rainbow Music Shop on 125th Street, one of Harlem's most popular record stores. With the Apollo label, Gottlieb hoped to create a pipeline for his record store by having musicians re-create on disc the excitement of Harlem's after-hours clubs. He also fully expected the label's records to sell well in the store's neighborhood, particularly among younger buyers, who weren't old enough to gain entry to the clubs. In Gottlieb's favor was the Rainbow Music Shop's regular sponsorship of the After Hours Swing Session, an overnight radio show on WHOM hosted by "Symphony Sid" Torin. The animated disc jockey had been on the air in New York since 1937, spinning jazz records by black musicians, and the show was revered by Harlemites.

What Gottlieb did not know—and could not have known on February 16, 1944—was that Apollo Records was about to make history. On that day Hawkins and the other musicians—the trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Vic Coulsen, and Eddie Vanderveer; the saxophonists Leo Parker, Leonard Lowry, Don Byas, Ray Abrams, and Budd Johnson; the pianist Clyde Hart; the bassist Oscar Pettiford; and the drummer Max Roach—would take part in what is now considered the first commercial bebop recording. The music they recorded that February wasn't known officially then as "bebop"—it was too new, and the word bebop wouldn't be used in print to describe the new style of jazz until later in the year, when magazine writers needed a snappy word to summarize the animated style. But the musical language of bebop—with its strange-sounding notes and breakneck tempos—had been developing aggressively over the preceding years, at jam sessions and in black big bands.

To the average ear, bebop sounded significantly different from the more predictable "swing"—the most popular jazz style in 1944. Swing was primarily dance music; black big bands had first developed it in Kansas City in the late 1920s and early 1930s before it was leveraged by white bands in the mid-1930s. Swing's crossover to national prominence began in 1935 when Benny Goodman's band appeared at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, met there by frenzied local teens who had heard the band play on NBC's Let's Dance radio broadcasts. For the most part, swing featured a less frantic tempo than earlier jazz styles, often with an emphasis on the second and fourth beats.

Bebop, initially, was everything swing was not. Its explosive excitement centered on individual musicians, who took turns playing improvised solos. Often bebop was performed at a pace far too fast for dancing. And while swing relied predominantly on parts written for a large group of musicians—with an occasional space for a brief solo or two—bebop was intended to be played by small groups that joined together only briefly at the beginning and end. Bebop was so intricate that most musicians—even experienced jazz musicians—could not imitate it with ease.

The sound of bebop resembled that of no other form of jazz previously played or recorded. There was a happy urgency and sly hipness to it, a bouncy, slippery informality and liberated feel that left listeners excited and energized. The secret of the new music rested in soloing musicians' interpretations of the song's chords—they added notes in some cases and left out notes in others. Speed, improvisational risk taking, and on-the-fly harmonies also played big roles in the music's high-wire act. This was music for showing off the talents and dexterity of the individual, not the whole ensemble.

"Bebop wasn't a secret language," said the pianist Billy Taylor, one of bebop's early practitioners. "It was an expansion of many aspects of the complex musical language that already was being played at the time by Art Tatum and others. In 1944, Dizzy demonstrated bebop to me on the piano of the Onyx Club on New York's 52nd Street. He said, 'Look, if you play this chord and add this note, this will happen. Then if you leave this note out, it will take you in a different direction.' Dizzy had spent years working this out."

The musicians who recorded for Apollo Records in February 1944 weren't strangers. They knew one another and had performed with each other since late 1943 at New York's Onyx Club and Kelly's Stable. In addition, several of the musicians were already established jazz stars. Some weeks earlier, for example, two of twelve musicians—Coleman Hawkins and Oscar Pettiford—had been named top artists on their respective instruments by Esquire magazine's jazz critics' poll. But of all the musicians present that day, Gillespie was far and away the one who had done the most to develop and codify the new style of jazz they were recording. His nickname, Dizzy, was perfect—describing how the spiraling music made listeners feel while also fooling rivals into underestimating his extraordinary skills. The nickname had been given to him in the late 1930s, while he was in Teddy Hill's band. "Dizzy stayed up there [in the trumpet section] with his overcoat on—in fact he did everything in an unorthodox fashion," said Hill in an April 1947 interview in Metronome magazine. "Embarking on a new arrangement, he was as likely as not to start reading an interlude or the last chorus instead of taking it from the top. I said to him, 'Boy, you're really Dizzy.' 'Yes,' said Gillespie cheerfully. 'That's right.' I said, 'I think I'm going to call you Dizzy.' And that's the way it has been ever since."

Gillespie had also been the most articulate explainer of how the new jazz should sound, often teaching fellow musicians to play it. "Dizzy tried to hum everything to everybody to get them to see what he was still talkin' about," tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson told Ira Gitler. "Diz would sing, and actually that's how I think the music got its name, bebop. Because he would be humming this music, and he'd say, 'Ooop bop ta oop a la doo bop doo bad.' So people said, 'Play some more of that bebop' ... and actually I think that's how it got its name, because that's the way he would have to sing it to make you get the feeling that he wanted you to play with."

But if Gillespie and other bebop pioneers—including the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, the drummer Kenny Clarke, and the pianist Bud Powell—had been developing the jazz form since 1941 and 1942, why did it take until February 1944 to record the music? And how did a frantic form of improvised music played mostly by black musicians in dimly lit nightclubs for audiences seated in chairs rather than moving about on dance floors manage to become a national sensation four years later, not to mention jazz's predominant style?


The recording of bebop in February 1944 occurred largely because Decca and smaller record companies had settled with the American Federation of Musicians in late 1943, ending a recording ban by musicians that had started in the summer of 1942. All the labels that signed with the union in the months that followed hoped to take advantage of a marketplace without new releases from RCA Victor's and Columbia's star bandleaders. Those two major labels refused to settle with the musicians' union and would hold out until late 1944. With Victor and Columbia idle, small independent labels were able to rent studio time and record on a shoestring budget. Many of these smaller labels in New York turned to musicians who could assemble groups and record exciting music at a high level. Apollo was among these microlabels, but the number of new record ventures multiplied quickly as Victor and Columbia held out.

When Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker began to record bebop, other musicians bought their records and transcribed their notes to figure out what exactly they were doing. "How did I learn bebop? There was no school to learn," said the clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. "You had to figure out what was going on musically. In 1944, I was in Charlie Barnet's band. Dodo Marmarosa, the piano player, and I collaborated quite a bit during our down time. One day we ran into trumpeter Charlie Shavers. He said, 'There's a guy up in Harlem who plays alto saxophone. His name is Charlie Parker. You have to go hear him.' ... So on a night off, we went up there. We were dumbstruck by what he was doing on his instrument. We spent as much time as possible there but we only picked up so much. It wasn't long after that night that Parker started making records with Dizzy Gillespie, introducing the idea of bebop. We played their records over and over again when we began to figure out what they were doing. Dodo said to me, 'Why don't you try to play the clarinet like Parker?' I said, 'That's exactly what I was thinking.' So I did."

Bebop's roots can be traced back to the early 1940s, when black big-band musicians began experimenting with new ways of playing improvised solos. From the start, their goals were to gain the admiration of their audiences with these solos and to achieve a level of fame and respect from their peers. A black musician who became a renowned soloist could start his own band or land a coveted record deal with a major label. By 1940, several black jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Coleman Hawkins, had already reached star status by having commercial crossover success as soloists. For young black musicians in bands in the 1940s, the only way out was up, and the only way up was to stand out by being exceptional.

But from the perspective of bandleaders, the success of individuals in their bands was bad for business. Running a swing orchestra was a daily challenge requiring entrepreneurial skill. Bandleaders had to resort to managerial and psychological tricks to retain top young talent. The stakes were highest for the major swing bandleaders who had lucrative contracts with record companies and appeared on the labels' radio networks. Similar contracts did not exist between the bandleaders and the musicians they hired and had to retain. Without formal contracts with bandleaders, musicians in swing orchestras typically remained with a band until they received a better offer from another one or were fired—a frequent occurrence, since bands were constantly being overhauled and fine-tuned by bandleaders. Musicians who wanted to break free of this hired-fired cycle and improve their job security had to develop a distinct sound on their instrument. In other words, their performances had to wow audiences without eclipsing the talent and egos of bandleader bosses.

For an individual musician, quitting a band without having lined up another offer was risky. Leave a band to do what? Without star power and sizable capital from a backer, forming one's own band was a challenge for the novice. Record companies were few during the 1930s, with Columbia, RCA Victor, and Decca making up 85 to 90 percent of the market by 1940. From the record company's standpoint, recording, to be cost-efficient, required perfection. The odds were slim that one of these record companies would take a chance on an unknown musician or a band whose errors could result in cost overruns and subpar music. Though a handful of smaller jazz labels existed before World War II, they recorded primarily older styles, and their products were marketed to record clubs and collectors and other enthusiasts of traditional jazz.

If you were a jazz musician in the late 1930s and early 1940s, you had little choice but to cling to the swing bands that recorded and toured. In turn, bandleaders constantly had to develop ways to feed the egos of their talented sidemen—without overinflating them. As many bandleaders discovered, a fine line existed between recognizing talent and heaping on too much praise. Keeping star musicians happy compelled swing bandleaders to order up arrangements that provided solos for them. Bandleaders also formed small groups within their bands to give their best musicians a chance to shine.

For a time, these spotlight opportunities satisfied the ambitions of many leading band musicians. But by 1941 the novelty of playing in a big band's small breakout group began to wear thin for younger and more talented sidemen, particularly in black bands. With 78-rpm records able to hold only about three minutes of music on each side, solo time was minimal. Increasingly, this spare solo space failed to satisfy the creative spirit and abilities of top talent. These musicians came to realize that they had only one shot: to stand out with hopes of developing a following and being discovered by record companies. It was a risk, but a risk many felt they had to take. As a result, more ambitious artists began to experiment with new ways of playing solos, to make them memorable.

Chief among these musicians was Gillespie. Born in Cheraw, South Carolina, Gillespie had attended a nearby music school on scholarship and studied piano and trumpet. In 1937 he traveled to New York and joined Teddy Hill's band, emulating the famed trumpeter Roy Eldridge's fiery style. In 1939 Gillespie joined Cab Calloway's orchestra, one of the most successful black bands in the country. But the bandleader didn't particularly appreciate Gillespie's approach to soloing, calling the unorthodox notes "Chinese music." In March 1941, Calloway hired the more traditional trumpeter Jonah Jones to handle the solo parts. In addition, Gillespie was increasingly excluded from the band's small group, the Cab Jivers. Gillespie's frustration grew, and in response he boldly exhibited his penchant for sophomoric pranks. In September 1941, the two men came to blows. Calloway, after a performance during which he thought Gillespie had thrown a spitball, took the trumpeter to task. Words were exchanged, and when Calloway reached out to strike Gillespie, the trumpeter reportedly pulled a knife. The bassist Milt Hinton interceded, but Calloway grabbed Gillespie's wrist, and the two men scuffled until other band musicians pulled them apart. But by then, the knife had cut Calloway, and Gillespie was fired.

After Gillespie left Calloway's band, he began to freelance in New York, playing at clubs in Harlem. Jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse, Clark Monroe's Uptown House, and other establishments typically featured small clusters of musicians, mostly horn players, backed by an aggressive rhythm section. At these clubs, musicians played extended improvised solos based on blues and Tin Pan Alley standards, competing for peer and audience approval. The musicians in the house rhythm sections prodded and provoked soloists with unexpected piano chords, bass lines, and drum patterns, hoping to egg them on to even more exciting results—or failure and humiliation. Gillespie, during the months after he left Calloway's band, sharpened his ideas at these clubs and in the sextet of the alto saxophonist Benny Carter. In early 1942 Gillespie subbed in Woody Herman's band and sold several of his arrangements to Herman and Jimmy Dorsey. In May 1942 Gillespie joined Les Hite's band in New York and recorded a brief solo on "Jersey Bounce" using his new style. The record was a hit, and Gillespie was only too happy to share his new musical discoveries with other musicians.

The trumpeter Joe Wilder, who sat next to Gillespie in Hite's band, recalls that Gillespie's bebop style was already in place in 1942: "We didn't call it bebop then, of course. It was just a new way of playing, and Dizzy had already recorded some of those new things months earlier in Cab Calloway's band. Instead of playing the chords that were written, Dizzy was into flatted fifths and ninths, and harmonic playing. What was fascinating was that Dizzy could be both precise and loose. Between songs, Dizzy would start telling me jokes and cracking me up. Then Les would give a downbeat and I couldn't stop laughing. Les would say, 'Hey Junior—that was my nickname—you had better play and stop fooling around back there.' Dizzy, of course, would have an innocent expression on his face, as if he had no clue why I was laughing. He wasn't trying to throw me. Dizzy wasn't competitive like that. He was happy to show me things all the time on the trumpet and he also had solos on songs, just like I did. Dizzy's humor kept him relaxed, and his style of playing in Les' band was very different." By July 1942, Gillespie recorded with Lucky Millinder's band, and his solo on Little John Special demonstrated that his new jazz ideas were developing rapidly.


Excerpted from Why Jazz Happened by Marc Myers. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. Record Giants Blink
2. DJs, Promoters, and Bebop
3. G.I. Bill and Cool
4. Speed War, Tape, and Solos
5. Suburbia and West Coast Jazz
6. BMI, R&B, and Hard Bop
7. Bias, Africa, and Spiritual Jazz
8. Invasion and Jazz-Pop
9. Alienation and the Avant-Garde
1. Lights, Volume, and Fusion
11. Jazz Hangs On

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really couldn't tell you much about this book, because I haven't read it. Purchased the nook book and it's not formatted for ebook reading. Each page you try to read is the full size page of the book. It is incredably tiny and impossible to read. Adjustment to the font size have no effect. I first contacted B&N by phone and the tech I talked to confirmed that the book was not properly formatted. She blamed the publisher (naturally). She suggested I archive it and reopen in a month or two. Did that and it did not change. Contacted B&N again, by email. They sent instructions on what to do to correct it. It also didn't work. Then I contacted the publisher and they said it's B&N's problem. Don't buy this book unless it's the paper version.