Why Jazz Happened
University of California Press, 2012
280 pp., 34.95
John H. McWhorter
Three Little Bops
In 1957, a Looney Tune cartoon called "Three Little Bops" recast the Three Little Pigs tale in jazz, with the pigs as a beret-wearing trio of jazzmen and the wolf as an interloping trumpeter trying to sit in despite his lack of talent. The entire seven minutes is set to a jazz beat, narrated in song, hipster-style. Amidst the snazzy novelty of the short, something stands out, albeit in the background: in the clubs that the pigs play in, the patrons are not countercultural beatniks but smartly dressed white people, of the same kind who had been depicted dining and dancing at nightclubs in musical films of recent decades.
One might wonder: if the cartoon was reflecting any kind of social reality, just who were those people supposed to be? It's one thing to see them attending a midcult club like Ricky Ricardo's Tropicana on I Love Lucy in the same era—but out listening to serious jazz?
Marc Myers' Why Jazz Happened sheds light on a question like that, seeking to show how jazz has adapted to popular tastes to survive. "For the past ninety-five years jazz's survival has been based on the ability of musicians to interpret their times without relinquishing the characteristics that define the art form," Myers notes. His intent is to show how the happenstances of American social history have crucially shaped the evolution of jazz since its official beginnings with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's seminal 1917 recording.
What Myers actually chronicles, however, is less a successful series of transformations than a long decline in influence, of a music that lit up ordinary Americans in the two decades between the two world wars but then became steadily less central to the culture. Jazz's artistic development, like that of most art forms, has inevitably put it beyond the reach of the ordinary evaluator. Jazz fans tend to bristle at such verdicts. So too, in response to the equivalent argument about their music, classical music representatives insist the problem will be solved via presentation strategies and lowering ticket prices. They assume that, with those issues finally resolved, Sisyphean though the task ever appears to be, surely the music's passion, the "soul"—a term often heard from classical fans as well as from jazz buffs—will work its magic.
However, just as fish don't know they're wet, fans of refined musical forms like classical and jazz have a hard time putting themselves into the heads of ordinary listeners, especially ones nurtured in the pop-saturated musical culture of the past 60 years, focused on volume and histrionic performer charisma. Jazz in the form of candy-flavored pop tunes put across in danceable fashion—which was how most experienced the music in the Twenties and Thirties—was catnip to younger Americans of the time. However, what this kind of jazz later became—musically dense, focused on individual improvisation, and intended for quiet listening—has always been more like absinthe, now and forever a specialty taste. Myers' book neatly demonstrates this, despite his intent to reveal an art form dynamically responding to popular tastes.
The story Myers tells is, in itself, worthy historiography. After World War II, the number of radio stations exploded, creating a demand for more records to play and sell, plus a new figure called the disc jockey to help in the effort. This created a larger space in the culture for what we would today call niche music, which included jazz in the form it drifted into after the audience-pleasing phase purveyed by the bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. As economics and changing tastes made big bands increasingly unfeasible, jazz players were left free to form smaller, more experimental groups. Among the results was a new form of jazz developed by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker called bebop, more complex and rapid than older jazz, and more focused on soloists improvising for long stretches. In the new landscape, there were recording opportunities for music like this that had barely existed ten years before.
The invention soon thereafter of the long-playing record was especially useful for recording long improvisations, and the extra space to fill on the twelve-inch discs encouraged jazz artists to contribute original compositions in addition to working with standards. Enter Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" alongside the usual treatments of "Blue Moon" and "Body and Soul." Then, in the early Fifties, practitioners of the new jazz working in Hollywood relocated to the new sunny, spacious suburbs of Los Angeles, and the jazz they created in their off-hours began reflecting this tranquil atmosphere. The West Coast sound was lighter in feel and less frantic than bebop, focused more on composition than improvisation—and thus audience-friendly in a way that bebop was not. Also, because of persisting segregation in Hollywood's music industry, most West Coast jazzmen were white. Here, then, is our "Three Little Bops" scene, with Mr. and Mrs. America taking in jazz at a club instead of, say, staying home and watching Lucy. Unsurprisingly, it was one of the West Coast jazz stars, Shorty Rogers, who composed the "Three Little Bops" score.
By this point, however, despite the smart set at clubs like that, the more lowest-common-denominator thrills of jukebox rhythm and blues were turning ever more Americans on. A new "hard bop" tradition, incorporating the R&B rhythmic feel and thinning out the bebop textures a good deal, allowed jazz to compete for a spell with the likes of Louis Jordan and Little Richard. However, in the Sixties other musicians took the music into introverted directions such as free jazz, dismissing traditional structural conventions and unconcerned with commercial success. At the same time, the rock revolution with its focus on volume, open rebellion, and stage theatrics—starting with the Beatles and continuing more radically with Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and the like—rendered jazz even more commercially marginal than it had been before. Since then, jazz artists have wangled fusional genres with rock and other music: the jazz chronicler typically focuses on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew at this point, although Myers oddly seems little interested in it. However, jazz's main role in music history since has been as a seasoning in other forms.
One senses that what Myers really wanted to write is a history of modern jazz situated in a historical context, the latter which he chronicles more diligently—at times excessively so—than the music itself. The idea that jazz's actual formal evolution has been in response to the social history around it seems more a selling point or gimmick than a reality Myers demonstrates—or if he supposes himself to have done so, the facts are against him. Jazz was more overtaken by the history than shaped by it.
For example, the LP format did not create the long improvisational solos, as Myers is easily read as implying despite one passing acknowledgment otherwise. Jazz artists had been playing such solos in clubs for decades; the brevity of 78s simply made it impossible to record them. On a 1920s recording of "Shanghai Shuffle," Louis Armstrong did one quick solo, while regularly wowing the house with a dozen mounting choruses when performing it live. Hard bop's creators attest to having reacted not to the looming impact of R&B but to an alternate form of jazz, the West Coast variety they considered to lack a crucial punch. Myers tries for a case that black artists created free jazz as a Sixties-style response to segregation and racism. But the men he interviews, while allowing that they certainly reviled the bigotry they encountered constantly, repeatedly say that what mainly drove them was a basic creative impulse.
Meanwhile, the main effect that rock had on jazz was to make fewer people listen to it. Jazz-rock fusion, as stimulating as the notion was at the time, was essentially a failed experiment: audiences continued to prefer the visceral theatrics of rock itself. "It wasn't what jazz fans expected and it wasn't even close to connecting with audiences the way the Rolling Stones and The Who did," lighting engineer Edward Monck recalls to Myers. What truly lived on was rock bands like Chicago taking a cue from jazz and incorporating horn sections and a degree of harmonic sophistication, creating a kind of rock that jazz fans often find worth listening to. This, however, is less a matter of jazz's evolution than its ingestion. While today there are legions of top-class jazz players, no new development has galvanized the genre since about 1970. It is significant that Myers stops his chronicle there, despite over 40 years of jazz since—i.e., longer than the 30 years he focuses on. Jazz has stepped aside.
In this light, that "Three Little Bops" moment in the Fifties reveals itself as the last one when jazz could play the role it had briefly enjoyed in middle-class American culture (though even by then it was much less immediately accessible than the danceable ear-candy of big-band swing had been). For example, in the mid-Fifties, jazz pianist Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea LP was something of a staple item in middlebrow Americans' living rooms, such that legendary promoter Sol Hurok sought Garner out as a client. One must ask: how was this humble album, an acoustically imperfect live recording of a decidedly untheatrical black man playing his improvisations upon old standards with just a bassist and a drummer for support, such a hit in Eisenhower America? That such audiences happened to cotton as well to Dave Brubeck's Take Five is easier to understand, as its cuts are low on improvisation and devilishly catchy. Or, people rooted in rock often find John Coltrane relatable, because the liquid angularity of his "sheets of sound" saxophone is akin to what such listeners enjoy in rockers' electric guitar solos. The soporific reedy haze of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is ready-made for any number of activities most associated with the hours after sundown.
But Concert by the Sea has no hooks of these sorts, and its popularity demonstrated exactly how far the jazz form could go and still attract the ordinary listener. Of course, Garner was brilliant—but so were countless of his colleagues. More to the point, he kept his cuts on the short side. Then there was one of his trademarks, not straying too far from the melody of the song he was playing. At almost all times, one senses Garner as "playing the song" rather than using its chord progressions as a template for creating his own free-standing stream-of-consciousness statement. Finally, Garner concentrated on the old standards, still common coin in the Fifties. The game but busy listener just seeking something to relax to had somewhere to grab on.
But it is indicative that in his history of jazz, James Lincoln Collier, notoriously no respecter of reputations, is faintly dismissive in marking Garner's style as the one countless journeyman jazz pianists have since adopted. Devotee chroniclers will thrill to jazz moving ever beyond, but artistic morphing beyond where Garner shone so brightly could not help but marginalize the form in the affections of listeners beyond a cultish sect. Bebop itself had never been truly popular, for example. Charlie Parker ventured a recording with a goopy "thousand strings" background in a wan quest to, as we would now term it, cross over—and even this didn't take lastingly with the public.
Then, what played a major part in depriving jazz of even the audience who bought Concert by the Sea was the rock revolution, conclusively sweeping aside the old standards. Essential to "getting" a jazz performance is familiarity with the tune being improvised upon. Without that, only the occasional person will find the extended variations enticing for sheer textural or musical reasons. In today's America, most jazz is a missed reference, like a topical gag in an old movie. To anyone who doesn't know the song "April in Paris," someone riffing on it for ten minutes is rather like taking in "Three Little Bops" without knowing the Three Little Pigs story. The trumpeter is a wolf why? And why does he follow them from one club to another and finally attempt to blow the final one up?
Add to this that the modern American ear, saturated in recreationally loud, musically elementary pop, is trained away from attention to melody or harmony in the sense that was ordinary before about 60 years ago. Before that, none but a few were up for much Stravinsky, to be sure. But today, professional rock critics regularly celebrate as "melodic" hooks and songs that would have sounded as Spartan as Gregorian chants to people in 1940. "April in Paris" played straight doesn't have a chance, much less somebody assuming that paying crowds are up for listening to him riffing on its chords for as long as he feels like it.
It's as much in the corners of the culture as in its center that we can identify the fate of jazz over the 20th century. Key in evaluating Myers' tale is an episode of the late, great Dick Van Dyke Show from 1962, shunting aside the main characters to focus on a twentysomething young singer who has made a sensation with a rock-and-roll tune called "The Twizzle." Rob and Laura Petrie, the thirtysomething New Rochelle suburbanites the show was about, are depicted gamely dancing to the new sound. However, at one point the singer is scripted to note that what he's really interested in is singing show tunes, upon which he delivers Rodgers and Hammerstein's "This Nearly Was Mine."
Crucially, the musical fulcrum in this episode is between the old standards and rock and roll. Jazz is completely outside the conversation. Or garnishing it at best, on the show in general, when the plots occasionally have Rob and Laura, as erstwhile song-and-dance performers, occasionally doing musical numbers. In an early episode they do the grand old show tune "Mountain Greenery" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, with a slight jazz syncopation on the last bar of each main statement: instead of "Just two crazy people togehhhtherrrr," they do a snappy, clipped "to-gether" (and Plunk! from the combo).
So there's jazz in 1962, a sprinkle to spice up a show-tune genre on its way out of the picture. One suspects it could not have been otherwise, despite Myers' vision of jazz as a hardy adapter. It isn't that jazz hasn't survived—what it is today is America's native classical music. But few would base their estimation of the work of advanced classical music composers Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt on its having adapted to the popular tastes of its time. In the same way, our evaluation of jazz must accept that it has long gone beyond what the modern equivalents of those mainstream burghers in the background of "Three Little Bops" will ever leave their happy homes for.
John McWhorter is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.