Why Jazz Happened
University of California Press, 2012
266 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.