Why Jazz Happened
Why Jazz Happened
Marc Myers
University of California Press, 2012
266 pp., $34.95

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John H. McWhorter

Three Little Bops

The lost world of popular jazz.

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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).

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