It takes a bit of digging for the browsing reader to become informed as to just what the topic of Marc Myers’ new book Why Jazz Happened is. The title is not much help. This is not a book about root causes such as one might find in a book about why, for example, the First World War happened. Confusion continues for anyone who takes the time to read the blub on the flyleaf (which has been faithfully reproduced for the Amazon.com page for this book). The first sentence of that text reads:
Why Jazz Happened is the first comprehensive social history of jazz.
The writer of this text must have noticed one of the early citations in Myers’ book, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History by Scott DeVeaux. However, I suspect that this writer would not know a book on social history if (s)he found it in a bookstore on a shelf labeled “Social History.”
No, the best introduction to Myers’ book comes in the first sentence of his “Introduction” (appropriately enough) section:
The history of recorded jazz can be traced back to February 26, 1917.
The scope of this book basically runs from that date to an episode described at the end of the final chapter, in which Myers’ visits the site of the birth of recorded jazz. However, even that sentence requires qualification. Myers’ biographical statement describes him as “a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal,” which may explain why this book is basically a history of the marketing of recorded jazz.
Within this relatively limited domain, Myers tells a vivid story. However, the story says little about how (or why) musicians came together to make jazz or, for that matter, how what they did came to attract listening audiences. No, this is basically a story about the record business and the frequently rocky relationships that emerged between the people who ran those businesses and the people they recorded.
Anyone who has read a thoroughly-research biography of a highly creative jazz musician (such as Robin D. G. Kelly’s excellent biography of Thelonious Monk, which is included among Myers’ sources) knows just how rocky those relationships could get. One quickly appreciates why some of the more contentious musicians (Charles Mingus comes to mind immediately) were only satisfied when they produced their own recordings. It is thus disappointing that Myers says virtually nothing about the role that self-production played in the history of recorded jazz. I fear that, with his Wall Street Journal background, he may have regarded the balance sheets of those small units to be mere “noise” in the context of the much stronger “signals” coming from RCA or Capitol.
That background also suggests that Myers is most at home writing articles and columns. While this book is based on a plan that “parses” that span from 1917 to the present day into plausible series of stages, Myers sometimes loses track of what he wrote when. Thus, there are places in which he comes close to repeating himself verbatim and others where he drops some observation unlikely to be familiar to the casual reader and only explains it in a subsequent chapter.
In many respects those readers most likely to benefit from this book will be practicing jazz musicians. It is likely to provide them with valuable insights into why production people behave the way they do. However, even this may have limited value. One recurring theme in the book is that changes in technology beget changes in business practices, which, in turn, change the relationships between producers and artists. Thanks to the Internet, we are currently in the middle of a transitional period whose changes are still very much in progress. Nevertheless, while we may not know what those changes will eventually shake out, I continue to believe that it is always helpful to be informed by history.