Although Marc Myers begins Why Jazz Happened with an account of the first jazz recording (by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, in 1917), his book is not a comprehensive history of the music. Rather, this study focuses on a 30-year stretch, 1942 to 1972, outlining 10 developments, both within and outside jazz, that were instrumental to the music’s evolution.
Each chapter of Why Jazz Happened has the classic thesis statement/supporting evidence/concluding statement structure of a term paper, with the final paragraph segueing into the next developmental factor Myers covers. The book is chronologically organized, which sometimes gives the reading experience an unfortunate fits-and-starts quality; rather than steadily building reader engagement, the book rises or falls based on the inherent interest of a given chapter’s subject. It thus gets off to a fairly dry start, with a detailed but un-dramatic account of the 1942-44 American Federation of Musicians recording strike. This led to royalty payments to a union trust fund for musicians, undeniably valuable to financially strapped performers, but it does not make for the most explosive possible curtain-raiser for Myers’ book.
The most compelling chapters discuss the suburbanization of coastal California, resulting in an influx of mostly white musicians who gave birth to the West Coast sound, and the formation of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the wellspring for some of the avant-garde’s most daring music. In both of these chapters, Myers’ analytical insights hammer home how these occurrences truly shaped the music in dynamic new ways. Other chapters, such as Myers’ account of the rise of BMI (which he credits as fundamental to the advancement of hard bop), suffer from the same dryness as the opening, while still others, like his speculation on the British Invasion’s spawning of “jazz-pop,” draw conclusions regarding the music’s development that remain conceptual at best.
Myers balances the academic tone of his writing with extensive quotes from musicians, producers and other figures who experienced, and in some cases influenced, the events addressed by the author. Many of these stories pack a punch, like the reaction of Nat “King” Cole’s manager when he calls Capitol Records and is greeted by a receptionist who informs him that Capitol, which Cole helped put on the map, is “home of the Beatles.” Serious jazz scholars will find some of these quotes familiar (I’ve read a number of other books that include Charlie Parker’s description of how he “came alive” while playing “Cherokee” at a New York club), but it’s nice to see them used with skill as Myers does here.
Why Jazz Happened should be of most interest to newer jazz fans looking for background on how their music of choice came to be. I wouldn’t recommend that one’s jazz scholarship stop with Myers’ book, but for the neophyte eager to learn more, it’s a perfectly fine place to start.