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Reviewed by:
  • Why Jazz Happened by Marc Myers
  • Nancy MacKay
Why Jazz Happened. By Marc Myers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. 267 pp. Hardbound, $34.95; Kindle, $19.22.

Like oral history, the evolution of recorded jazz is inextricably linked to the evolution of recording technology. To be exact, according to author Marc Myers, recorded jazz began on February 26, 1917: “On that Monday, members of the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band rode the freight elevator up to the twelfth floor of West 38th Street in New York, where weeks earlier the Victor Talking Machine Company had opened a new recording studio. … The all-white quintet from New Orleans played ‘Dixieland Jass Band One-Step’ into the long metal horn that served as a microphone” (1). Such details engage the reader through the next 230 pages of Myers’s American social history.

The title, Why Jazz Happened, is somewhat misleading since Myers’s focus is more specific. He zeroes in on the years between 1945 and 1972, an era when developments in business, technology, the economy, demographics, and race relations shaped the progress of music. Within that window he identifies eight cultural and technical events that influenced jazz, including actions of the American Federation of Musicians (the musicians union), the introduction of 45 rpm and, later, 33 1/3 rpm records, the civil rights movement, the rise of electronic music, and even the growth of suburbs in Southern California. The book is loosely organized around these eight influences, with a chapter devoted to each.

For example, the chapter titled “Suburbia and West Coast Jazz” invites the reader to view the urban sprawl and materialism we associate with Los Angeles in the 1950s through the lens of (mostly white) musicians, newly arrived in Southern California, who could make a good living in the burgeoning entertainment industry. Such is the story of saxophonist Dave Pell: “Married with three children, nine cats, and three dogs, Pell had fallen in love with the Encino [California] house at the end of a cul-de-sac as soon as he saw it. It stood on a third of an acre, far from neighboring homes, and had a swimming pool out back. ‘The first thing you had to have with a house like that was lots of cars,’ Pell said. ‘I had four of them – including a Corvette and a Cadillac. Every musician I knew had a home in the suburbs and several cars’” (93). Myers goes on to connect the laid-back Southern California life to the new West Coast jazz sound: “To the average ear, the sound of this music was less urgent and more layered, with lines coming and going in an organized flow, much like the region’s emerging freeways. … The music was often like a Bach fugue” (95).

Myers gives equal coverage to the lesser known racial discrimination in Los Angeles, acknowledging that in the 1940s and early 1950s Los Angeles was one of the most segregated cosmopolitan areas of the country, causing problems for both black residents and traveling artists. Jazz bassist John Levy recalls, [End Page 381] “‘Black musicians … could not [stay] in the city’s major hotels – no matter how popular they were. … Stars like Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Lena Horne had to stay in hotels in the black ghetto areas of Los Angeles. Nat Cole, at the top of his career, had problems buying his home in the segregated Hancock Park area of Los Angeles’” (104–105).

The book is based on a combination of previously published sources and phone interviews Myers conducted during the years 2008–2011. There are more than seventy-five references to interviews in the endnotes; it appears that Myers conducted the interviews in a journalistic rather than oral history style, although there is no discussion of methodology, whether interviews are available for research in a repository, nor a list of the interviewees. That said, Myers is clearly a skilled interviewer, as evidenced by the anecdotes, funny stories, revived memories, and deep reflections he was able to draw out of the interviewees. He is equally skilled in selecting excerpts and weaving them into the narrative, pulling the reader into the material...