Talking “Why” With Marc Myers

January 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

As with any genre, there are stacks and stacks of books written about jazz – its history, its players, its songs – each is filled with the “how” and “who.” Marc Myers decided to ask a different question: “Why?” In his latest book, Why Jazz Happened, he explores the reasons why and today talks a bit about that and about the expansive and informative Web site he maintains.

Music Tomes: After writing about jazz for years. What led you to write Why Jazz Happened?whyjazzhappened

Marc Myers: The more I wrote about jazz, the more I researched jazz. And the more I researched jazz, the more I realized that the “what” of jazz—who played on which records—was a bore. Instead, I became increasingly curious about the “why”—the events that caused jazz geniuses and jazz styles to change and evolve. Why did bebop start when it did? Why was West Coast jazz laid back? Why were jazz artists becoming stars in the late ’50s? And why did jazz-fusion begin in the late ’60s and not later—or earlier. So the “whys” captivated me and made me curious to learn more. The book is a look at jazz history thought that filter—why jazz styles emerged when they did and why was one replaced another. That answers were always non-jazz events.

MT: The book focuses on the years 1942 to 1972 and cite 8 events that contributed to the growth of jazz. do you think the music could have expanded as it did if any one of these elements not been present?

MM: Probably not. In each case, unlikely events took place that had an impact on technology, society, the civil rights movement or our culture that either presented jazz musicians with golden opportunities or erected roadblocks. For example, the jazz superstar—Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and others—was possible starting in the mid-’50s only because the 12-inch LP was introduced for jazz recordings at that time. With the 12-inch LP, there were album covers on which photos of these artists could appear. On the backs of jackets, there were liner notes written by superb jazz writer who told the stories of the music and the artists on the recording. A larger record also meant more room for longer original songs and solos. So the introduction of the 12-inch LP is largely a product of commerce and technology. The unintended result was more space for longer jazz ideas that won fans.

MT: It seems today that when people who aren’t jazz fans think of jazz they think either of the Kenny G school or the complex and experimental, and to some somewhat inaccessible, music of an Ornette Coleman. How can people be brought to the middle?

MM: Curiosity. Only when listeners become curious do they find the jazz styles that appeal to them most. Many new fans came to jazz in the ’90s when the Blue Note catalog was released on CD for the first time. So albums that had long been out of print suddenly were in circulation again. Hard bop appealed to these fans and many were fascinated to learn and hear more. The beauty of jazz is that it offers such a wide range of flavors to choose from. Most other forms aren’t as varied in styles over time. Country has a long, beautiful tradition—but there are many constants that limit style drift. The same is true for rock and R&B. Jazz, by contrast, has a long history of evolving styles that are very different from previous ones. If you hear a rock album from the late ’60s, it could be rock today or 10 years ago. But when you hear jazz fusion or West Coast jazz, those styles are distinct—yet they are still jazz. Improvisation and expression are the unifying factors. To bring fans to the middle, fans must be curious. And they also must be willing to try different styles until they find what they dig.

MT: Going further with that question, you end the book with this sentence “And as history has proved, much depends on the ability of future generations of musicians to capitalize on events that have little or nothing to do with jazz itself.” How can jazz artists, either established or up-and-coming, utilize new technologies such as digital music distribution and social media networks to grow the artform?

MM: Jazz’s main problem is its recent addiction to its past. History is important, and I’m a big believer that if you’re going to play the trumpet, you had better know your Pops, Bix, Roy, Dizzy, Clifford, Chet, Kenny and Lee. But too often today, jazz relies on American Songbook standards and jazz songs that have become exhausted with time. I’m not saying that American Songbook standards are bad or dated. I’m merely saying that the finest expressions of the songs have already been recorded and it’s time to move on. Jazz’s biggest risk isn’t a lack of audiences. It’s a lack of new ideas. We’ve been in a holding pattern for several decades now as jazz increasingly becomes a repertory form celebrating music of the past. For new jazz styles to emerge, jazz artists will have to take greater risks and find a synthesis between yesterday and today. And yesterday shouldn’t necessarily be the 1930s. The 1970s and 1980s offered many great songs that could become the basis for improvisation. Hip-hop and World music also should be mixed in. The digital revolution of the early 2000s allows for sophisticated texturing and layering today, enabling jazz musicians to think in multiple dimensions. That’s exciting.

MT: You’ve had the Web site JazzWax since 2007 where you write on the history of jazz and its players. It also houses an impressive list of interviews with artists from jazz to early Rock. What led you to start the site?

Credit: Hank O'Neal

Credit: Hank O’Neal

MM: I started JazzWax on a dare. Back in 2007, author and Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout insisted I start a blog. For years, we had been listening to music together quarterly on Saturday mornings. We’d listen and then we’d talk about the music. And listen and talk. In the summer of ’07, Terry finally said to me, “You have to start a blog.” I told him I was overwhelmingly busy. He said no one was busier than he was and that he was blogging. So I took him up on his dare. Two weeks later, I started JazzWax and have been blogging six days a week ever since. I knew from the start that I needed to take steps to stand apart. I knew that consistency and themes were hard to come by. Too many jazz blogs at the times were about the writer and his or her views. Posts also appeared infrequently. To stand out, I made the blog about recordings, not me, and I committed to posting six days a week—not weekly or biweekly. It’s a formula that attracted and held audiences.

MT: What are your feelings on the current state of music journalism?

MM: I think the best music journalism today is done for English rock magazines and the Wall Street Journal. There’s a rawness and risk-taking in the language in the U.K. that you don’t see in many other publications. For me, when I write on music for the Wall Street Journal, especially in profiles, I try to give the reader a fun, informative ride. I work hard to ensure that my articles always start and end with a twist. And I always do 10 times as much research in advance as necessary so that I can get into issues that most other writers don’t bother with or miss. I think music journalism must tell a dramatic story and can no longer be merely a rat-a-tat-tat about the subject’s biography or recordings. The video age demands a more cinematic telling.

MT: What are you currently working on?

MM: I’m currently writing on music and architecture for five sections of the Wall Street Journal, which is an enormous workload. My next book proposal is in to my editor and I’m likely to hear back shortly. I have corporate clients to help pay the bills. And I blog daily. On top of this, I also am busy promoting my book. Music is full-time work, which is a joy.

MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?

MM: Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout, The Jazz Standards by Ted Gioia, Glorious Days and Nights: A Jazz Memoir by Herb Snitzer and The Music of James Bond by Jon Burlingame.

Keep up with Marc at JazzWax

Eric Banister

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