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Lesser Known Events that Forged Today’s Jazz

Jazzed Magazine • April/May 2020Guest Editorial • May 21, 2020

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Virtually all jazz history books attempt to provide a definition of jazz and an explanation of jazz elements, as well as a chronological account of the musical development of jazz and jazz styles. Marc Myers’s extremely well-researched essential book Why Jazz Happened takes a far different, indeed unique, approach by detailing occurrences in society apart from the actual musical world of jazz, and how they influenced the music itself. It touches upon topics such as the impact and evolution of the music industry, specifically the advent and development of the recording industry; the effect of the G.I Bill and how it resulted in a new generation of formally educated jazz musicians, a phenomenon that continues to this day with the increasing proliferation of high school, college and university jazz studies programs worldwide; the effect of the musicians union recording ban in the 1940s; and the impact on jazz music itself of the post-World War II West Coast housing boom, among the subjects not ordinarily emphasized in most history-of-jazz volumes.

The Music Industry

The recording industry’s advent and development, especially its extensive marketing of music and of its practitioners vastly increased the public’s appreciation and appetite for recordings. Musicians also toured on a regular basis, especially during the period of the Musicians Union recording ban (discussed below), thus exposing the public to their music, and they became well-known in the process. Jukeboxes also promoted these musicians and their recordings. As a result of all of these efforts, many musicians became important musical figures, there occurred an increased interest in dance music, and sales of phonographs, records and radios increased dramatically.

The G.I. Bill

Many returning military veterans enrolled in colleges for free as a result of the 1944 G.I. Bill, with many of those individuals studying in schools that offered an extensive music curriculum, including jazz. Previously, jazz musicians learned their craft on the job, as it were, with mentoring provided by fellow sidemen. Now, however, the new crop was being formally trained in performing, arranging and composing techniques, and much of the music taught in these institutions included the emerging newer jazz styles.

Musicians Union Recording Ban

The American Federation of Musicians recording ban, initiated by union leader James C. Petrillo in the early 1940s, prohibited its union musicians from making new records. The rationale for this action was Petrillo’s notion that the general public would not be likely to patronize establishments that featured live music if people could stay at home and listen to recordings. Consequently, this union action was instituted in order to force record companies to contribute royalties on the sale of records to a fund that would support live musicians whose unemployment was ostensibly caused by the increase in the playing of records on phonograph machines, in jukeboxes, and on radio stations.

During the three-year period of the ban, starting in August of 1942, the only records that could be played were recordings already “in the can”, those that had been previously recorded. Decca Records and Capitol Records and several other smaller labels were the first to capitulate, around late 1943, and agreed to pay royalties to the union’s Music Performance Trust Fund. Two larger labels, RCA Victor and Columbia waited another year to sign the same agreement as did Decca and Capitol, in November 1944.

During this period, other smaller record labels were created, and these labels were the ones that recorded the new jazz that came to be known as bebop. Next, the advent of the jazz disc jockey and of radio airplay of this new music, and of jazz concert promoters and jazz magazines whose critics and writers supported the new jazz genre, all resulted in bebop music becoming more dominant than big-band swing, not only with respect to the music itself but also in terms of sartorial fashion and language.

The Post-World War II Housing Boom

More and more musicians, especially white musicians, relocated to the West Coast, particularly to the Los Angeles area, attracted to it by inexpensive housing, year-round idyllic weather, and the many work opportunities provided by the movie and television studios there. The comfortable life style on the West coast was also strongly reflected in the newer cool-jazz musical approach to playing jazz. Cool jazz, the next important jazz style after bebop, was to many a kind of polite-sounding bebop that was spearheaded predominantly by West Coast white musicians.

End Notes

In addition to the above considerations, the author points to other important transformative factors in the evolution of jazz, such as the development of long-playing records in the late 1940s, the creation of interesting-looking LP covers, enthusiastic, informative and extensive liner notes on the back of LP jackets, the acceleration of the civil rights movement, and the embrace of pop music by notable jazz artists. Myers also notes the significance of the formation of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), inspired by such free-jazz musicians as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor which resulted in a more abstract approach to playing jazz, and even to the increased usage of electronic musical instruments and powerful speaker and lighting systems and the newly occurring outdoor pop music festivals which attracted large younger audiences and which promoted a fusion of jazz and rock musical styles. Finally, and perhaps most importantly “jazz established itself as high art with national appeal, without losing its integrity or purpose,” Myers states in his unique and important jazz history book.

Lee Evans, Ed.D. is a professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. His latest solo piano publication, Jazz Baroque: Vivaldi/Bach, is available for the moment only in an interactive digital format in Superscore Music App on the iPad, in the Superscore folder labelled Piano Plus, Lee Evans’s publishing name. Other popular bound print solo piano books by Evans include Crash Course in Chords (Hal Leonard, pub.), Jazz Piano Scales and Exercises (Hal Leonard, pub.), and Charlie Brown’s Greatest Hits (Hal Leonard).

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