Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wrapping up 1957, continued

How popular was jazz in 1957? By some standards, very. Norman Granz announced that Verve had grossed $7 million in sales for the first time, and probably the compilation issues of early 78s had something to do with that. So did his more than 100 releases including 14 live albums from the Newport Jazz Festival. He also credited his decision to start releasing singles and EPs on 45, which is interesting. Jazz records, even modern jazz records, were first released on 78 RPM, throughout the 1940 and even into the early 1950s, but when the long playing format came along, it seemed a natural for jazz. Improvisers could stretch out beyond the narrow confines of a 78 RPM disc. By the mid-1950s, jazz was almost exclusively packaged for album release. But the 45 RPM record was becoming the ubiquitous vehicle for popular music, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country, and jazz labels found themselves dipping a toe into that market. Prestige issued 45s from 1957 sessions (not all of them actually released in 1957) by Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Ray Bryant, Kenny Burrell, Mose Allison, Herbie Mann, Red Garland, John Coltrane, Barbara Lea, Paul Quinichette and Yusef Lateef.

By international standards, very. In Billboard's August jazz issue, Burt Korall, best known as a chronicler of jazz drumming, writes that the year has seen "more jazz books, more jazz clubs, more jazz concerts, more jazz records and more jazz on TV, radio and the movies."

But the biggest jazz advance, Korall argues, is in the international sphere. Pointing to Radio Free Europe, the Armed Forces Radio Network and particularly the Voice of America, he says that "jazz has succeeded where American diplomats have floundered. It has created a meeting ground, been something that made for a deeper understanding of the American way of life, for to be interested in jazz is to be interested in things American."

This was an era in which American politics and American culture were diverging, not without hostility. Conservative politicians vehemently attacked rock and roll, which was getting white teenagers to listen to black music, and breaking down racial barriers. Abstract expressionism came in for its share of public disapproval, starting with Harry Truman, who called it "ham and eggs" art. Writers, directors, actors and folksingers were regularly investigated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

And at the same time, one secret branch of the government was doing its best to undermine the work of HUAC and its kin. That was the CIA. The politicians who trashed abstract art on the one hand, and demonized Arthur Miller and the Hollywood Ten on the other, were unwittingly aligning themselves with the Communists they hated, and their social realist art. The spooks at the CIA realized that they could use the narrative of American artistic freedom to undermine Soviet propaganda and Soviet authoritarianism. You can get something of a sense of the CIA's influence on American culture by reading the 2014 novel by myself and Jonathan Richards, Nick and Jake.

The incredible worldwide popularity of the Voice of American's jazz disc jockey Willis Conover was to play a big part in this campaign, as were the touring jazz groups who came to be seen as America's unofficial ambassadors. in the 1956 movie High Society, Bing Crosby joshes Louis Armstrong about his international popularity. And in Billboard, Burt Korall quotes Quincy Jones,

A lot of the people we played for in Europe and the East thought that Negro musicians had no opportunities, and never mingled with white musicians. When they saw the Gillespie banc was mixed and quite happy about it, they realized that what they had been hearing was a little off the track."
I've written before about the 1953 Lionel Hampton tour, and the expatriation of jazz artists such as Sidney Bechet or Kenny Clarke, but by 1957 jazz groups had really discovered the international market, and there were tours by Dizzy Gillespie, CLaude Thornhill, Les Brown, Stan Kenton, Ray McKinley, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Jazz at the Philharmonic, Chet Baker, Tony Scott, Lee Konitz, Bud Shank, Gerry Mullign, J.J. Johnson -- Korall's list, and he ends it with "to name only a few."

But others suggested that the appeal of jazz was more limited than it might be. Billboard's music editor Paul Ackerman, while acknowledging that jazz is "perhaps the most important of the truly American musical forms," says that nonetheless it "has failed to achieve a broad mass appeal in the United States." And he suggests that this could be remedied. The standard arguments -- "jazz has an intellectual appeal that is beyond the teenager; [it] appeals to musicians and listeners who have progressed beyond the simple and not tell the whole story. Where properly exposed, as at the various festivals, jazz has been shown to have a surprisingly broad appeal."

Ackerman suggested that the disk jockey, so important in the marketing of rock and roll, needed to become a stronger presence in jazz. "The teenager," he said, "is only part of this total radio audience. WHy should not disk [jockeys] tap the total audience?...[But] thus far, relatively few DJs have jumped aboard the jazz bandwagon. In the New York area, for example, only one jockey programs jazz. Throughout the country, a similar paucity exists."

That one DJ would have been Symphony Sid Torin, who had worked for a number of radio stations, most famously WJZ, because of King Pleasure's lyric to Lester Young's "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid" ("Make everything go real crazy over JZ"). In 1957 he was with WEVD, and Ackerman is probably right about his being the only jazz DJ in New York (well, he was certainly right. This was his beat).

What WEVD, WJZ and WADO, which also hired Sid for a while, had in common was that they were all AM stations. So was CKLW in Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, where I first heard jazz in 1957. So was virtually every other station in the country. FM had few listeners, and not much programming. That really didn't change until the 60s, with freeform progressive rock stations, and even some jazz stations, like WRVR-FM in New York and its jazz DJs Ed Beach and Les Davis.

Ackerman, for several decades the music editor of Billboard, was a pretty smart guy, and since Billboard was focused on the marketing end of the business, he would have been one to listen to. And some were. The same issue profiles a Minneapolis station (in the fledgling FM market) which had failed with jazz programmimng, but then tried again with a more focused marketing strategy, and was starting to do well.

Still, jazz is an indiosyncratic business, full of idiosyncratic artists, and it's hard to imagine Thelonious Monk, for example, getting too caught up in a marketing campaign. It's equally hard to imagine Miles Davis not caring about it. In Castles Made of Sound, Gil Evans's biographer Larry Hicock talks about Evans's wife getting a little irked that Miles was getting all the money and credit for music they had worked on together, and Evans explaining that it was OK--money and acclaim were important to Miles.

And more power to him. There's nothing wrong with money and acclaim. Miles earned it, and he brought a wider audience to jazz in the process.

And once again, on to 1958.

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