The last time I wrote about the reasons for jazz's declining popularity (May 30, 2008), I cited jazz's abandonment of dance music in the late 1940s and jazz artists' selling out in California in the 1950s. Naturally, my post triggered a cascade of emails, which in turn, got me thinking. Again.
As I looked deeper into the perfect storm that emerged in the early 1950s to make jazz less relevant as popular music, other less evident and perhaps more influential factors surfaced.
Our quest for simplicity always demands a date and time for major historical turning points. The truth is that the reasons for most major events such as Rome's fall or the Great Depression are a bunch of little factors that converge at roughly the same time and feed off each other.
The same is true for the so-called Decline of Jazz. It would be so tidy to date the start of jazz's slide to Saturday, September 4, 1948, when Miles Davis first took the stage at the Royal Roost with his nonet and counted off Move. But blaming jazz musicians for creating art or branching out isn't fair. It also isn't complete history.
Here then are other factors that I believe played a fundamental role in changing public tastes and hastened jazz's fall from mass-market favor in the 1950s:
Sight v. sound. Television was introduced in April 1939 at the New York World's Fair, but the box didn't become affordable and popular until 1950, when sales kept doubling over periods of months. As television's acceptance accelerated, it changed our senses. Prior to television, society's tastes were driven mostly by sound, particularly through the playing of records and the radio. Plenty of people went to the movies and looked at photos in magazines. But hearing music was still the most common way to experience and evaluate it. Jazz thrived in this sound-centric environment.
Television's introduction made popular culture easier to absorb with the eyes and considerably more exciting than solely listening to records or radio. The more appealing television became in the early 1950s, the more record companies sought out animated musicians who were fun to watch. So by 1953, Bill Haley [pictured] and His Comets were a lot more exciting visually than Count Basie's sax section, for example.
Nice v. vice. From the late 1940s forward, jazz increasingly became associated in film with antisocial, deranged behavior. Somewhere along the way, jazz became a prop, used to enhance images of a high-risk lifestyle that undermined health and cohesive family life. Jazz musicians often were portrayed in film as a hopelessly dysfunctional and morally bankrupt group addicted to drugs and danger. Jazz musicians spoke their own language and in film lived life foolishly on the edge.
Part of this image shift was jazz's own fault, helped along by the hard lives that musicians led and the headlines of their drug problems and alternative lifestyles. By the early 1950s, jazz in film became the music of personal abuse and disaster.
Singles v. albums. In 1949, RCA Victor released the first 7-inch 45rpm record. It was developed in response to Columbia's introduction of the 10-inch 33 1/3 record. For the next two years, the two companies battled over which format would win out. Ultimately, both did, with Columbia and Decca issuing 45rpms in 1951.
As the popularity of the vinyl 45rpm surged, turntable manufacturers began making less expensive portable machines and marketing them to teens. Jazz record producers tended to favor the 10-inch 33 1/3 album over the 45 rpm in the early 1950s because it provided them with multiple tracks and larger covers on which to display images.
The rising popularity of 45-rpm singles with the teen market eventually led to payola—paying for the repeated radio play of selected singles. Repeated play enhanced the music's appeal with radio-listening kids and triggered sales. Jazz, meanwhile, remained focused primarily on the 10-inch album and, in 1956, the 12-inch LP.
Moving merchandise. With the introduction of customer-connected long-distance phone service in 1951, record companies found it easier to communicate directly with branch offices. National sales and marketing efforts could be consolidated and better tracked and controlled. Meanwhile, the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 paved the way for the Interstate Highway System, which was already underway. Once interstate roads were in place, records were easier to move from plants to different parts of the country.
Both developments made it easier for record companies to gauge demand and ship lightweight singles faster to clamoring teen markets. The same appetite for jazz singles and albums simply didn't exist.
Money talks. From a business standpoint, rock 'n' roll and r&b acts were a lot more profitable to produce than jazz bands. In many cases, rock acts consisted of fame-hungry kids who didn't mind record executives and producers forcing their names onto writing credits to reap royalties. For the record industry in the 1950s, rock 'n' roll was a license to print money, and the more producers and executives got a taste, the more attractive the music became to those who signed acts and set budgets. Which, of course, left jazz divisions with less and less.
Old v. young. Before the introduction of television, the youth culture as we know it today didn't exist in America. Young people for the most part yearned to look like their parents, since appearing older came with certain societal privileges. You can see this maturity mania in the clothing styles and attitudes of young people in the 1940s and early 1950s.
After television emerged, however, the culture shifts. Sexuality, physical appearance and vigor became more desirable traits for young people than dad's pipe and mom's hat. In such a climate, jazz had less and less relevance among a generation that prized rebellion and escape from the confinement of traditional family life. Rock 'n' roll understood those sentiments perfectly and even sounded better on teens' car radios.
Instrumental shift. In the 1930s, the most popular instrument was the clarinet. But the licorice stick sounded stale by the mid-1940s and was overtaken by the popularity of the saxophone. But by the early 1950s, the guitar started to replace the sax as the cool tool, since guitarists could sing while they played. Jazz instrumentalists couldn't compete.
What's more, the guitar was a lot easier and less expensive for teens to learn and play than a saxophone, trumpet or trombone. During the rise of the guitar, heavy and pricey jazz instruments fell out of favor with teens or were relegated to playing backup.
Boxed out. Finally, the new music that rock 'n' roll acts and r&b groups were composing and playing didn't really lend itself to jazz interpretations. Long dependent on Broadway shows and Tin Pan Alley standards, jazz no longer had new material to draw on that would connect with the next generation of listeners.
In short, jazz's fortunes started to decline as American popular culture, business and technology changed in the early 1950s. In fast order, record company executives discovered that promoting rock 'n' roll and r&b to kids using radio payola and cheap vinyl resulted in much higher profit margins than jazz bands. Add the unforgivable habit by producers of imposing co-songwriter credits, fat royalty checks and cheaper distribution costs, and rock 'n' roll was a big business waiting to get bigger. Sadly, jazz never had a chance.