Jazz Birthday: Slam Stewart (1914)

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In the free market for jazz, there is rivalry. Styles can be freely imitated. There is no copyright on style. Innovation is how musicians seek to differentiate their product, and there are various ways to innovate. Thelonious Monk said of bop: “We wanted a music that they couldn’t play,” referring to competing with and outdoing swing-style jazz music. Slam Stewart’s work is an example of product differentiation. As one bio says, he “occupied his own unique niche in jazz.” He competed with other bassists, but he created a competitive advantage. Slam Stewart was the unusual bassist who sang an octave higher along with his own solos which were often bowed. His sound is always immediately recognizable and intriguing. He worked with Red Norvo, Art Tatum, Benny Goodman and many others. Stewart didn’t use his fingers to play many notes at high speed, but instead used the bow fluidly. This also produced a more easily heard  sound, and he loudened that sound further by placing the strings high off the fingerboard. Slam found musical partners and their records sold. Examples are here and here.

A textbook in marketing (Heeler and Chung) writes “Some leading economists, such as Samuelson and Galbraith, contend that product differentiation is largely a result of advertising, a ‘distortion’ of demand.” How wrong can they be? Product differentiation is product innovation, one of the engines of economic progress. In an article in The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Randall Holcombe discusses the shortcomings in neoclassical economics in understanding product differentiation such as Stewart’s.

5:16 am on September 21, 2012