Listening to Jazz

For education and fun!

In this long, rich article, you can enjoy many links for further reading and many jazz samples with educational intent.

Many people don't like jazz.  I recently read that jazz is the least popular genre in America.  I know why, as will be explained in this article, but just because it's at the bottom of the table doesn't mean it is dead and it doesn't mean it is bad.

Many students are wanting to learn jazz to improvise because they find Classical music "boring"; no doubt many teachers have heard such sentiments.  Sight-reading is quite laborious and many students give up too soon, or at least do not progress as quickly as they could; all such shames for silly reasons.

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Of late, I have read quite a few questions from teachers on various forums and FB groups whereby they ask for some advice on teaching jazz.  I find it very dangerous, even detrimental to the student, when their teacher needs to ask for advice on anything, let alone introducing a student to the world of jazz, swing rhythm and improvisation with all its flavourful notes and extended chords and endless bags of licks!  Such a situation could be likened to a bus driver instructing a newbie pilot just because he 'transports people'.  It's a different kettle of fish.

It must be noted, having said that, that jazz is not superior to classical music in any way whatsoever.  Goodness, jazz is basically six chords following a regular pattern in four common keys (C, F, Eb, Bb) and the freedom to play any notes you want... as long as it's in rhythm and time.  Classical music is far more strict and demanding in this way and usually requires a much stronger and more able left hand, not to mention the repertoire of the past 300 years to acquire. Jazz only has about 40 years of 'standard' repertoire (think Great American Songbook) and most of that, as I said, follows similar chord progressions (think VI, II, V, I).

Of course, exceptions exist to the above but that's it in a nutshell.

The two main reasons I have always heard as to why people don't like jazz are:

1.  They play too many notes (crudely, yet commonly known as 'musical masturbation')
2.  There is no melody to follow

First of all, Jazz is not about 'playing too many notes'; you have simply been listening to a sub-section of jazz which you do not like, probably one called Bebop.  Check this out to learn a little more:

Bebop came from the 1940s and was made popular by saxophonists such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and pianists such as Oscar Peterson and Bud PowellDizzie Gillespie was a notable bebop musician, too, playing the trumpet.

The purpose of bebop was to improvise over a very common and usually simple chord progression at great speed.  During this improvisation, the musician would create melodies spontaneously and sometimes very cleverly 'quote' a famous melody from another song, you know, just for fun!

One must listen to such jazz with the intention of being pounded by fast melodies which must be appreciated and admired.  The players are not playing 'Jazz'; they do not label what they do, they simply play exactly what they feel, having mastered their instrument and musical personality.

Second, that of no melody.  This applies to all tempos of jazz, not just bebop.  When someone says that there is no melody to follow, that is like complaining that the shoe shop you decided to go into doesn't sell cheese.  One does not listen to jazz to follow melodies, one listens to jazz to appreciate the surprises of what the performer can throw at you.

As a matter of fact, jazz does indeed have a melody to follow since compositions usually contain words.  What is meant by "no melody" is when the performer improvises.  Sure, they don't really care if you listen or not since they're just having fun and doing what they love: giving an honest performance (usually without the desire to make millions of currency, unlike pop music for example), but your role is simply to enjoy the sounds so honestly created and dig the rhythm underneath.

Below, you will enjoy two videos.  The first is the original sung melody of a popular jazz song; the second is an instrumental improvisation.  You are to listen to the original first, just to get it in your head, then the improvisation which will begin, as always, with the melody to 'set the tone' followed by an improvisation over the changes, meaning that the same chords will be used as in the original song but the melody will be created on the spot.

You simply need to appreciate the surprise melodies for what they are: improvised.  Not showing off, just honest creation:

That was Oscar Peterson.  Note how the melody was played twice and then an improvisation began at 0:50.  A return to the melody with rhythm section at 1:15 becomes an improv at 2:05.

Which moments do you enjoy?  Do you see how easy it is to follow the original song by using the bass as a guide?  There are many beautiful and surprising moments in this, for example 2:46 - 2.50, the hopping upwards idea.  Love it.  What about 3:09 - 3:14?  So bluesy and perfectly timed.

Listening to jazz may be for educational reasons or simply for fun.  Fun doesn't need any reasoning, just enjoy it. Tap the foot, appreciate the improvised melodies, realise what the musician has done in private time to get to such a level.

Educational listening is of course more analytical but doesn't mean you lose the magic of the music.  Personally, when listening to a new jazz piece, I just listen without attaching my ears to any one instrument; I simply get a feel for the piece and no effort is made to internalise a melody.  I reject my conscious mind's attempt to analyse chord sequences and note intervals and simply experience the feeling.

Try that with this piece:

Listen to it with your eyes closed and no distractions.  What adjectives do you ascribe it?  How do you feel?  Does it make you tap your foot? Do you miss somebody? Do you think of travelling? Particular weather? An environment? Maybe you don't like it? No problem, but it's important to know why you don't so that you can better identify what you do like and then play Jazz in a more honest way.

Whatever the answers, they are unique to you; there is no right or wrong answer so do not worry about them.  This is your natural Self revealing itself to your conscious mind for analysis.

Upon a second listen, focus on the rhythm by the drums (headphones required).  Connect absolutely with them and follow their emotion.  This is not a computer background like so much music these days, this is a human being with life experiences and emotions at the time of recording.  He has mastered his instrument and is providing the heart beat for the bass and piano to groove to.

How is this happening?  What does he do to break up any monotony?  If you don't like it, why not?  A tempo issue? Not enough ideas? You don't like the 'brush kit' and prefer sticks?

On the third listen, follow the bass.  The bass player marks the chord changes very clearly by playing the roots, arpeggios and chromatic lines from one chord to the next.  This helps to structure the piece and understand better how the melody and chord types played by the piano that you will enjoy in the fourth hearing fit in to the rhythm section.

Bass players use various techniques to highlight their melody lines. One of my personal favourites is the snap-drop (my terminology!) that I heard so much by Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, for example:

He has such a 'snappy' and tight style.  For me, this really enforces the rhythm, chords and flows under the drums so smoothly.  Quite splendid, no?

At the beginning, I said that I would explain to you why I believe that jazz is at the bottom of the preferred-genre list.  If you have not concluded that yet, allow me to close by briefly explaining.

Two reasons:

1. It is not seen as an accessible music
2. It has too many sub-genres

"Jazz requires intellect" is sometimes cited as a reason that the masses don't enjoy jazz.  If you're reading this whilst listening to one of the instrumental videos above, can you imagine it on a radio station which airs to millions of people?  Impossible.  The masses (as demonstrated by a simple search on YouTube for popular music from the last 30 or so years and looking at the view count) require simple music to sing along to.

Memorable melodies, words they can relate to which are easy to remember and no masters of their instruments to provide melodically mind-blowing improvisations... this is why such music is not technically demanding, does not contain instrumental solos, uses three chords (usually a major/minor triad combination) max. and is incredibly structured to fit to what sells.

Don't believe me?  Think I'm bitter? Not at all.  No jealous opinions here, just facts.  Read this, or this, or watch this (I must admit, I love country music, especially for motorway driving - I grew up on it) or this.  No, really, click the links.

As for sub-genres...

It seems that anything which is instrumental and not electronic or sung, these days, is considered Jazz.  A way to demonstrate this is to direct you to a very popular Jazz Radio website.  On this website, as it says so itself, there are "Over 35 channels" to choose from.  Thirty five?  Jazz is so undefinable?

We get Flamenco Jazz, Straight Ahead Jazz, Gypsy Jazz, Easy Listening Jazz, Fusion Lounge Jazz... What about... Jazz?  No channel is simply named "Jazz".

There are discussions galore online about what defines Jazz as a genre and it is dangerous to voice an opinion on the matter.  I will publicly state, however, that too many styles of music get labelled 'Jazz' because nothing else suitable has been thought up yet.  Use your own interpretation of the word to see what Jazz means for you since I do believe it varies from person to person.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you will now be able to approach and appreciate Jazz from a more understood vantage point.

Consider my YouTube channel for playlists, subscriber requests and tutorials for beginners in piano and jazz piano.