I have five useful guidelines for appreciating great jazz. My first guideline, accept that jazz is complicated, very complicated. Don’t let anyone tell you different. And it’s extraordinarily complicated for a layman such as myself who has no musical training. I can’t distinguish the difference between melodic improvisation and harmonic improvisation. I won’t even go into syncopation, blue notes, or bent notes. Although I think the latter two are the same thing, I just can’t grasp what that is.
So, am I an unlikely candidate to write a post about appreciating great jazz? Quite the contrary, I think it’s my limitations that make me the perfect candidate for the job. My guide to appreciating jazz is not going to be about its technical aspects; I’ll leave that for others to convey. Instead, I’m going to focus on what I think is the essence of jazz, the way it makes me feel.
My second guideline for appreciating great jazz, understand that jazz defies definition. Reportedly, when asked to define jazz Louis Armstrong said: “If you have to ask what jazz is you will never know.” I don’t believe he meant to be talking down. I think he was alluding to the fact that you can’t describe jazz in words, you have to feel jazz.
Let me show you what I mean. Remember back to when you were a kid. It’s a warm summer night, and the fireflies are flickering in the darkness. One minute, the light shines here, the next minute it’s over there. Never twice in the same spot. At times it radiates brightly but only for a brief moment and then it’s gone. But then it flashes again, and it’s a new, different light, an original brightness entirely unlike the one before. Sometimes it’s brighter and lasts longer while sometimes its subtle and brief.
Remember how you felt on those nights. The wonder, the excitement, and the joy as you danced around the yard trying to catch those elusive lanterns. Well, that’s jazz!
I get that same feeling of bliss when I hear jazz notes take flight from the bell of a sax or leap from the keys of a piano. That feeling is what appreciating great jazz is all about!
An Art Form
My third guideline for appreciating great jazz, understand that jazz is an art form. Guideline three underscores guideline number one; jazz is complicated. Jazz compositions, both composed and improvisational conform to an established structure, pattern or theme. But musicians arrange musical elements such as rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone to create unique artistic compositions within the shaped structure.
It is the individual arrangement of these elements that bring about a listener’s response. For instance, in a “big band” composition, the rhythmic arrangement emphasizes certain beats over others. Thus giving the song its swing, which may induce your toes to start tapping or your hips to begin swaying. It’s a visceral reaction, and it’s what makes big band music such excellent dance music.
But in some jazz styles such as bebop, the music demands your full attention. The composer is creating sophisticated chordal arrangements that interpret the song. These chord changes can happen rapidly and can be challenging for the untrained ear to detect. That is why bebop is meant for listening, not dancing. But it’s also what makes the sound of a Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker song so mesmerizing.
My fourth guideline for appreciating great jazz, understand that jazz is spontaneous. This spontaneity is called improvisation, and for many, it is the essence of jazz. But it’s not offhand creativity without order, quite the opposite, it is intentional, and the artist does it with conviction. Wynton Marsalis said, “In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, jazz has its own grammar and vocabulary.”
Guideline number four brings us back once again to guideline number one; jazz is complicated. That grammar and vocabulary to which Marsalis refers are techniques like melodic improvisation and harmonic improvisation. When a musician improvises, he or she uses different methods to build on an existing theme and the established structure of a song. It’s a mindful act and takes great skill. The artist is composing and arranging elements such as melody and rhythm to create—on the fly—an entirely new interpretation of the song!
It’s important to understand that improvisation is not an invention for the sake of invention. It’s richer than that. Improvisation allows an artist to express the emotions she or he is feeling at that particular moment within the context of that specific song. In doing so, he or she is conversing with the other members of the group. And like a spoken conversation, each member of the ensemble responds in a way that builds upon the discussion.
An Ongoing Dialogue
This exchange may be in the form of a “call and response” where a soloist plays “over the top” of the ensemble. During his solo, he might play a certain riff, referred to as a “call.” Based on the role of their instruments, the rest of the group respond with an improvisation of their own that supports his move. This is called “comping,” and when done well it yields a rich and stimulating conversation. When done poorly it’s chaotic with one member talking over the other.
Sometimes the conversation is simultaneous. In this case, no one artist solos. Instead, the entire ensemble plays in unison. Each player makes a unique contribution to the discussion based on the role of their instrument resulting in a coherent musical conversation. This collective method of improvisation is characteristic of New Orleans jazz style. Whereas soloing emerged during the big band era and became central to later forms, such as bebop.
The next time you listen to jazz, try and discern the soloist’s improvisation and the manner in which the ensemble respond. You’ll find yourself engaging with the music and heightening your experience. And when that happens you’ll be well on your way to appreciating great jazz music.
The Culture of Jazz
And finally, my last guideline for appreciating great jazz, understand that jazz transcends music and embodies a culture. A culture whose roots are deep in Africa but flourished when transplanted to the fertile environment of the American south. Throughout the twentieth century, it was nurtured and lovingly cultivated and has blossomed into one of America’s most precious gifts to the world.
In fact, jazz is considered by many to be America’s one pure art form. Whether this is true or not, I’ll leave to the academics. But it is indeed American in concept. Or more accurately, what America was meant to be, perhaps not what it has become. For jazz is about freedom and individual expression. It is about breaking the shackles of oppression and envisioning a new experience that respects tradition but embraces change and innovation.
Jazz is about equality and the freedom to explore new ideas based on a shared value system that knows no bounds be it race, gender, religion or national origin. It is about dedication and perseverance and intellectual achievement. Jazz’s rich heritage produced a unique language, social norms, traditions, and customs. Jazz even has its cuisine, fashion and for some, jazz has become a religion. Understanding the culture of jazz enables you to appreciate and enjoy the experience of jazz to its fullest.
You have read this far, so you deserve a reward. I’m throwing in a bonus guideline, understand that jazz evolved and continues to evolve. We know that the foundations of jazz trace back to Africa and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe. But it was in twentieth-century America that jazz manifested into a musical style. Its first iteration was Ragtime; dynamic music that draws heavily on opposing rhythms typical of African dance music.
However, in the 125 years since Tommy Turpin published “Harlem Rag,” the first known ragtime composition, jazz music has evolved through more than a dozen iterations. Dozens more if you count all the sub-iterations of music the tenets of jazz have influenced and continue to influence. The fact that jazz is continuously evolving is the principle reason it eludes definition.
The point I want to make is that jazz is not a thing, it is a concept, more accurately a theory. And like all theories, its premise is conjectural and subject to experimentation. Each succeeding generation of musicians challenge the theory in their unique way and drive the concept in new directions. Sometimes the challenge advances the hypothesis, building upon previous ideas and setting the foundation for future musicians to push it even further. At other times the exploration fails to yield sustainable momentum and its impact on the advancement of jazz is minimal.
It is the ever-evolving nature of jazz that makes it a difficult topic to learn. But there is no need to master jazz, leave that to the academics and the aficionados. It’s okay to merely enjoy the music. If there is a particular period that you enjoy, focus on that. For me, it’s Bebop and Cool jazz. But I also like jazz vocals and now and again some Classic jazz.
Five Six Guidelines for Appreciating Great Jazz
So, there you have it. My five (six) guidelines to understanding jazz. Are they all-encompassing? Far from it, but as a perpetual student of jazz—with significant musical handicaps—those are the guidelines that enhance my relationship with jazz and enable me to appreciate not only the music but also the sophistication and beauty of jazz as an art form.
I may never understand the difference between melodic improvisation and harmonic improvisation, but I will never let anyone tell me I don’t understand jazz. And while I may not understand jazz as well as the next guy, I know how jazz makes me feel and in my world that’s all that matters.
To recap, my five (six) guidelines for understanding jazz.
- Jazz is complicated.
- It defies definition.
- Jazz is an art form.
- It is spontaneous.
- Jazz transcends music and embodies a culture.
- It evolved and continues to evolve.
But what about you, I assume if you’ve read this far you probably enjoy jazz to some extent. How does jazz make you feel?
Do you have any guidelines or insights you’d like to share? Let me know and at I’ll compile a list to share with the rest of the community. And thank you in advance for sharing!