A Beginner's Guide to Listening to Jazz Music Part 1
True story: A couple of years ago, I rolled into a friend's house after a particularly unpleasant day at the office. Back that up just a bit: after a particularly unpleasant week at the office. Anyhow, I hopped out of my truck, light as a feather with a big, wide smile on my face.
As my buddy greeted me at his door, he had a puzzled look on his face. When I asked him what was wrong, he replied: “Dude, didn’t you just go through a week’s worth of hell at work? What’s up with that good mood you’re in?”
To which I answered: “When I left the office to come over to your place, I popped Coltrane’s A Love Supreme into my CD player and all of a sudden, everything was alright in my world.”
That puzzled look on my friend’s face quickly turned into a look of disgust as he shot back: “Dude! How can you listen to that junk? That stuff is just a bunch of noise.”
After finding a seat on the couch, my friend slid over to his CD player and proceeded to crank up the volume on Slayer’s South of Heaven, to which I replied: “Dude, now that’s a bunch of noise.”
Oh, well. To each his own.
But I know there are a lot of people out there just like my buddy. They don’t listen to jazz music because they don’t give jazz music a chance. Maybe they feel intimidated by the music. Maybe they think you have to be middle-aged and a wine connoisseur to dig jazz.
Whatever the reason, instead of trying to understand it, they choose the easy path and ignore jazz music.
That’s where I come in.
My Passion Explained
I want to dispel all the myths and rumors about jazz music being difficult to embrace and enjoy.
The really cool thing about this little “how to listen to jazz music” primer is its sheer simplicity. There are no tests, no need to purchase costly study guides—none of that at all. All it takes is an open mind and a willing set of ears.
Before we really dig into how to listen to jazz, I want to take just a moment and lay out the reason that I started listening to it. I’m sure my story is not unique in any way, but I eased into this wonderful world via good ole’ fashioned rock-n-roll.
As a scrappy pre-teenager, I dug the rock of my day (Kiss, Allman Brothers, Styx, Queen, The Who, Rolling Stones, etc.), as did most of my friends. But one of my friends just happened to have had an older brother (he was about 20 at the time) who was deep into jazz and blues, in addition to the rock-n-roll I liked.
One afternoon after my friend and I had just finished cranking up Rush’s epic rock-opera 2112, this older brother leaned into my friend’s bedroom and said, “That’s cool. I dig Rush. But if you really want to hear something that will blow your mind, follow me.”
The three of us made our way downstairs to the older brother’s room and he carefully placed an album onto his turntable. The next thing I knew, this … this … sound, a sound like I had not experienced to that point in my life, filled up the entire basement.
It was glorious.
John Coltrane "My Favorite Things"
Give Jazz a Chance
It had a trippy, spacey sound to it. It sounded like a million different instruments playing a million different things, all at the same time. But it all fit together perfectly. There was insane, poly-rhythmic drumming. There was lightning-quick bolts of guitars and choppy keyboards galore. And then there was the trumpet. The trumpet that cut through all of it.
The older brother was right. My mind was sufficiently blown.
It was Miles Davis’ brilliant Bitches Brew. And it rocked way harder than any “rock-n-roll” album I had ever heard before.
I was hooked. Immediately.
That was my starting point into the world of jazz music.
Pleased that we had gotten off on Miles, over the course of the next couple of years, even after he had moved into his own place by then, the older brother let us search through his jazz albums and the adventure continued.
I discovered Herbie Hancock, Freddy Hubbard, Monk, Trane, Weather Report, and other cool, eclectic artists. From those album crates I also fell in love with cats like Louis Armstrong, Art Blakey, and Louis Jordon. Cats that could tear it up, but yet in a different way from the early 1970s Miles I had heard.
When I look back on that whole experience, I feel extremely fortunate. Fortunate that I got turned on to a form of music that I could not do without these days. Fortunate that I had a friend that was willing to turn a young punk onto such powerful music. And fortunate that I managed to keep an open mind long enough to decide whether or not I really liked what I heard.
Had my friend’s older brother tempted us downstairs by saying something like, “Come down to my room and I’ll put on some jazz albums,” I might have balked.
And that would not have been a smart decision on my part.
But my point with this whole thing is, don’t be immediately turned off by just the thought of listening to jazz.
Jazz music is mood music. Pure and simple. But so is rock, country, blues and pop. It’s all mood music.
Give jazz a chance. You might just be surprised at how you react to it. Because once that light goes on, it can burn brighter than a thousand suns.
It’s not important how one gains access to the world of jazz, the important thing is just getting there. Just remember, one man’s noise might be another man’s Bitches Brew.
In part two, we’ll break down some of the many different categories that encompass the amazing world of jazz music and several different ways to sample from the incredible platter of jazz.
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