How to Listen to Jazz, by Ted Gioia (Basic, 272 pp., $24.99)

Twenty-odd years ago, working nights in Manhattan, I stumbled into jazz. My gateway was a coworker, a baritone-voiced Brooklynite steeped in true crime, foreign films, modern art, city lore—and America’s music. (“Stay away from Coltrane albums with cosmic or planetary titles,” he advised. “They’ll rip your head off.”) Through his guidance, and the stewardship of WBGO-FM, Newark, which played throughout our graveyard shift, I made my way as a jazz listener, focusing mostly on recordings from the 1950s and early 1960s, variously known as hard bop or post-bop, and steering clear of the musical eras preceding and following—everything from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the big bands (I wasn’t looking for a good time) to “free jazz,” fusion, and the like (I had mostly conservative tastes, though this would have mortified me to learn).

Somewhere along the line, I lost the jazz thread. Maybe my curiosity played itself out, or maybe my interest reflected a superficial, twentysomething need to be “serious.” This can’t be all of it, though, since even now, the opening chords of John Coltrane’s “Spiritual” make me stop and listen—as do “Lonnie’s Lament” and “Wise One” and “Naima.” Other, more up-tempo tracks—“Pfrancing” (Miles Davis), “Adam’s Apple” (Wayne Shorter), “The Sidewinder” (Lee Morgan)—have stayed in my head for years. My real problem was ambivalence about improvisation, which lies at the heart of modern jazz. I’ve found instrumental solos an imposition as often as a revelation. It’s not a matter of wanting to hear a song played the same way over and over. I’d welcome hearing different arrangements every night; that’s not the same thing as improvising. But a jazz listener who resists improvisation is like a classical music devotee who rejects formal Western musical structure.

These misgivings came flooding back as I read Ted Gioia’s How to Listen to Jazz. Gioia, an esteemed jazz critic and historian, and a pianist, addresses his book to general readers and listeners. Many, he knows, have struggled with jazz. He hears it all the time: people don’t “get” jazz; they think that it’s music for intellectuals, not regular people; they don’t know where to begin. Not to worry, says Gioia. “Most of the jazz idiom,” he writes, “is accessible to anyone willing to approach it with patience and open ears.”

How to Listen to Jazz is really two books. The first is an engaging, accessible attempt to explain what’s happening inside the music and how to train one’s ears to hear it better. “The first thing I listen for,” Gioia writes, “is the degree of rhythmic cohesion between the different musicians in the band. . . . In the great jazz bands, you can hear the individual members lock together rhythmically in a pleasing way that involves an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition.” He suggests listening to amateur bands to hear their lack of cohesion, and then comparing their performances to those of the masters.

Gioia also explains the structure of jazz songs, about 95 percent of which, he says, follow a three-part structure of theme, variation (solos), and theme. He maps out jazz classics like Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sidewalk Blues,” Duke Ellington’s “Sepia Panorama,” and Charlie Parker’s rendition of “Night in Tunisia,” breaking them down into sections of bars—32 bars, 16 bars, 12 bars—and notating what’s happening in each one instrumentally. He encourages readers to play the songs with these “listening maps” in front of them. These frameworks prove useful in understanding how what sounds like a free-flowing performance is actually intricately constructed.

What made jazz different, a new art form, Gioia tells us, was the way that “American musicians of African ancestry” in New Orleans “split open” the formal structures of Western music, which had been based on “a system of notes—of discrete tones, tuned in scales with twelve subdivisions.” African music, by contrast, “drew on infinite gradations of sound, and not just twelve notes in a scale.” Jazz musicians did this by adapting the “bent notes” of the blues, by which Gioia means “those tones that wavered and swooped and refused to accept the constraints of conventional musical notation.”

The second part of How to Listen to Jazz builds on the vocabulary Gioia has established to chronicle, briefly, the evolution of the music and its many styles—from New Orleans Jazz, Chicago Jazz, and Harlem Stride to Bebop, Hard Bop, Free Jazz, and today’s hybrids—and to steer listeners to choice samples of each. Another chapter assesses major innovators, from Armstrong, Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins to Parker, Davis, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. Here, too, Gioia makes listening recommendations, but he also offers readers sometimes novel ways of approaching an artist’s work—for example, singing, or at least humming, along to Parker’s saxophone, to get a sense of its rhythmic structure. His “listening strategies” vary widely depending on the artist, but all share his conviction that we need to develop an aptitude for listening above all. Appreciation is enhanced by technical knowledge but not dependent on it.

Gioia is so confident that newcomers can appreciate jazz in part because he believes that objective benchmarks of evaluation exist, and that, in the case of jazz, we can listen for fundamental “building blocks” such as rhythm, dynamics, pitch and timbre, and phrasing. This view puts him at odds with more theoretical critics who claim that subjectivity is the only aesthetic standard. Nonsense, says Gioia: “Understanding jazz (or any other form of artistic expression) can never be reduced to personal whim or some flamboyant deconstructive manipulation of signifiers but always builds on a humble realization that these works impose their reality on us. . . . and in this manner can be distinguished from escapism or shallow entertainment, which instead aims to adapt to the audience, to give the public exactly what it wants. We can tell that we are encountering a real work of art by the degree to which it resists our subjectivity.” In this one passage, Gioia manages to push back against both highbrow and lowbrow wrongheadedness.

Alas, on that troublesome subject, improvisation, Gioia believes that its “intensely personal quality” makes it “perhaps the defining aspect of the jazz idiom.” This is surely true, though it won’t chase away my blues. Still, Gioia’s engaging yet authoritative style makes How to Listen to Jazz not just a valuable primer but a delight to read. Time will tell whether it can steer me back home, but if I don’t get there, it won’t be for lack of a guide.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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