© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I Hear a Rhapsody
Want to listen to ‘the most joyous sound invented during the entire course of twentieth-century music? Put on some New Orleans jazz.
HOW TO LISTEN TO JAZZ
By Ted Gioia
Basic, 253 pages, $24.99
A Review By
May 19, 2016, The Wall Street Journal
“What’s the best way to listen to a Charlie Parker solo? Ted Gioia suggests singing along. In his satisfying new book, “How to Listen to Jazz,” Mr. Gioia recommends trying to “internalize” Parker’s style, which stood out for its virtuosity and angularity, by memorizing and singing even a small passage of one of his recordings. Such mimicry is precisely the course of study that was undertaken by the saxophonist himself when he was growing up in Kansas City and used to listen to recordings of Lester Young’s solos again and again, striving to copy them note for note. This virtual apprenticeship, as Mr. Gioia put it in a previous book, marked a “turning point in Parker’s musical development.”
A radiantly accomplished writer, a busy blogger and a pianist who has recorded several albums, Mr. Gioia conveys his passion for the music with vivid description and shrewd judgments, concentrating principally on the recordings made by jazz musicians rather than on details of their personal lives. (He writes about those in his “History of Jazz,” now in its second edition.) “Listening,” he holds, “is the foundation; everything else builds out of this starting point.”
Mr. Gioia traces the evolution of jazz styles and illuminates what is characteristic of each. New Orleans jazz, for instance, is marked by a “spontaneous counterpoint” of trumpet, trombone and clarinet against a three- or four-piece rhythm section. Issuing from this combination is “the most joyous sound invented during the entire course of twentieth-century music.” At first New Orleans jazz was a “team sport,” with each instrumentalist playing a more or less set role: a Joe “King” Oliver taking the melody on cornet; a Johnny Dodds supplying an embellishing line on clarinet; a Kid Ory pumping out an obbligato on trombone. Louis Armstrong changed all this. After he emerged in the early 1920s, jazz accorded greater emphasis to feats of individual daring.
Arising in the late 1920s, Chicago jazz, by contrast, is more “streamlined” and “relaxed.” A saxophone may replace the trombone in the lineup, and the drummer will sometimes play a shuffle rhythm, with each beat of the bar divided into long and short parts, a perfect inducement to dancing. Bix Beiderbecke, the golden-toned cornetist, was the leading figure in Chicago jazz, though saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, too, merits mention. He influenced Lester Young just as Young influenced Parker.
Charlie Parker was, of course, the fountainhead of bebop (or modern) jazz, “a style that took no prisoners and made extreme demands on the performers as well as the audience.” If the paths of jazz and popular music intersected during the swing era (1935-45), they began to diverge during the bebop era. Jazz became increasingly a cognoscenti interest.
“How to Listen to Jazz” includes profiles of nine innovators who made lasting contributions to the music. These range from Armstrong (who “had the biggest impact of anyone”) to Billie Holiday (whose virtuosity was less flashy and “more qualitative and psychological”) to Duke Ellington (a pianist whose true instrument was his orchestra) to Ornette Coleman (who was spectacularly ill-served by critics and champions alike). Each profile concludes with a summary of select recordings showing the artist at peak power.
One of the best features of the book is a set of “music maps,” as Mr. Gioia calls them, that serve as a guide to individual recordings. The structure of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sidewalk Blues” (1926) is shown to consist of nine isolable parts of varying length, each designated by letter name, along with a short description of what is taking place internally. Because of the pacing and juxtaposition of the parts, “Sidewalk Blues” produces a “dramatic moment of disjunction” near its midpoint that nevertheless sounds both “natural and aesthetically satisfying.” So good are these music maps that it is too bad there aren’t more of them.
The pleasure of “How to Listen to Jazz” is diluted slightly by the author’s tendency to denigrate specialized knowledge. “The deepest aspect of jazz music has absolutely nothing to do with music theory,” he writes. “Zero. Zilch.” But certain insights about structure and even meaning are obtainable only through the observation of specifically musical phenomena; for him to brush aside the associated vocabulary as “jargon” does a disservice to the complexity of the art.
That said, Mr. Gioia minimizes theory in order to maximize artistic personality, a topic about which he writes clearly and well. “Lesser musicians,” he notes, “. . . sometimes sound as if it’s the song that is playing them, rather than they who are playing the song.” By contrast, “with the master artist you never have any doubt who is in charge.” Drawing on his experience as a jazz pianist, Mr. Gioia mentions that if he met musicians before a performance, he “could frequently predict how they would improvise. “Their personality,” he concludes, “. . . got transferred into how they approached their solos.”
A point made in the last chapter is easy to overlook: The greats of jazz past were in their day working musicians, and what is preserved on record is a slight fraction of all the music they made. As someone with an admitted craving for new sounds, Mr. Gioia implores his readers to make the effort to listen to as much live music as possible. Jazz musicians of today are, “in many ways, better trained than their predecessors, especially in terms of assimilating techniques in a systematic and codified manner.” To this end, he includes an appendix listing 150 jazz masters at the beginning or middle of their careers. Regardless of the shape assumed by jazz to come, “you,” he writes, “will not be bored.””
[Mr. Check is an associate professor of music at the University of Central Missouri.]