Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"How To Listen to Jazz" by Ted Gioia - The JazzProfiles Synopsis

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“A revealing story is told of bassist Charles Mingus, who led some of the most creative jazz bands from the 1950s into the 1970s. When one of his band members succeeded in playing an especially exciting solo that generated lots of applause from the audience, Mingus would yell at him: "Don't do that again!" ...eventually the perceptive musician would grasp the hidden profundity in the boss's warning.

When you play a crowd-pleasing solo, the temptation is to try to re-create the same phrases at the next performance, ....and the next one after that, and so on. But a kind of rigor mortis sets into jazz when improvisers start down that enticing path. Instead of capturing the heat of the moment, they are left trying to rekindle the embers of gigs long departed. "Don't do that again" may well be the most potent jazz mantra, a guidepost for the musician who seeks the highest peaks of artistic transcendence.”
- Ted Gioia, How To Listen To Jazz

Ted Gioia is a brave soul.

First he writes a History of Jazz, then has the temerity to revise it into a second edition and now he writes a book “telling” people how to listen to it!

Talk about asking for trouble in the contentious world of Jazz preferences and opinions [Just ask Ken Burns who is still digging out from under a pile of opprobrium for what he “omitted” in his PBS TV series about Jazz.].

However, despite the imperative implied in its title, Ted Gioia’s new book How To Listen To Jazz is anything but didactic or pedantic. His book is really about how one person learned to listen to Jazz and his effort to share these skills with others to help enrich their Jazz listening experience.

By way of analogy, the book is not so much a manual, but rather, a cookbook of recipes some of which may work for you.

And whether you have been listening to the music for many years or are new to Jazz and need help finding your way around its mysteries, Ted’s new book offers a host of insights, tips and suggestions that are sure to enhance your Jazz listening experience.

And “listening” is the operative term.

There are lots of ways to learn about Jazz for as the noted Jazz author Doug Ramsey has advised in Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music & Some of Its Makers :

"You don't need a degree in musicology to understand the language of jazz. ... Jazz is based on the common language of music understood around the world. The listener, whether musician or non-musician, can learn the idioms and vernacular of the language. It is simply a matter of absorption through exposure. My only caveat is this: in the learning process, don't spend your time listening to imitators or second-raters." [Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1989, p. 6]

Yes, but, how is this listening informed?

What are “... the idioms and vernacular of the language and who should I be listening to”?

What am I listening for; what is it exactly that I’m trying to hear?

Enter Ted Gioia’s new book - How to Listen to Jazz? [Basic, 253 pages, $24.99].

As Ted explains: “This book is built on the notion that careful listening can demystify virtually all of the intricacies and marvels of jazz. This is not to demean the benefits of formal music study or classroom learning. Yet we do well to remember that the people who first gave us jazz did so without much formal study — and, in some instances, with none at all. But they knew how to listen.

Ted’s new work is divided into seven chapters that explore [1] The Mystery of Rhythm, [2] Getting Inside The Music, [3], The Structure of Jazz, [4] The Origins of Jazz, The Evolution of Jazz Styles, [6] A Closer Look at Some Jazz Innovators and [7] Listening to Jazz Today. The book has an appendix that contains a listing of “The Elite 150, Early and Mid-Career Jazz Masters.”

I thought it might be fun to develop a synopsis of the insights and observations that I found helpful from a reading of Ted’s approach to listening to Jazz and to do this on a chapter-by-chapter basis to help provide a sense of the scope of the book.

Chapter One: The Mystery of Rhythm

As a former drummer, I have to fess up to a real bias here because I’ve always felt that the syncopated rhythms of jazz account for so much of jazz’s distinctiveness.

The Pulse (or Swing) of Jazz

“The first thing I listen for is the degree of rhythmic cohesion between the different musicians in the band. Some jazz critics might describe this as swing. Certainly that's part of it, at least in most jazz performances. But there is something more than mere finger-tapping momentum involved here. 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. …”

“Can we pinpoint the essence of swing in the music of the premier jazz bands? One way of doing this is to listen to the same performance repeatedly and focus on different instruments with each repetition. If you are seeking out the secret source of swing, a good place to start is with the locking together of the bass and drums....”

This mysterious factor in a performance is hardly restricted to jazz. The 'secret sauce' behind many successful popular songs is the degree of cohesion between the individual musicians, the effortless blending of each individual's personal sense of time into a persuasive holistic sound.  … Even though jazz is a highly individualistic art form, and its leading practitioners are discussed in quasi-heroic terms, this crucial ingredient — my starting point in evaluating a performance - transcends the personal and resides in the collective.”

Chapter Two: Getting Inside the Music

Ted explains that the primary focus of this chapter is “What hidden factors distinguish a moving [Jazz] performance from a blasé one?” Or, put another way: “Let’s see what happens when we try to expand our listening skills and grapple with … [a] deep level of song. In the previous chapter, we looked at rhythm and swing. Let’s now move to an even more granular level of scrutiny, and look inside the individual notes and phrases.

The author’s granularity consists of an analysis of phrasing, pitch and timbre, dynamics, personality and spontaneity and how a practiced understanding of each of these factors can help the Jazz listener gain a deeper appreciation of what’s going on in the music.

A brief look at each of these reveals the following insights from Mr. Gioia:

[1] Phrasing - After listening for the sound of the band’s pulse or swing, the second and equally important thing to listen for “... is the way musicians shape their phrases. ... At this point, I start focusing more on the individual members of the group. Their skill at phrasing is especially evident in their improvised solos, but the superior jazz artist can stand out even when simply stating a melody or responding to the phrases of bandmates. …Even before these artists start improvising, merely when they are interpreting a written melody, they demonstrate their mastery and express their individuality.”

[2] Pitch and Timbre - “When we listen to a jazz performance, we rarely focus on the specific tones. They go by so fast, who can really study them?” Mr. Gioia eventually reached a point of “...  grasping how much can happen even within the narrow confines of a single note.” He learned that these …  “sound colorings were important to the power of the music.  This kind of tone manipulation went far beyond anything heard in classical or marching band music and accounted for much of the excitement and popularity of the jazz idiom.The jazz cats played dirty, and fans loved precisely that quality in the music.” Sidney Bechet, the great soprano saxophonist and one of the inventor’s of Jazz once said to a student: ‘I'm going to give you one note today. See how many ways you can play that note—growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That's how you express your feelings in this music. It's like talking.’ “The mandate of the listener is the mirror image of this admonition. Don’t just listen to the notes; listen to what the great jazz artists do to them.”

[3] Dynamics - Ted defines dynamics as “ ... variations in volume of a note or a phrase.” …  To the outsider, dynamics must seem like the simplest aspect of music. Either you play louder or softer, or you stay the same. What can be so hard about that? Yet in the context of jazz, this is much more problematic than the outsider realizes. Jazz is a hot art form. It thrives on intensity. For better or worse, a macho aesthetic got embedded in its DNA at an early stage in its evolution. … Audiences burn out on unrelenting volume, whether it's a politician shouting out denunciations on the campaign stump, a preacher bellowing a lengthy fire-and-brimstone sermon, or an amateur jazz band full of testosterone and determined to conquer the world. … But I do want to hear jazz musicians make an attempt to control the dynamics, rather than letting the dynamics control the music.”

[4] The following is my favorite excerpt from the book because I know from personal experience that the following observation is true.  “Long ago, I reached a conclusion about jazz musicians that some might find highly controversial and others accept as so obvious that it hardly needs to be stated. I've never heard it mentioned, although I think it provides a highly useful perspective on listening to the music, so I will share it for your consideration. During my own apprenticeship years, I noticed that if I met musicians before I heard them perform, I could frequently predict how they would improvise. Their personality in off-stage interactions got transferred into how they approached their solos. A brash, confident person would play with assertiveness and flamboyance on the bandstand. The quiet, cerebral types would reflect those same qualities in their music. The jokester would impart a dose of humor to the performance. The sensitive and melancholy player would gravitate to songs that displayed these selfsame attributes. A jazz improvisation is, in a very real sense, a character study … or a Rorschach test.”  As Louis Armstrong exclaimed: Jazz is who you are!

[5] Spontaneity - “This final ingredient in the jazz mix might be the most important of them all, but it's devilishly difficult to isolate and describe. More an attitude than a technique, the element of spontaneity in the music rebels against codification and museum-like canonization. Indeed, the instant you try to hold onto it—to re-create the tones and phrases that spontaneity has imparted to a jazz performance—is the very second when it disappears. Yet this frame of mind, the openness to the creative possibilities of the present moment, is perhaps the defining aspect of the jazz idiom.”

Chapter Three: The Structure of Jazz

I think all of us at some point - experienced listener or novice - can really relate to the assertion that Ted uses to open this chapter - A JAZZ PERFORMANCE CAN BE CONFUSING TO THE UNINITIATED - because we were all “uninitiated” at some point in our listening-to-Jazz careers and as he notes in the following, the struggle continues.

“Even many hard-core jazz fans find aspects of the music mystifying.They struggle to identify a melody or discern an underlying structure to the music. Songs sometimes change direction suddenly and unpredictably. Different musicians in the band take charge at unexpected junctures — the focal point moves from saxophone to trumpet to piano to bass or other instruments—but seemingly without rhyme or reason.

What's going on here?

We've all heard that jazz musicians improvise. But does that mean they just make it up as they go along? Is it possible that there is no real structure to this music? Is jazz just a free-for-all, like those wild moments in TV wrestling when all rules are abandoned, the referee ignored, and every combatant goes for broke? Or is there method to this apparent musical madness? Is jazz more like a chess match—but played much, much faster—in which creative freedom is bound by rules and imagination must operate within carefully defined constraints?

In truth, jazz is a little like both those examples. …

Yet jazz has its own rules — although not repressive ones — and they can be elusive, hard to grasp, especially from the perspective of a newcomer to the music. But a serious fan can't really appreciate what happens during a jazz performance without some understanding of these structural underpinnings and how they are applied in practice.

The vast majority of jazz performances follow a familiar pattern. You might call it "theme and variations ."You can divide the song into three parts. First, the musicians play the melody (or theme). Second, they improvise over the harmonies of the song—with some or all of the performers taking solos (these are the variations). Third, the musicians return to the melody for a final restatement of the theme. Not every jazz performance follows this blueprint—and in some extreme cases, the musicians follow no set pattern—but more than 95 percent of the jazz music you will encounter in recordings or live concert will adhere to this theme-and-variations structure.

At this point, Ted devises a number of “music maps” to help guide the listener through the song structures of Duke Ellington’s Sepia Panorama, Jelly Roll Morton’s Sidewalk Blues and Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia.

As Ted explains: “By following music maps of this sort, newcomers to jazz begin to grasp that a style of music that initially sounds unconstrained and almost formless—the performers seemingly operating in the absence of rules, like gunslingers in a Wild West town without a sheriff—actually builds on a finely tuned balance between freedom and structure. Every jazz composer and band approaches this trade-off differently.”

Ted also offers these invaluable focal points: “Before moving on, let me offer a few more suggestions about how to improve your ability to hear the metric structure of jazz. First, when trying to get the 'feel' of the pulse you may find it easier if you follow the bass player. Most people assume that the drummer sets the beat for the band, and so they try to lock into the underlying beat by focusing their attention on the percussion. Perhaps seventy or eighty years ago, this would have been a smart listening strategy. But the drums in jazz have evolved away from timekeeping — in truth, much of the action in jazz percussion these days happens between the beats — and thus can serve as a confusing guide to those seeking something akin to a metronome for their listening sessions. Bassists in jazz are hardly immune to this evolution away from timekeeping, but they tend to be more straightforward in signaling the pulse in a song. In many instances, they will play on every beat, bar after bar — the so-called walking bass line — and this provides both a pleasing forward motion to the performance as well as a useful guide to those counting along in the audience.”

Chapter Four: The Origins of Jazz

In this segment, Ted steps back to help us understand the social and cultural context in which Jazz originated with a particular emphasis on how and why New Orleans was the birthplace of the music.

“Then as now, jazz musicians were scavengers and borrowers, visionaries who broke through the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow, religious and secular, caste and clan. Historians of the music give the most attention to the influence of blues and ragtime on the evolution of early jazz, but a host of other styles and sounds played a role in the creation of this exciting new hybrid. The earliest jazz performers also took note of the sounds of the sanctified church, the stately music of concert halls and opera houses, the popular dance tunes played by string ensembles—indeed, anything that came to their attention and might excite an audience.

And here's the beautiful part of the story: jazz musicians still beg, borrow, and steal, only now they do it on a global basis.” …

“I don't think it's mere coincidence that jazz first emerged in New Orleans. I've devoted a considerable amount of time, over the years, to studying the conditions that spur cultural innovation and the dissemination of new artistic movements, and the emergence of jazz serves as the perfect case study in how these revolutions take place.” …

“Densely packed populations, many individuals coming and going via land and waterways, an overheated mixture of people recently arrived from different locales, informal settings where they intermingle in close contact, a culture and environment that emphasize communal activities and get-togethers— these are nightmare conditions for anyone trying to stop an epidemic, but they are the same ingredients that can spur world-changing artistic revolutions. …

“Jazz followed the same formula. New Orleans, at the time when jazz first appeared, was one of the unhealthiest cities in the world.” …

“All cities had to deal with public health risks, but New Orleans was especially dangerous, no doubt because of its particular mix of well-traveled residents, climate, population density, and poor local sanitation.

These selfsame conditions gave birth to jazz. No urban area on the planet offered a more diverse cultural mix during the years leading up to the emergence of jazz than New Orleans.”

The remainder of this chapter finds Ted explaining: what the blues is and what its importance is to the fabric of Jazz; how its infusion into Western lyric song structure in turn-of-the-century New Orleans constituted the beginning of the music we now recognize today as “Jazz;” how the next phase in the evolution of the music was shaped by the use of brass and reed instruments by New Orleans musicians to help create a “boisterous style of dance music;” how the injection of syncopation helped give Jazz its “mojo;” how the advent of ragtime music with  heavy emphasis on syncopation and the syncopation in the music of the pioneering Jazzman Jelly Roll Morton both coalesced to help bring into existence “... the unfettered creativity of New Orleans Jazz.”

In Chapters Five, Six and Seven, Ted takes us from the lecture hall across to the laboratory as we move away from theory to application; from the lessons of how to listen to Jazz to actively applying his recommended listening approaches to form a more discriminating appreciation of: the evolution of various Jazz styles, some of the more important Jazz innovators and how to listen to how Jazz in performance as it is being played today at clubs, festivals and concert venues.

Chapter Five: The Evolution of Jazz Styles

In this chapter, Ted catalogues Jazz styles into the following groups:

  • New Orleans Jazz
  • Chicago Jazz
  • Harlem Stride
  • Kansas City Jazz
  • Big Bands and the Swing Era
  • Bebop/Modern Jazz
  • Cool Jazz
  • Hard Bop
  • Avant-Garde/Free Jazz
  • Jazz/ Rock Fusion
  • Classical/World Music/Fusion
  • Postmodernism and Neoclassical Jazz

The distinguishing features of each style are outlined and a selection of recommended recordings is included.

Chapter Six: A Closer Look at Some Jazz Innovators

Here we find Ted taking another look at the evolution of the music, but this time with an emphasis on its innovators who include:

  • Louis Armstrong
  • Coleman Hawkins
  • Duke Ellington
  • Billie Holiday
  • Charlie Parker
  • Thelonious Monk
  • Miles Davis
  • John Coltrane
  • Ornette Coleman
  • Further Observation - A section that Ted introduces this way:
“I have focused on just a handful of jazz innovators in this chapter, and I apologize if I have left out a favorite artist or recording. My goal, however, is not to offer a comprehensive guide to major jazz performers—that would take up an entire book on its own—but to help you expand the capacity of your ears and construct listening strategies that bring you closer to the essence of each artist's work. If you want to move on to a more comprehensive survey of jazz musicians and performances, I suggest you supplement this volume with more in-depth studies — for example, my books The History of Jazz and The Jazz Standards, or other comparable works on these subjects.The goal in these pages is more one of connoisseurship and discernment. Think of it as akin to learning how to taste and savor wines, which may be assisted by some specialized knowledge, but can still be practiced by those lacking a degree in viticulture. Music is much the same. In hot music as in pinot noirs and cabernets, this cultivation of an informed taste is really the foundation for advancing more deeply into the subject.”

Chapter Seven: Listening to Jazz Today

“ANY READER WHO HAS FOLLOWED ME TO THIS POINT MIGHT BE forgiven for assuming that learning about jazz is a matter of listening to recordings. After all, most of the musicians addressed in the preceding pages are no longer performing in concert. Unless jazz clubs start booking holograms, we've lost our chance to watch them on the bandstand. But I make no apologies for devoting so much attention to artists who no longer work the circuit or appear at the leading jazz festivals. A listener in the current day can't develop an informed sense of the art form without paying close attention to the legacies of Armstrong, Ellington, Coltrane, and the other past masters of the idiom. A sympathetic scrutiny of their music is still the best starting point for a study of this sort. And to do this, of course, we must turn to the body of recordings they left behind.

But we also need to remind ourselves that these innovators were working musicians, who performed night after night in front of a constantly shifting audience, and that digital tracks or grooves in vinyl only capture a small part of what these artists created or embodied. The ideal way to experience jazz will always be firsthand, at the source, fully present at the moment of inspiration and realization. This is probably true for all kinds of music, but especially so for jazz, which places so much faith in spontaneity, in the belief that each performance should aim at creating a unique and irreplaceable epiphany for both artist and audience.

So this is the first reason you should care about jazz in the present day: you can experience it the way the music is meant to be experienced. In the flesh. As a ritual with its own expectations and covenants. …”

“Let me emphasize … [the] point by resorting to italics: every jazz style described in this book is still alive and flourishing on the bandstand. ...

“So I have made my attempt to simplify the extraordinary diversity and multiplicity of jazz today into these four themes: globalization, hybridization, professionalization, and rejuvenation. These trends are still unfolding, and with a degree of fluidity and unpredictability that suggests that they may still be in the early stages. Perhaps "trends" is a misleading term in this respect. These are more like inexorable forces that aren't likely to go "out of style" anytime soon. I suspect that these four forces will still shape the jazz idiom in exciting ways ten or twenty years from now.” …

“Which leads to my last bit of advice. I know that I have given a lot of it in the preceding pages, but I have one last nugget of wisdom to share. Don't take my word for any of this. Go out and hear for yourself. I've shared with you observations of a lifetime of listening to this music, but as the legal disclaimer always attests in these instances: your results may vary. I may have given you a recipe book, but the obligation is on your shoulders to do the cooking and tasting. And add some new dishes of your own. But that should be a pleasant responsibility.”

Following this chapter, as Ted explains:

“I provide an appendix a list of the "elite 150" jazz artists in early or mid-career who deserve your attention. But ... don't take it too seriously. View it merely as a representative sample of outstanding current-day talent, not an exclusive club.”

The publication of a new book about Jazz by Ted Gioia is a major event and we would all do well to participate in it through buying a copy of How To Listen to Jazz.

All of us would then also have the benefit of having in our possession a fun and informative book that helps enhance our Jazz listening pleasure, and Ted and his publisher would get the benefit of having a few, extra schimolies around with which to pay the rent and book a profit, respectively.

And who knows, another result of such an exchange might be more books about Jazz by Ted Gioia.

Now that would be a good thing.

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