Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Jerry Coker - "How To Listen To Jazz"

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

“Since 1900, when jazz - a uniquely American music form - began to evolve, much of its allure and artistic growth has depended on the creative freedom and expressive force that improvisation allows its performers.

Jerry Coker himself a teacher composer/arranger and noted saxophonist, has written How To Listen To Jazz to fill the need for a layman's guide to understanding improvisation and its importance in the development of this artistically rich yet complex music form Without relying on overly technical language or terms, Jerry Coker Shows how you can become a knowledgeable jazz listener-whether you are an aspiring musician, student, jazz aficionado, or new listener. In addition to looking at the structure of jazz and explaining what qualities to look for in a piece, the author provides a complete chronology of the growth of jazz, from its beginnings in the rags of Scott Joplin. the New Orleans style of the 1920s made famous by Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong, the Swing Era with Benny Goodman, and Art Tatum Be-Bop, post Be-Bop, to the greats of Modern Jazz, including Miles Davis. Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and Wes Montgomery.

Also including a list of suggested recordings, a section on the improvised solo, and a complete glossary of jazz terms, How To Listen To Jazz offers you a complete introduction to the entire jazz experience ... the music and those who make it.”
- Back cover annotation to the paperback edition of Jerry Coker, How To Listen To Jazz

2016 saw the publication of Ted Gioia’s masterful How To Listen To Jazz [Basic Books] about which we posted two reviews: one was written by the editorial staff at JazzProfiles and the other was featured in The Economist magazine.

While revisiting both of these recently, I was reminded of a pioneering work on the subject of How To Listen To Jazz: Revised Edition that was compiled about twenty-five years earlier by Jerry Coker [New Albany, Indiana: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 1990] which, incidentally, is still in print. [Actually, the initial version was first published in 1978].

Like Ted [piano], Jerry is also a musician [tenor sax], an educator and a frequent publisher of books about Jazz.

Here’s an overview of Jerry’s career at the time of his writing of  How To Listen To Jazz:

JERRY COKER is an educator of wide experience. He has developed studio music and jazz programs for Indiana University, Sam Houston State University, the University of Miami, and the University of Tennessee, where he is a Professor of Music.

He has taught and directed in locations around the world for National Stage Band Camps, Tanglewood Camp of the New England Conservatory, Jerry Coker Summer Camps, and Jamey Aebersold's Summer Jazz Workshops. Jerry is also well known as a professional musician, composer, and author. He has been featured soloist with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Clare Fischer, Frank Sinatra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Jerry's books include Improvising Jazz, Listening to Jazz, Patterns for Jazz, The Complete Method for Improvisation, Jazz Keyboard, and Coker Figure Reading (Studio PR-Columbia Pictures Publications). His most recent book is titled The Teaching of Jazz (Advance Music).”

Jerry explains the purpose of his book in the following excerpt from its Preface:

This book was written in the belief that jazz music, when approached with understanding and an absence of prejudice, appeals to virtually anyone and everyone. Reaching an understanding of the music, though, can be difficult for the average listener. A number of fine books written to aid the growing jazz musician are often too technical in language and approach to serve the reader who simply wants to know what is transpiring in the average jazz performance. Other books that are directed to the jazz listener fail to give the reader understanding of the music. A chronological approach to jazz history doesn't quite work. The reader ends up with a "who's who" knowledge of jazz, laced with a lot of unnecessary facts and a gross absence of information that would enable the reader to perceive jazz performances in the same manner as the performers themselves.

This, then, is not a book about the great bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, nor about the commercial successes of the Benny Goodman or Stan Kenton bands or the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Nor is it a book about great singers, such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn, although all those performers have contributed considerably to the field. The real crux of the matter lies in achieving an understanding of improvisation, the creative source for all jazz.

The main thrust of this book is, then, to help the reader understand the objectives and accomplishments of the best of the jazz improvisers with a bare minimum of technical language.

As the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, edited and annotated by Martin Williams is, in my estimation, by far the best collection of jazz recordings ever assembled, I have referred the reader to selections from that collection whenever possible. The Smithsonian Collection includes a choice of LPs, Cassettes or CDs and an excellent guide to using the collection, written by Martin Williams, along with many explanatory notes about the music. The package may be ordered from Smithsonian.

Appendices are provided in this book to help the reader retain a clear focus on names, dates, and terms. Appendix A is a chronology of players, Appendix B is a condensed overview of jazz history, and Appendix C is a glossary of terms used in the book.

It is my sincerest hope that every reader will come to understand and feel the universal appeal of jazz music and that this book will bring the listener closer, in spirit, to the attitudes, conceptions, and expressions of the extraordinary musicians discussed in these pages.

[Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, the Smithsonian no longer issues new copies of its collection of Classic Jazz but used copies of LP’s and CD’s both as boxed sets and individual CD’s can be found through online retailers.]

The following excerpt from the first chapter of Jerry’s book will give you a sense of how informed his writing on the subject is and the clarity and simplicity of his explanations.


Music is an art form that combines pitches with rhythms. [Vibrational frequencies of sound, or simply what we call "notes" in music.]

Although it can be prepared on paper in a notated fashion, a musical composition does not become music until the moment of performance, when it becomes sound. Music is an aural art. After the performance, when the sounds have ceased, the music ends, even though the written score, the instruments of performance, and the performers still exist. Only in the memory does the music continue to exist in the minds of musicians and their audience.

The aural memory, however, is not to be dismissed lightly. In fact, it may be the most powerful agent contributing to the success of the phenomenon we call music. It is the memory which enables us to hear music inwardly, replaying endlessly the sound sensations heard in prior listening experiences. Only a repeat of the aural experience itself can improve upon the impression made by the version that is

replayed in the memory. Hence it is largely the memory that enables us, by transforming repetition into familiarity, to develop a longing to repeat and enlarge the aural experience through recordings and live performance).

Dr. Joseph Murphy states that "Man is what he thinks all day."#2 [see below]

Concurrently, religious and philosophical disciplines and goals are often achieved through repetitive affirmations. And so it is in music: We are what we hear all day, including live or recorded performances as well as what we hear inwardly through memory. There will be significant differences among individuals exposed to the same diet of listening, in that their attitudes, understanding, and personal involvement with music will vary. Their memory replays will vary with respect to selectivity, according to personal tastes and reactions. Our musical personalities can best be understood in terms of what we have heard in performance and what our memory chooses to replay inwardly.#3 [see below]

There are many musical styles to hear, each having given rise to great performances and each possessing stylistic validity. Stylistic snobbery in music is entirely unnecessary. It may, in some cases, be necessary for a musician to focus on a particular style for a lifetime, in order to achieve mastery or success in that style. But he must not, in the process, become negative toward other styles. A great performer in any style will have certain standards in common with others of his kind:

1.    Craftsmanship
a.    understanding of musical fundamentals
b.    instrumental/vocal techniques
c.    well-developed ear
2.    Awareness (from listening to others in field)

3.    Creativity

4.   Spirit (emotional drive, appropriateness)

Frequently the listener is confronted with a reputedly great performance he cannot understand or evaluate, usually because his memory bank of aural experiences does not encompass what he is now hearing. Perhaps the style is unfamiliar or the techniques too complex or too different from what he's heard previously. Chances are that if the listener had gathered, stored, and replayed the aural experiences that were in the minds of the performers, awareness and familiarity would have urged him onto a path of patient acceptance, understanding, and perhaps even approval and enjoyment. The gulf sometimes created between the performer and his audience is often directly related to the differences in their listening habits and choices. A performer tires of being held back, and his audience tires of feeling ignorant. The solution lies in the performer's desire to communicate and the audience's desire to understand.

#2 Dr. Joseph Murphy, The Power Of Your Subconscious Mind, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1963.

#3 For a more complete discussion of the potential of the ear for development, see pp. 145-150 of The Teaching of Jazz, Coker, Advance Music, Rottenburg, Germany, 1989.

The remainder of the book is made up of chapters on: What Is Jazz?, Formal Structures in Jazz, The Rhythm Section, The Improvised Solo, and The Improvisers’ Hall of Fame.

These are followed by an Appendix of Jazz Greats, an Appendix of Jazz History by Periods and a Glossary of Terms.

In future blog postings, I plan to bring up additional features about the instructional aspects of Jerry’s book along with more insights and observations from Ted Gioia’s in the hopes of helping visitors to these pages listen to Jazz in a more discerning manner and get more out of the music.

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