How to Listen to Jazz

Music’s great virtue is its great curse: a listener needs to understand almostnothing of a song’s art, meaning, intent, or contexts to react powerfully to it. The universality of music’s effectiveness is peculiar: people of every conceivable sort have musical preferences they integrate into their sense of identity —they argue about these pseudo-tastes, fight about them, draw moral conclusions from them, particularly about others— yet the same cannot be imagined for most other arts. Who can envision a redneck spitting into the dirt at the mention of a sculptor he considers emblematic of society’s ethical decay? Who can conjure inner-city youths following the internecine disputes between schools of painters?

This virtue -that we all react to music, and intensely enough that our reactions become part of our selves and indeed seem to us indicative not of arbitrary mood or opinion but of the quality of the music we react to-is a curse because it means many listen to music happily, as atmospheric noise or soundtrack or acoustic scenery, without being able to understand anything about itsmeaning or art.

This isn’t a problem in itself; there’s nothing wrong with using subjective enjoyment as your sole aesthetic criterion. But part of life is finding new things to love and new ways to love things more deeply, and understanding the creative arts —their scope, history, contemporary contexts, intentionality— opens them up for ever-deeper appreciation. But the most obvious way to learn an art is to become a practitioner of that art, a time-consuming and difficult task, and one impossible to pursue across all fields.

Fields that make such demands have a high barrier to audience entry. They compete against quasi-art designed for immediate enjoyment. Again: the magic of jazz was that, for decades, it was profoundly innovative, artistically revolutionary, and fun to listen and dance to.

Analogical Understanding

But we don’t dance that way now, and jazz grows sadly less-accessible to listeners every year; I know many people who have the same reactions to horns that others do to operatic voices: they simply hate the sound of them. Your art has lost its connection to ordinary people when elements of it are perceptually discomfiting to them.

I know many others who like jazz for what we might call “associative” reasons: they like Woody Allen movies, various expressions of “retro” culture, New Orleans, and so on. Certain jazz makes for excellent background music, and while we might lament that music so dense with intention, deliberation, improvisational heroism has become soundtracked, the same has happened to classical; and the same has happened to nearly all the arts (people eat popcorn in movies about genocide; people drink thirty-two ounces of Coke while blood pools on screen), and even to news and politics. Reproductive technology democratically trivializes everything. Love it or leave it.

You can enjoy jazz without grasping much about it for an entire lifetime, andshould if that suffices; but if you want to enjoy jazz more and aren’t a musician, or aren’t familiar enough with music to follow, attentively and thoughtfully, instrumental music, to see what’s interesting about a piano solo (beyond its emotional impact), to know what to pay attention to while bassists duet, you need an analogical approach.

Here’s one I’ve used for years, even though I’m a musician and have studied music:

…when I talk to people who find jazz musically intimidating, or unintelligible in its refusal to be as repetitive as popular music, I sometimes tell them to try to hear in the solos little musical structures, any one of which could be a song in itself, but each of which is built, explored, and discarded with breakneck speed. Popular music relies on the ecstasy of trance: repetition of what resonates. Jazz relies more on restless exploration.

It’s not exactly like Levitt Homes and sand castles, but that’s one way to think of it. The point is that one needn’t know anything about music at all to hear in the short bursts of notes –up and down, side to side, angry or soft, symmetrical or jagged– little sound sculptures, built, perfected, then discarded.

That is: try and relate meaning you don’t understand to a form of meaning you do understand, one which will support some of the same logical, structural interrelationships present in what’s otherwise unintelligible to you. (This is, incidentally, the isomorphism you pursue in all forms of understanding; comprehension is analogical, all newly encountered phenomena relating to previously encountered phenomena, and developing this capacity for metaphorical relation is how you get better at understanding the world, in addition to getting better at understanding and loving and being made happy by creative arts).

Attention and Devotion

Two effective and fun demonstrations of this idea are different visualizations of John Coltrane’s seminal “Giant Steps.” It’s an excellent example, because it is not obviously emotional in intent or effect, so while much jazz –this song, for example, or this one– can be apprehended with the heart, “Giant Steps” demands cerebral attention, and not just for its frenzy; this song will be boring or grating if you can’t figure out how to map its meaning to a topography you understand. That might be a flaw worth critiquing, or cause enough to ignore jazz, but again: loving art makes you happier, so why foreclose the possibility simply because it requires a little effort?

Check out Michal Levy’s outstanding animation from “Giant Steps,” or for a more prosaic take, see Dan Cohen’s video, which tracks the sheet music for it.

Note that once you’ve watched those videos, you can apply that same sort of visualization methodology to other instrumental music –jazzclassical,whatever. Indeed, while the various visualizers which ship with music apps are generally considered the province of dorm-room stoners, they’re useful for attempting to appreciate instrumental music, because they do what’s needed most: they allow you to devote your attention to music while relating music to something you understand already, then have your own creative reactions in collaboration with the work of the artist(s).

When I really want to love music, I tend to close my eyes and listen to Keith Jarrett; the technical passages form landscapes, the affective passages move my heart, and their sum is enough to convince me of music’s total artistic superiority whether or not I consider anything like the song’s context, theoretical details, historical significance. For a listener, this is like an apotheosis: the fulfillment of one of art’s promises.

While it’s possible to bring the required attention to bear on a song without visualization, it’s hard, and getting harder every year; and art rewards attention above all. Music half-attended to is really music ignored, ill-understood, the slightest kind of pleasure. There is much more to love in the best music, and it’s easily accessed with just a bit of creative, analogical effort.Try it out.

(Thanks to David Cole for the conversational catalyst).

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