Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen

Although relatively young as national cultural institutions are concerned, Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, has become the major force in the promotion and education of the art of jazz. Whether it’s the Center’s the weekly radio program hosted by Ed Bradley, or its PBS specials, or the regular recordings by its groups, or the innovative compositions it underwrites, or the many concerts and events it hosts up there in its home at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, JALC commands a vast array of cultural and financial resources for a non-profit arts organization.

It is not surprising, then, that the Center has produced a new book about the music, entitled Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen. Written by the acclaimed music critic Tom Piazza, Understanding Jazz is a fine introduction for non-musicians as to how to understand some of what jazz musicians are doing in the midst of a live performance. Beginning with the sometimes paradoxical relationship of the individual soloist to the group – which Piazza explains as the relationship between foreground and background – the reader is taken through the basics, so to speak, of how to listen. Piazza clearly explains, for the lay listener, how the blues and other song forms are structured, as well as how musicians improvise in relationship to those forms and tell a story. Piazza is most effective in his discussion of rhythm, of time, and of that elusive element known as swing:

“Picture the arc of a common playground swing,” he writes. “Once you get into a regular rhythm on the swing, the amount of time it takes to get from one end of the arc and then back will be the same each time. But your actual speed as you traverse the arc is not constant; in fact, there is a curve of acceleration and deceleration – a speeding-up on the downward motion and a slowing on the upward part.... In a jazz performance,” Piazza continues, while every bar of music should take the same amount of ‘clock time’ – fill the same period – within those bars and groups of bars there is a constant sense of respiration, of infinitesimal accelerations and decelerations in the actual playing, even though the background pulse, the tempo, remains constant. A large part of the music’s meaning comes from playing with time, this sense of being able to operate flexibly, accurately, and freely within the implied lockstep of chronology—an affirmation, in fact, of the living body against the dead abstraction of time.”

This is all interesting and useful explanation, made all the more interesting and useful because the musical explanations in the book refer often to a companion CD that features seven distinctive jazz tracks. Artists on the CD include King Oliver, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, and Stan Getz – among others. Pizza very easily slips into specific musical references to Rollins’s “Mack the Knife” or Davis’s“Footprints” to help you hear what he’s writing about. Understanding Jazz is a book you read with the CD player remote never far from your hand.

At the end of each chapter on each particular music topic, Piazza also includes a rather haphazard discography, a feature which novices might find useful but will likely distract and annoy more expert listeners. Still, all in all, Understanding Jazz is an excellent way for the beginning fan of jazz to make significant steps forward in learning how to listen more carefully to this often complex music and with a more intelligent ear.

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