How to Listen to Jazz

We interrupt my breakfast to bring you this post about jazz.

I’ve been hearing people lately talk about how they don’t understand jazz, how they can’t follow improvisations, etc.  I’ve also noticed, now that I’m paying attention, that people talk about jazz in terms of mood or feel… which is important to the experience, but I think misses the point.

I think the problem is that people listen to jazz acoustically, the same way the’d listen to traffic sounds, or waves crashing.  Or maybe they’re listening for technique; they can see that a musician is technically competent, even if they don’t understand what’s going on.

What makes jazz improvisation interesting is when we listen inferentialy.  Is inferentialy a word in English?  Anyway, you have to infer i.e., listen for what’s not there.

Wynton Marsalis did this workshop, apparently for some French kids.  I’m sure a lot of people missed the point of it (listening acoustically) but the concept and structure of the lesson is kind of brilliant.

This lesson is kind of brilliantly simple.  Here’s the outline of it:

1)  He plays the whole melody of “Happy Birthday.”  Playing the melody is called “the head.”

2)  He improvises while his partner repeats the head over and over again.  When I say “improvises,” what I mean is that they’re playing notes that are not in the melody line, but are still in the same chord structure.   All they’re doing is playing Happy Birthday over and over again.

A lot of the cool jazz things are plainly visible.  You can see how the improvisations get more aggressive in subsequent loops; the first time through “Happy Birthday” is conservative, almost decorative; and then the later loops through “Happy Birthday,” he’s showing you that he’s Wynton Marsalis.  There’s a tiny, fleeting  hand gesture that says “let’s switch roles; I’ll take the melody, and you improvise”  There’s a tinier nod that says “let’s end it.”  The musicians pay constant attention to each other, not like rock guitar soloists who close their eyes and act like they’re going into a trance.  The constant communication I think is the hardest thing for teenagers to learn; at least I’ve never been able to teach it convincingly.

3)  In the third stage, they do “collective improvisation;” both of them are improvising to “Happy Birthday,” but neither of them are actually playing the “Happy Birthday” melody.  Here’s where you get to infer… If you’re listening, “Happy Birthday” is all there, you can actually hum it to help you keep track.  For me the melody is so familiar that I feel I can half hear it in my head, all the while these guys are NOT playing it.  And at that point you can start to appreciate their musicianship; either the mood or feel (in the choices they make in notes and rhythm; the ideas that they’re putting across) or in their technical skills (which are, by the way, genius).

If you’re listening to an improvisation section and you stop hearing the melody in your head, that’s when you sit back in your chair and whisper “I’m lost” to your companion.  At that point you can either focus and try to get your place back, or you can just wait until “the head” comes around again.  Conventionally, people play the head at the beginning of a song, improvise through several loops, and then end the song by going back through the head one more time.  Everybody gets lost once in a while, hopefully not the musicians.

What happens when they’re not playing Happy Birthday, how do you not get lost if they’re improvising to a song you don’t know?  You learn the song, of course.  Jazz musicians can’t pay the bills going around playing Happy Birthday all the time.

Why did I write this big post on a sunny Saturday morning?  I saw the video on Unfogged and got totally derailed.  And now I shall return to my breakfast.

4 thoughts on “How to Listen to Jazz

  1. I was just thinking to myself how I didn’t understand jazz music and subsequently typed in the google search engine “i don’t understand jazz”. Well, after looking through several forums and websites, I then decided I didn’t understand what people were saying about not understanding jazz, so you can only imagine my frustration! Add on the stress of four major projects that must be completed as soon as possible, and you get someone trying to understand jazz in just ten short minutes!
    Well, maybe it’ll take me longer to understand jazz music, but the video and the wonderful explanation that accompanied it opened a door to understanding jazz I never knew existed. Thank you so much for this post, and may fortune be with you throughout all your endeavours, musical or otherwise!


  2. I am exactly on the same page as Caroline was 3 years earlier… THIS is really what I wanted to understand about Jazz. Whether I like it better or not I know that I’ll at least pay attention next time or even try to memorize one “head” as you call it and see if I can follow the music. Thanks for interrupting your breakfast


    • Ingrid, I’m so glad to hear that this post was helpful! If you want to start listening to songs whose heads you’re already familiar with, you might look for jazz “standards,” which are old songs that a lot of Americans have in our collective cultural memory. A lot of us learned these songs in high school jazz programs. Songs like “Autumn Leaves,” “Misty,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” These songs are so familiar that experienced jazz musicians might consider them cheesy, but they might be the next step after “Happy Birthday.” Enjoy!


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