Understanding Jazz


I fell in love with jazz at night, one specific night, during my freshman year of college. I had heard Miles Davis before, having bought a best-of collection of his Capitol/Blue Note years on a whim in high school. At the time, he was one of the few jazz musicians I’d even heard of. I had enjoyed the CD but hadn’t felt the urge to supplement it with anything else.

Jazz, though, is a funny thing. In fact, its quick wit is one of the most seductive things about it. It seeps into you. A year later, I found myself lying in bed, having bought another Davis CD, the obvious one: Kind of Blue. Post-adolescent boys have tried to use the record to impress girls for longer than I’ve been alive. This time, however, I wasn’t in bed with anyone. So I thought, anyway.

Lying on my back in bed, lights out, staring at the ceiling, headphones in my ears, I listened to Kind of Blue for the first time. The album is calm and collected but also meandering and inquisitive. The music’s rarely hot and bothered itself—“Freddie Freeloader” probably comes closest to full-on boil—but it leaves its listeners that way. It makes you feel like there’s someone sexy right beside you. I liked that feeling, and I probably listened to it a hundred times that way on successive nights. I was hooked from then on.

That was over a decade ago. By a collector’s standards, my jazz collection isn’t enormous—about 80 CDs or so—but it’s sizable and the music now encompasses 75% of the CDs I buy. But it’s maddeningly scattershot. A part of me loves this. I follow my whims, which led to a love for guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Chucho Valdés, and singer Sarah Vaughan. But a part of me knows that there are tremendous gaps in my education.

I don’t know music theory and I can’t read notes. In elementary school, I could play the ukulele and the recorder, and read notes, and be able to tune my ukulele. Now, music for me is like a foreign language that shares some cognates and a few grammatical constructions with my own tongue, just enough to seem more decipherable to me than it actually is. I’m not sure what happened. Anyway, I’ll always be limited in my ability to distinguish specific players on a side—I love Frisell, in part, because his style is so distinctive that he’s immediately recognizable—or to discuss intelligently how a piece is distinguished from another, similar piece. I can hear the differences but I’ll always describe them in the inadequate, semi-literate simple sentences of a tourist. I’ve accepted this for now.

What I can’t accept is my frustrating lack of knowledge about jazz history. I find new albums to buy through word-of-mouth and sharply written reviews. Most jazz reviews are like most reviews of every artform—they’re about what just came out. This means I have four recent albums by the Dave Holland Quintet, but nothing by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, or Art Tatum. I bought collections of Jelly Roll Morton (love it) and Bix Beiderbecke (hit-or-miss), but only because I’ve gleaned over the years that these are important seminal figures in the music. There’s nothing systematic about my tastes or my education. Most of what I know about jazz is what I’ve read, not what I’ve heard. (Thank you, Whitney Baillett. Thank you, Fred Kaplan.)

Short of buying an omnibus and being subsequently overwhelmed by what I hadn’t heard (and would, in some cases, be unlikely to find), I wasn’t sure how to increase my basic comprehension of the music without breaking the bank.

I got a flyer from my alma mater at the end of July. Every semester, they offer enrichment courses on a variety of subjects, taught by Millsaps professors or local experts, open to anyone with a checkbook. It’s a great way to try something new. While I glanced at a few classes that intrigued me, I knew I’d hit the jackpot when I came to a listing:

Understanding Jazz—Ways to Listen

Jazz is an art form that originated in this country. How to listen is important to understanding what jazz is. In this new class, you will learn about the history of jazz and the types of instruments used to play jazz. John Autry will play jazz recordings to illustrate points, and the suggested textbook includes a CD which will be discussed in class. Mississippi’s own jazz musicians will be discussed, and the instructor will present a running narrative of his own experience in enjoying the genre. A professional photographer, John will also share photos from his 30 years of jazz listening.

Score! Six consecutive Thursdays, from 6:30pm to 8:30pm, starting 21 September. One book is required.

Now, the book was Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen by Tom Piazza, an author whose work I’ve reviewed before. Since I had mixed reactions to Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, I figured I should read the textbook around which the class is based before plunking down $120.

Instead of trying to be a comprehensive history of jazz or give the reader a critical analysis of the music’s myriad subgenres, Piazza offers a way in for beginners:

[Understanding Jazz] is instead a guide to getting oriented in a jazz performance, a look into the mind, in a sense, of a jazz group. It consists of a set of six separate but intimately related explorations into the nature of jazz, and it is designed to help you learn to recognize landmarks, to hear how the parts relate to the whole.

Indeed, the book’s tone is jovial but informative, plainspoken but attuned to the complexities of the music. Since the class is broken into six sessions, I assume it’ll roughly follow the six chapters of this well-organized book: 1. foreground and background, 2. blues, 3.forms, 4. improvisation, 5. swing, rhythm, time, space, and 6. telling a story.

It seems counterintuitive that Understanding Jazz begins with technicalities—the first three chapters are about forms and methods—and only gradually branches out to more ethereal concepts, but it’s the right choice. Piazza spends half the book making sure you grasp how to recognize a 12-bar blues tune, how to tell when (and why) a musician decides to step out from the background and perform a solo, how to distinguish the difference in sound between a trombone and a trumpet, how the music has strong roots in easily recognizable pop standards… all before you start tackling with improvisation and a musician’s individuality. These two elements, claim Piazza, are the defining characteristics of jazz, but he understands that a beginner can’t jump right into these subjects. We’re halfway through the book before we get to “Improvisation.”

Even once he starts defining “swing,” that elusive part of the music without which jazz isn’t quite jazz, he takes time out to simply tell us how to make a beat. Count off “one and two and three and four,” tapping your foot as you say each word. Clap—make a beat—on CAPITALIZED words:

1. Simple Spanish tinge:

ONE and two AND three and FOUR and/ ONE and two AND three and FOUR and/ …

You can hear Baby Dodds pecking out this Spanish-tinge rhythm on the woodblocks throughout “Weather Bird Rag,” especially clearly from 0:07 to 0:14.

As you can tell from the above passage, the book comes with an accompanying CD. There are seven tracks, spanning from the 1920s to the 1980s, and including the glorified clatter of New Orleans stomp circa 1923, the cool Kansas City blues of the Count Basie Orchestra, a refined Stan Getz ballad, a sharp, high-velocity burst courtesy of Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, the multi-part and almost symphonic textures of Duke Ellington, and more. While the CD doesn’t delve into free jazz or truly experimental jazz, the inclusion of the Miles Davis Quintet’s “Footprints” at least hints at the music’s avant-garde tendencies.

Oddly, though, as Piazza points out, “Footprints” may initially seem like the most cerebral and “out-there” track included, its form is really a basic blues. He goes into considerable detail, telling you at what specific second the bass will start the basic pattern again, and how the whole song is based on a structure as simple as easy-to-follow as Count Basie’s three-decades-older and much more accessible “Boogie Woogie”—also included on the disc.

In a snap, we see a connection between Kansas City blues and bebop, through two tracks that couldn’t initially sound less alike. Piazza may veer toward ethereality, as he did annoyingly in Why New Orleans Matters, but Understanding Jazz is always grounded in the nuts and bolts, in time signatures and sound quality and what’s happening in this particular song at this particular second.

Piazza wants to immerse you in the music—there’s a two-page section in which he gives practically a second-by-second account of the saxophone battle between Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt in 1957’s explosive “The Eternal Triangle,” telling us exactly when one saxophonist makes a riff and when the other responds. I found myself rewinding parts of songs with book in hand, until I could hear what Piazza heard, and trying to make the various beats—Charleston, Spanish tinge, the hand jive—with my hands and feet.

As a result, you feel like an active participant in the book’s creation. Of course, we always are when we read—the Jay Gatsby who’s in my mind looks little like yours—but Piazza alerts us to the fact:

Every creative artist [builds a city] through his or her imagination. One constructs a city of the mind and the soul, and then takes the listener on a trip through that city. It is a working model of reality. When one listens to a musical performance, one goes on a trip. But in jazz, unlike in European classical music, the musicians share a map but not a fixed itinerary, and so the audience shares their discoveries, adventures, and jokes at the same moment the musicians arrive at them.

That’s a pretty good description of why I fell in love with the music, and also of how Piazza tries—and mostly succeeds—to make us grasp his book. It’s a book to be written in, to tap against your knee as you try to make sense of Sonny Rollins’s “Moritat,” to look to for more music. (There’s an extensive, enthusiastic discography after each chapter, in which Piazza gives us example after example of where to turn to next.)

After finishing Understanding Jazz, I sent in my check without a second thought. The class starts tonight. Wish me luck.

Powells has a very good interview with Piazza about Understanding Jazz here.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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10 Responses to Understanding Jazz

  1. brian says:

    I’m picking up DHQ’s Critical Mass Friday on my way home from work. Been looking forward to giving it a good listen– easily one of the best jazz ‘groups’ out there playing today.

  2. LMc says:

    W – congrats on having what sounds like an amazing class to take! I’m jealous for sure. May I recommend Ken Burns’ documentary as well? It follows a timeline in format and is rich in texture, content and music, plus it has the smooth, beautiful, deep voice of Keith David as narrator. It’s a wonderful overview of the genre and the times.

  3. brian says:

    Another thought I forgot to mention, I also own several Dave Holland discs and no Louis Armstrong. Outside of Miles and Coltrane, I make an effort to mostly just purchase discs from musicians who are out pounding at the clubs and still playing today– its hard to make a living off playing jazz and they need every dime they can get. For the old masters, I just go to the library.

  4. Walter says:

    LMc, I’ll check out the Burns documentary. I was daunted by its size when it originally aired in 2000 (10 hours!), but liked the portions of it that I saw. Brian, I think you’re right about supporting the people actually playing the music now, but the Jackson library system is often inadequate in terms of its audio resources.

  5. mernitman says:

    Interesting and informative stuff. I envy you that class! You might enjoy (if you haven’t already) the Quincy Troupe Miles autobiography… you owe it to yourself to check out Armstrong’s recordings from the early ’30s (your life will be forever enriched)… and the next time the James Carter trio comes to your town, go; I don’t think he’s ever really been captured on CD, and live… about as close to the Hendrix of the horn we’ve got.

  6. Wax Banks says:

    Walter! I had a nearly identical experience with Kind of Blue after my freshman year of college (including the lying in bed ‘getting it’ part). In one summer I heard Miles, Trane, and Herbie Hancock for the first time and my sense of the work and worth and meaning of art just changed utterly. I used to go to sleep to A Love Supreme – the most intense music I own that’s still pleasant to listen to – if that’s any indication of how deep was my absorption into the music back then.
    Your passage on the ‘Spanish tinge’ made me smile, though I don’t know that ‘Spanish’ is the right word for the basis of such a wide variety of rhythms. Here’s an extension to that experiment: what’s the different betwen these patterns – in terms of the momentum they impart? (The pipe is a measure mark; the meter is 4/4.)
    (1) x . . x . . x . | . . x . . x . . |
    (2) x . . x . . x . | . . . x . . x . |
    (3) x . . x . . x . | . . x . x . . . |
    Because you’re not getting a hit on the downbeat of the second measure, its function is to roll into the next two-bar figure. Pattern (3) is what drives U2’s ‘Desire’ (a great tune), giving it a certain martial flavour with that big 2-3 sting (and a snare-drum hit on the fourth beat of the second measure, a signal to begin the pattern again). (1) is the beat to MMW’s ‘Think’ among a million other (e.g. funk) tunes, and it makes for a certain almost rickety quality, because you’re essentially playing a long trip-o-let pattern (switch the order of the measures and this is clearer – indeed you then have the beat for ‘Sing Sing Sing’). Pattern (2) has a wholly different feel from the others, to me a lot less smooth, less loping.
    One of the most enjoyable in-class experiences I had was when a professor taught our Jazz History class what polyrhythms are by leading rhythmic clapping of intertwining patterns; I knew the stuff already but the way everyone’s face lit up to clap out those rhythms demonstrated a wonderful communion. Taking part in that kind of group musical exercise was a big boost for the class. (And that complexity-from-simplicity lesson illuminates everything from network architecture to fractal geometry to the Talking Heads. Awesome stuff.)
    Good luck in class!

  7. Wax Banks says:

    Oh, two other things:
    1) You might find use in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz which is a not-horrible introduction to the ‘Great Works’ of jazz history (one version of it anyhow). It shortchanges Trane and so forth but it’s not a bad collection overall, and since it’s used in colleges you should be able to get it dirt cheap on half.com or somesuch. Not ideal, and I almost feel weird mentioning it, but it’s one of those ‘just to have heard a little’ tools.
    Of course ideally you’ll find a massive collection of jazz CD’s shared online in a ‘try before you buy’ kind of way, and get to sample the albums that way. I have been very, very, very fortunate in my choice of pirates for friends. :)
    2) Good books for study, if I remember correctly: Porter’s Trane biography (the best of the lot, a number of which I read while studying Trane for a class paper); The Freedom Principle (about jazz in the 60’s and later); the incendiary and enthralling Blues People by Leroi Jones (before he became Amiri Baraka). Porter’s book draws much of its strength in later chapters from close-reading of Trane’s music, transcribed, so that part might end up of limited utility. Blues People is to a certain extent a polemic but an inspiring one. Again, available fer cheap. None are on par with Mingus’s autobiography but that’s another world.
    This is the best book on jazz I’ve read, though it’s very technical and theory-heavy: Thinking in Jazz by Paul Berliner. I don’t know if it’ll be of much use to a nonmusician at all. But it’s vast and serious and has such a good cover photo I couldn’t believe it. :)

  8. Walter says:

    Thanks, Wax. Believe it or not, I work with someone who helped edit Berliner’s book, so I’m at least a little familiar with it. “Spanish tinge” was Jelly Roll Morton’s phrase for this beat, and it’s sorta become known as that, though it’s clear that the beat existed long before he transcribed it or gave it a name. Now it’s clear that we’re living parallel lives, as “Desire” is one of the few U2 songs I love, “Think” comes from the first MMW record I bought, and A Love Supreme has been a near-constant in my life for 6 years. OK, so you don’t like Neon Genesis Evangelion–I’ll get over that. And, thanks toe everyone for your advice. So far, the comments section is far better than the class, but more thoughts on that after the 2nd session tomorrow.

  9. Nice posting, and here’s hoping the class is a good one. You might also enjoy reading Albert Murray’s “Stomping the Blues.” Piazza writes and thinks in a line of descent from Murray (and from Ralph Ellison). “Stomping the Blues” is a great sort of sociological sort of psychological essay on jazz, but it goes ‘way out into the arts more generally. I know it opened up not just jazz but nearly all of African-American art to me.

  10. I will to have all collection for jazz. You really love jazz as you mentioned many things about it that I dont, thanks for the story I learn more. I agree for being nic musician of Mile Davis. More Ballad musicians information need to have.

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