How To Listen To Jazz by Ted Gioia, Basic Books, 2016
I like it when writers recommend music. Right now, I’m listening to Nicole Mitchell. I found her name on a list of contemporary jazz musicians at the back of Ted Gioia’s new book How To Listen To Jazz. She was the only one with ‘flute’ beside her name so I was curious.
Sounds good, so far. I’m hearing stringed instruments, Mitchell’s flute, and some extraordinary bass work holding it all together. The music sounds, to my ears, vaguely North African but there are blue notes all over the place. The next song sounds like what I now know to be ‘Hard Bop’ – more on this later.
Towards the end of How to Listen to Jazz, Ted Gioia quotes Whitney Baillet’s description of the form as the ‘sound of surprise.’ That might be as close as anyone is ever going to come to describing jazz. But then, this might be true of all art. A great painting changes the way you see the world the same way a great book might change your mind about something. The first time you heard Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo in Little Wing, it was a surprise. So what makes jazz surprises so special? I think it goes back to the description. Jazz doesn’t have elements of surprise. It is the surprise. As Gioia points out, no one goes to a classical concert to be surprised. Amazed, challenged, intrigued maybe but perhaps not surprised. I can’t decide what I think about rock and roll. It’s there but there is a distinct tension in jazz between the structure and the possibilities that might be unique. No wonder Jean Paul Sartre liked jazz. If Gioia is right, there is no more existential music.
Ted Gioia is the author of many worthy books on music. I came across his study of Delta blues a few years ago in the library at work. I thought I was in for yet another retelling of the Robert Johnson story with special guest stars. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He provides a plausible chronology and some of the most intelligent commentary I have ever read on the subject. I was surprised to then find out that he usually wrote about jazz. His History of Jazz is as informative as it is provocative. He has the knack of telling an oft’ told tale in a fresh way that raises interesting questions. It took me months to read it because I had to keep jumping up to put on CDs – always the mark of a good music book.
And so it was with How To Listen to Jazz, his latest, following a book on jazz standards from a couple of years ago that is sitting in the pile by my beside. Time to move it up a few places!
Gioia starts this one by tackling the tricky notion of ‘swing’. Treme viewers will recall Clarke Peter’s character Chief Lambreaux telling his musician son that younger players can’t ‘swing’. It’s one of those elements that can be easily discerned but is difficult to describe. He attributes the ‘swinging’ quality of a great jazz ensemble not so much to the beat itself but to the level of cooperation within the band. There is a perception of jazz players as honking narcissists but for Gioia, the greatest musicians are the greatest listeners. And if you have ever played with a musician who can play but not listen you’ll know exactly what he means.
He refers to ‘an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition.’ It’s a lovely description and, in reality, the basis for any decent music made by any group of people. You have to listen, you have to respond, but you also have to tell your own story. Miles Davis has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ but he clearly had this ability. In fact, it is probably true to say that this, perhaps even more than his actual playing, was the source of his genius. The best of his albums – In a Silent Way comes to mind – are like wonderful conversations. Perhaps this is where music and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber cross paths. Jazz happens when people really meet each other. Gioia says that they work together while ‘insisting on their own prerogatives.’ It occurred to me that the same might be said of a great soccer player. The champion can do both perhaps where the talented amateur is only capable of one or the other.
In the second chapter, however, he focuses on the individual musician. He uses the word ‘intentionality’ to describe the way jazz musicians approach phrasing. They mean it, man! When John Coltrane blows a note, there is nothing the least bit accidental about the manner in which it is played. It might start off quietly before rising in volume or it might be a quick blast. Same note, totally different effect. Later, in a section on pitch, Gioia tells the story of Sidney Bechet giving a saxophone lesson to a journalist in the 1940s. “I’m going to give you one note today. See how many ways you can play that note – growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.” There’s Buber again.
But this book is called How To Listen to Jazz, so what’s his advice? Don’t listen to the notes themselves, listen to how they are played. This is possibly the difference between jazz and European or ‘classical’ music. There has been endless speculation over the years about the exact nature of the ‘African’ sensibility in African American musical styles. Blues critics like Paul Oliver and Samuel Charters have researched and written extensively on the connections. Clearly, the African music that came with the people transported for slavery did not conform to any familiar system. Gioia says that Duke Ellington thought that Jazz was a marriage between European systems of music and African folk traditions. What does this mean? Thought and feeling? The ‘swing’ factor? They are difficult questions but ones that are dealt with in a concise and thoughtful manner in this book.
There is another great piece of advice from Gioia in this department: Listen to the bass. I always tell people who say they are tired of The Beatles to put on headphones and just listen to Paul’s bass playing. It’s like hearing the whole band for the first time again. In jazz, the bass is a good place to start when you are starting to discern the structure of a song. Gioia, by the way, is terrific on structure. Many people find jazz, particularly post war jazz, alienating because it’s hard to follow. This book makes it very clear what happens in most jazz songs, even the freakiest free jazz freakout you can imagine. That said, he also emphasizes that spontaneity is one of the most striking features of the form. The ‘sound of surprise’ again, but with some kind of a map.
Gioia then tackles the complex history of jazz and the question of whether or not it really was born New Orleans. Yes, it was, he says, but it grew up in Chicago and New York, and Kansas City, and California. I really liked this section. The history of jazz is fascinating but circuitous. Gioia tells it well. His breakdown of the different styles is masterful. People who say they don’t like jazz often offer a caveat like, ‘I like some big band stuff’ or ‘Miles is okay’. There is a tendency to dislike jazz because one particular style doesn’t appeal. That really is like dismissing rock and roll out of an aversion to, say, Prog rock. ‘No, I heard part of a Gentle Giant song once, rock and roll’s just not my thing.’ No one would say that but many people do when it comes to jazz. Gioia breaks down the various styles so neatly that I would defy anyone to read through this section and not reevaluate their relationship to this music. For example, I now have reason to believe, based on my love for certain mid 50s jazz albums, that I am a ‘Hard Bop’ man. This can be like one of those social media quizzes. What jazz genre are you?
I discovered jazz in Japan when I lived there in the early 90s. There was a record store near where I worked with an enormous bargain section made up entirely of the stuff. I bought a Charlie Mingus compilation one day out of curiosity. I can still remember the first time I listened to the opening few bars of Pithecanthropus Erectus. It was so… surprising! Yes! Then I discovered Eric Dolphy and a whole bunch of other people that completely transformed the way I listened to music. I have never thought of myself as a hardcore jazz fan but albums like John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Dexter Gordon’s Go are now as precious to me as my favourite rock and roll records. It can happen to you! If you are curious, and feel like it might be time for a swim in the jazz surf, the flags are out and Lifeguard Ted Gioia is on duty. You are in good hands here.