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Tips for enjoying Jazz

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Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie

        The most important tip is to have your own opinion.  Nobody ever made a statue of a critic.  Many critics hated John Coltrane's music in the mid 50s and early 60s.  Now, nobody denies that he's not a legend and one of the most important figures in jazz history.  A lot of people oppose change and don't like visionaries (I've been guilty of this myself, as my favorite music is from the 1940s and 50s, and only recently have I opened up to certain types of music).  Whatever floats your boat.  If somebody else doesn't like it, let them find their own lake to float their boat on.

Knowing the history
Understanding the music
Hearing the chord changes

Knowing the History

        One of the things that enriched my jazz experience was taking a class in college called "History of Jazz."  I learned in depth of where Jazz came from and I learned about the many different styles.  If you really have a craving for jazz, this is a route I would highly recommend.  Keep in mind, it's not an easy class.  If you aren't sold out and hungry for jazz, you will probably find it to be very difficult and find a lot of the information trivial.  If you do love jazz and really desire to learn more and you think it's a pleasure, and not "homework" to listen to jazz, then you will probably find the class easier.   I make no guarantees, though..  I had a really cool instructor who didn't talk over our heads with high-fangled music talk and who has a real passion for jazz and really made it come alive.  As with any class, there are different instructors with different styles.  However, from what I have learned, most jazz people are willing to share with people who want to learn about jazz.

        If this option isn't feasible, for whatever reason, you can always grab a book.  I have a couple of coffee table books that tell jazz history briefly, and then gives biographies of musicians and recommended music lists.  I also found this $10 at Barnes and Noble, that I found useful:


It is called Jazz for Beginners and is written by Ron David.  He gives a history of jazz along with recommended music and profiles of musicians, also.   However, the book is well illustrated and written with a lot of wit an in such a way that it's  easy to read.  He also doesn't talk like a passionless music critic.  He writes with a strong opinion.  He does list musicians he doesn't like, yet tells of their importance to jazz history and why some people like them.  I don't agree with all of his picks and opinions, but he did turn me on to some records I hadn't considered. (However, his statements about Paul Whiteman were incorrect).
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Understanding the music

        A lot of jazz music follows this pattern:  Melody/solos/melody repeated.   Many jazz musicians from the Bop era used popular songs because these songs had cool chords to solo off of.  Many of these songs were 32 measures long and followed an AABA format.  If that sounds heavy, stick with me--I'll use an example.  This means that they played a melody phrase.  Let's call it "A".  Then they repeated it.  Hence, "AA".  Then, they played a different melodic phrase, called a bridge, or "B" (since it is different from "A"), and then repeated the main melodic phrase (A).  Hence, AABA.  You know examples of these songs, whether you know it or not.  For example, do you know the Christmas song?  It was written by Mel Torme, a jazz vocalist and drummer.  It follows the AABA form (think about the melody as you read the words):

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
Yule Tide carols being sung by a fire and folks dressed up like Eskimos.

(A:  repeat the melody)
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to keep the seasons bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow will find it hard to sleep tonight.

(B:  Bridge...note the different melody)
They know that Santa's on his way.  He's bringing lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother's child is gonna spy to see if reindeers really know how to fly.

(A:  repeat the melody from the first 2 phrases)
And so I'm offering this simple phrase to kids from one to 92,
although it's been said many times, many ways, "Merry Christmas to you."
See the AABA?  Another song that uses this form is Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

        Each phrase (Each "A" and the "B") is 8 measures each.  Hence AABA = 8 X 4 =32 measures.  Now, in a lot of Bop songs, the musicians took the melody and played it through.  Then they used the chords, or the building blocks of the song, and performed a solo.  Then after the musicians played their solos, they came back and played the main melody again.   The solos had the same basis (chords) as the main melody, yet it was completely different.  They made this melody (solo) up off the top of their heads as they played.  Sometime, they made only one pass through the 32 measures (AABA) using the chords of the main melody.   Sometimes they used 2, 3, 4 or however many passes they wanted.  If you can hear the chords in their melodies (and if you can't, don't worry, it took me months to be able to), you will hear them playing the AABA.  If you cannot, don't worry, it doesn't take away from the solo.  Click here to skip down and read more about hearing these chord changes.

        These improvised solos are the heart of jazz.  Without them, you don't have jazz.  Other forms of music use improvisation also, but it is mandatory to jazz.  The solo is the most important part of the music.  You see, in country music, for instance, you may have a great singer, but unless he performs his own hits, he will never be considered "great."  In jazz, it's not how original the melody is, because a lot of people use established melodies, but rather how good the solos, or the improvised parts, are.  In classical music, for instance, you are supposed to play the music as it is written.  If you do not, you have not played it correctly.  In jazz, you want to stray from the melody and make up your own.  The more unique, the more beautiful, and/or the more complex, the better.  That is the double-sided beauty of live jazz.  You will never hear the song played exactly that way again.  You live for the moment.  If you hear a truly awesome solo -- one that really moves you, you will never hear it again.  Fortunately, some excellent solos were captured on record, and we can listen to these over and over.
        Another type of music popular in jazz is the 12-bar blues structure.  If you have ever heard the blues, you are familiar with this one.  It follows an AAB format with each phrase being 4 measures long (in blues, it's usually 2 measures of singing and 2 measures of a guitar lick).  If you know Jimi Hendrix's song "Red House," it's 12 bar blues:

There's a red house over yonder.  That's where my baby stays.

There's a red house over yonder.  That's where my baby stays.

I ain't been home to see my baby in 99 and one-half days.

        There are other forms of music other than these, but these are two popular forms.  If you are listening to a song and you don't think it's AABA or AAB, don't worry, there's a chance that it is not  (these 2 forms are 2 of the most popular forms, but not the only forms).  If you don't recognize any of this, it doesn't matter.  I listened to jazz for about 4-5 months without knowing this and without being able to hear chord changes, but I still liked it.  If you recognize these things, it will add a little depth, but it wont' make the solo any better or worse to you.  Jazz is an interactive music.  If it doesn't move you, it hasn't done it's job.  So the ultimate factor in determining what is good jazz to you is your own opinion.  Your opinion may change, but nobody can convince you with fancy talk.

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Hearing the Chord Changes

        I once thought I would never be able to hear these.  Not that it really mattered, but when I did, I thought it was so cool!  A chord is a cluster of notes -- I won't get any more detailed than that (because if you know what one is, you can probably hear them :).  You play different ones after each other, and they outline a melody.  Playing them after each other is called "chord changes", since you aren't banging the same notes (on a piano, for instance) over and over.  These chord changes are NOT the melody.  They simply outline it.  Kind of like a can sometimes see one and tell things about the person:  height, physical fitness, sex, etc, but it's not the same as seeing that person under a light.

        Now, using these chords, you can outline a song.  The notes in-between actually make the melody.  A jazz musician will use different notes than the composer, and create an entirely different melody.  However, it will use the same outline, and if you can hear this outline, sometimes, it makes a solo that much more enjoyable--maybe, maybe not.

        The question is:  How do you hear them?  Well, for me, here's how I did it:  I used to play the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally (click to view) a lot..  One of the songs was the Duke Ellington classic, "Don't get around much anymore."  I knew the song by heart (that is the key).  Then, in college, I was listening to the great and awesome local jazz band, Wasted Potential, and they were playing this song.  I was listening to the trombone player play his solo.  I was also inadvertently listening to the piano player playing the chords, or more specifically, the chord changes (remember, the same chord changes are used in the main melody and the solos...both use the same basic outline).  I realized that I had some type of intuitive feeling of where the soloist was going in his solo.  I couldn't explain it.  I certainly couldn't hum his solo as he was playing, because he was making up the solo as he went, but I could tell certain places his solo was going.  The reason why is because the soloist will play certain notes in a chord.  (Think of it like telling a story that you are making up as you go, except you have to use 5 pre-selected phrases in your story).  Then when the chord changes to a new one (and I heard the pianist playing this new chord), the soloist would play certain notes in that chord, and so on and so forth.   By playing certain notes, he was playing with the chord changes, yet he was filling the rest of the melody in with notes of his choosing, that follow rules of music.  If he didn't, it would sound dissonant and noisy.

        This is why jazz musicians are so great.  They aren't blowing notes at random.  Try it sometime, and you will realize that doing so isn't good music, and especially not good jazz.  They are playing notes that they make up on the spur of the moment, but they still have to have a foundation of rules to follow, and the main foundation are the chords.  Hence, they have to be constantly thinking while playing, or else they are so good, they play intuitively because they know the rules by heart and don't have to concentrate...either way, it takes a lot of talent, and they still have to be good on their instruments on top of that!   If you take John Coltrane's song Giant Steps, it uses over 100 chord changes per minute!!!   If you listen to that song while keeping this in mind, it makes it all the more remarkable!  If you listen to the song a LOT, you will hear an "idea" that keeps popping up...what you are hearing are the chord changes.  However, this isn't a song I would recommend to listen to if you are trying to figure out how to hear chord changes, just like you wouldn't want to fly with the Blue Angels if you are trying to overcome a fear of flying :).

        My best suggestion for hearing these is to take a song that you are very familiar with, like a popular song, and listen to it a lot, so that you know it well.  Then, listen to the solos.  If you have one of these on CD, such as I got Rhythm, or any of the other many popular songs used in Bebop, listen to it over and over and see if you hear the chord changes in the solos.  If you never do, don't lose sleep because if you like the solo, that's all that really matters.

        Finally, if you can't hear them, and are pulling your hair out because you want to hear them, go get the CD Yule Struttin':  A Blue Note Christmas and listen to Dexter Gordon's Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.  They play the main melody, then solo, then play the main melody again, as I mentioned, and it follows an AABA form.  During Gordon's solo, be sure to keep one of your ears listening to the background music:  specifically the piano and bass.  These guys are playing the chord changes.  That is your anchor.  If you listen to it a few times, you will hear Gordon outline these chords in his solo, and thus, you will be hearing him play the chord changes.

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