I was tossed a hot potato and had to hold it: “Write something that helps rock people ‘hear’ jazz.” My personal musical background is in both jazz and rock, as well as classical, having played in rock bands since I was kid and getting a degree in Jazz Studies from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. I have a deep love for both genres, but, to many rock listeners the “language” of jazz can sound foreign. Once, while in London, I had a few people back to my hotel room after a show, mostly rockers/friends from the area. Someone asked what I’d been listening to recently and I mentioned Miles Davis. The reaction from a friend was like, “Oh, jazz, isn’t that just musicians just wanking all over the place? I don’t get it.” I was practically heartbroken: a) I feel the music and, trust me, the musicians are not wanking, b) this was derision based on ignorance and c) Miles Davis was more punk than most punks.
So what is going on, exactly, with jazz? Here is a brief rundown to help bridge the gap, break the ice…
A key aspect of jazz is that it emphasizes improvisation. The methodology of improvisation in jazz grew within a song-based tradition — jazz was the popular and dance music of its early days, namely the ’20s to mid ’40s , and improvisation greatly developed in this context, with people on the dance floor. The “standard” model for improvisation is known as the “head-solos-head” format. The head is the main melody supported by chord changes; this is the song. After the head, then the solos follow. The same chord changes that were there for the head now serve as the basis for the improvisation. Then, after the solos, the head comes back to signal the end of the tune. (There are countless examples of the “head-solos-head” format but if you’re feeling adventurous check out “Footprints” by Miles Davis. Hint: follow the bass line — it’s in a 12-bar blues form that’s easy to recognize.)
And stepping into the unknown is where the music happens. When the musicians are deep in it, there’s a seamless flow of musical ideas — we hear the lines and follow as the solo unfolds. With skilled players this is a thrilling process, and there is a unity between composition and inspiration. The rest of the band supports the soloist: the bass player often holds down the basic chord changes, the pianist plays variations on the chords and the drummer keeps the time. It’s a dialogue — for instance, how the bass player will play notes that follow the arc of the solo, how the pianist plays rhythmic interjections that bolster the soloist, and the drummer adjusts the energy level based on the direction of the solo. It’s exciting — all you have to do is listen.
So it’s different every time, and that’s great — improvisation is the platform that connects music to the moment of its making. Whether a piece of music be fully improvised or fully written, the spirit of improvisation is what links performer and audience to the spark of creation, with the music as the medium. There are so many possibilities for the way a song can turn out, and so many factors that can influence its performance. That’s certainly the case with rock — only with jazz there’s more improvisation as composition, the process of discovery, like telling the best story ever right there on the spot. (Some people just need an instrument to do it.) What I want mostly from a live show is that excitement of performers fucking feeling it and giving me their all.
Sure, a lot of jazz uses instruments like saxophone or trumpet, which aren’t typical in most rock and pop. Think those instruments are old-fashioned and boring? No! Tell that to someone that is blowing his heart/soul/lungs out into his instrument, playing totally shredding jazz/”non-jazz”/noise/what have you. There are so many great young horn players today who are devoted and dedicated to expanding the limits of their instrument and using it as their personal expressive tool. Check out Peter Evans. He’s crazy brilliant and amazing. He definitely takes both a “punk noise” and highbrow compositional/virtuosic sense to his music. I mean, even fans of death metal like him.
Jazz isn’t “musicians just wanking all over the place.” It’s only self-indulgent if the players are self-indulgent. If the soloist is lyrical, earnest, and expressive then that’s what it will be. It’s about the expansion of ideas and emotions into sound. The language of jazz just often uses a broader tonal/harmonic/rhythmic palette to express itself, and the way it combines its colors is there to rip open the music.
Rock can be very “blocky” in its structure, particularly relative to jazz. Rock is very “quadrant”-based: take a drum beat — loop it; take a guitar riff — loop it. Most of that happens in groups of four beats and in phrases that repeat at four-bar intervals. Jazz often works within this four-beat/four-bar structure, too, but plays off of a much greater degree of subtlety and nuance. If you think in terms of colors (back to the colors analogy), you can have, for example, black and white — and then you can have black, white and grey… and then you can have infinite gradations of grey. Jazz more readily allows for these variations and gradations of musical color (and, in classical music even more so, typically). The way to hear these subtleties is to understand them as reactions and comments on the music. If you listen and follow the phrasing of the music then all will become clear. YOU DIG?
Jazz adopts different time signatures, as does rock, but most jazz is actually in 4/4, just like most rock. If you listen to the drums, they will tell you: There is the classic jazz ride cymbal pattern, which I guess is analogous to the basic rock beat — that is one key vocabulary item to grasp. The hi-hat typically plays on beats 2 and 4. But within that established pattern there is much variation and syncopation, which can make it seem like the time is not what it is, which I guess is part of the point — a wave of rhythm at play. Check out Elvin Jones with John Coltrane — DEEP! Therein is the joy and the tension — feeling the time (not necessarily the pulse) expand and contract amidst a multitude of interlocking layers occurring simultaneously. And, usually, it all resolves back to the “one,” the downbeat of a measure or phrase.
Historically speaking, pop music evolves as technology progresses and cultural preferences shift (although it all tends to be pretty much the same just in different clothes.) A similar evolution exists with jazz — it absorbs the cultural and technological changes of its day. The Miles Davis from the late ’50s is different from that of the mid ’60s, which is different from that of the late ’60s etc; the bands he had and the music he played at these times are very different and evolved to reflect current cultural attitudes. So even if you don’t know the history of jazz, that’s OK, you can appreciate the music for what it is, in its own time. There’s a good chance you might be able to get into the jazz being played now by a new breed of jazz musicians, such as Mary Halvorson, Ches Smith and Nate Wooley, rather than getting into the older “cats,” even if that older generation forms the origins of the music. (Although early Duke Ellington is one of my all-time favorites, particularly the “Blanton-Webster era.”)
This is a big topic and we’re only scratching the surface. There are so many angles to take and much that is being left unsaid. The main point here is to acknowledge music as a broad and diverse entity. In the way that we can appreciate cultures different from our own, the same is true in connecting to different processes of music-making. There is so much diversity within the genre of rock, but even that itself has its boundaries. If we zoom out further and see that different genres/musical practices function to express the larger totality of human experience then it is easier to relate to them. You can find yourself not just in rock but also in jazz, classical (new and old), noise, various world musics, etc. And they’re all more closely related than one might think.
For a lot of rock fans, hearing jazz — really hearing it — is indeed like learning a new language. But how do you learn this language? By listening to it. A great jazz recording will be no different before “getting it” than after “getting it.” All the information was there right from the start — kind of like enlightenment. 🙂