How to Listen to Jazz, Part II
“ While the [Seventies] is primarily remembered as a time without quality control, one of the most embarrassing eras in America's history, Fusion was in no way responsible for the ridiculous polyester clothing or goofy white-guy Afros. ”
Welcome back, kids. Now that we've gotten over our initial fear of jazz, and of food that can't be ordered from surly teenagers by yelling out of the window of your car, we can now seek out a more thorough overview of Our Music. Don't worry if you still think Thelonious Monk is that funny TV detective and soft bop has something to do with Hasbro's line of Nerf products; as the old saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day (I mean, of course, Rome, Georgia. I don't presume to speak for the Italians).
It may come as a surprise to the newcomer that Jazz isn't one specific type of music that all sounds pretty much alike. It's not all piano and saxophone any more than all movies are about teenage vampires or thirtysomething single woman navigating the sometimes stormy waters of relationships all while simultaneously maintaining their independence and keeping a watchful eye on their biological clocks.
Jazz encompasses all sorts of wildly different types of music. It can be acoustic or electric, played solo or in groups of almost any size. It can rock (or, as we call it, swing) harder than Led Zeppelin, or softer than Dan Fogelberg. It can be played on almost any instrument, or by almost any combination of instruments. Got a tuba, a glockenspiel, two French horns and a zither? Brother, you can still make jazz.
With this much variety, it might be overwhelming to the JazzNoob® to even know where to begin. You may have discovered jazz by hearing some Miles Davis because you somehow found yourself in a Starbucks trying to order a regular damned cup of coffee and why can't they just call a large a large?
While waiting in line and trying to decipher whether the waitress's many tattoos constitute some sort of coherent theme or are just a random collection of whatever she was thinking at that moment, you decide that if this is what jazz is then you might just give it a try. So you head on over to Barnes and Noble and tell the clerk in the CD section to give you some jazz with trumpets in it. Peering over his retro-hip Buddy Holly glasses, he sizes you up, then goes over to the stock and returns with a Chris Botti CD. You pop it into your car stereo and prepare to enjoy some more of that jazz music you've just discovered that you like. Needless to say, what you hear isn't what you heard.
So you go down the road to that hip little buy-sell-trade CD store and tell the clerk you want some jazz featuring the trumpet as the lead instrument, all while trying to stifle your giggles because her ultra-red dyed hair makes her look like a Muppet. She twists her nosering thoughtfully, then goes over to their minuscule jazz section and returns with a Louis Armstrong CD.
Better. Great, even. But that's not it either.
So you return to the Starbucks and ask the clerk what jazz music with trumpets was playing about 45 minutes ago. She stares at you blankly, as though you've just asked her who led the Federal League in batting in 1914 (Benny Kauff, Indianapolis).
"That was 'So What,' by Miles Davis. It's on Kind of Blue." says the barista with the gray ponytail. "We've got the Legacy Edition for sale over there."
And there you have it. In the process, you've discovered that you like Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. You've also learned that venti means "large." You've learned that a $4 cup of coffee doesn't necessarily taste better than a $1 cup of coffee. And you've learned that if you ever need to know anything about jazz, ask a grown-up.
So what now? You could go out and buy all the Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong CD's you can find. You will soon find, however, that they're not all created equal. Miles not only played several different kinds of jazz, he invented a couple of them. Louis ran the gamut from the blistering "Maple Leaf Rag" to the mellow "What A Wonderful World." How can you tell what you're going to like based on what you already know that you like?
It might be helpful to know that much of Our Music can be categorized into several distinct schools. And by schools, I mean something more akin to a school of thought than an actual bricks-and-mortar school. Though schools do teach jazz, they teach the existing schools that were largely developed independently of the schools that now teach them.
Still with me, kids?
Thinking, then, in terms of the various schools of jazz, that Louis Armstrong CD you liked is from the Hot school. Hot jazz (also known as Dixieland, when being played mostly by Caucasians) developed in New Orleans after the turn of the last century. A rollicking, kinetic, good-time music developed to keep America's mind off the coming unpleasantness of World War I, Prohibition, and that lurid Fatty Arbuckle scandal.