Jazz. Really a blanket term like "Rock" which can describe one of many sub-genres, from the bebop of the 40's to the fusion of the 50's and 60's. It is widely believed to be one of the only arts that America has given to the world, and many have tried to listen to jazz only to find themselves befuddled by an apparent lack of structure. But, with a few easy to remember listening tools, you too can enjoy the intricate beauty of jazz.
Find The Melody
Jazz is based a round an actually fairly simple structure. The band starts out in the same time, with the background instruments playing the barebones chords and notes of the song. The bass player usually plays what is called a "walking" bass line, lumbering bass lines that stay in a strict beat. The drummer follows the bass player, and latches on to the beat with a certain cymbal, some prefer ride, some crash. You can hear it in many pieces of music, like Miles Davis' song "All Blues". The drummer is actually using the snare and high hat to follow the bass player, with the snare on the down beats in between the bass. Usually what comes next is the melody, the line that all the soloing in a song is based off of. A great example of this is "Giant Steps", by the master John Coltrane. The melody is a very famous intervalic smattering of notes that the rest of the song is based off of. Another, easier to spot melody is "Greensleaves", a medevil melody made into jazz by John Coltrane. Its easy to hear the melody at work in the piano and saxophone solos. In fact, when the saxophone stops several minutes into the song, the piano riffs directly on the melody. If you can spot the melody, then you can follow all the soloing in the song.
Recognize The "Comping"
"Comping" is the heart and soul of jazz. Traditionally, comping is the piano player in a group supplying chords for the soloing horn. As the solo player moves away from the starting point of the melody and into improvisational territory, the piano player will pick up on how the soloist is playing and supply a structure of chords, creating rythm and notes for the bass player to latch onto. Then, once the bass player has set a rythm and some crazy lines, the drummer will latch onto the beat with his cymbal and often his snare. You can imagine it as someone constructing a pillar to support a roof, with the soloist as the roof and the pianist (or whomever is comping) as the pillar. Many jazz bands accepted guitar players into their bands in the 40's and 50's, and often times they would comp while others took solos. Often times pianists will solo with their right hand and comp with their left, which often can sound like the style of stride piano playing (playing a melodic accompaniement on the right and playing the root chord one or two octaves lower). Once you can recognize the comping, many of the mysteries of jazz will become clear.
Apply Knowledge To Other Forms Of Jazz
This really only covers jazz from the late 30's to the mid 50's, as this form of jazz was origionally popularized in that time. Earlier, jazz was much more formal, closer to a big band than the freeform explorations of J.J. Johnson and Miles Davis. Often, the chords and melodies were very strictly adhered to, and often the drummer would be stuck playing a single beat with very little variation, like in "Beyond The Sea" by Bobby Darrin (hardly a jazz musician, I know). Later on in the 50's and 60's, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk helped to create a new form of jazz, combining many of the ideas born by rock and roll, the blues, and very liquid free form playing. This brought about fusion, which is a whole other idea entirely, but it brought about some amazing playing. John Coltrane could play 300 seperate notes in one minute, and it has been said that most people either play fast (i.e. Steve Vai) or deep (B.B. King), and the general consensus is that John Coltrane could do both at the same time. Fuzion is a rather chaotic mess of soloing at very high speed, crossing octaves and keys faster than Motorhead can drink a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Realise The Mood From Structure
Unlike other forms of music where the feeling and mood is conveyed by loudness, or lyrics, or outright screaming, jazz conveys its messages through its structure. I know I keep coming back to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but in "All Blues" by Miles Davis, a great deal of serenity is shown, then there are bursts of chaos thanks to Mile's horn playing. This could convey anger in an other wise beautiful setting, or confusion, or bubbling joy underneath an otherwise calm exterior. John Coltrane's shaping of "Greensleaves" has a very sad feeling to it, even with all the heroin induced horn craziness and a bass line that would make John Entwhistle stop for a second. The chords played behind Coltrane's playing evoke great sadness and hardship, pining over Greensleaves. Once you can figure out what the song is trying to get across, then you can fully enjoy jazz.
This may seem like alot to remember, but once you've listened to a few jazz tunes, you'll start to hear the things i've mentioned, and soon it will be second nature. And before anyone bashes jazz, you should know that jazz and blues directly brought about rock and roll, and any musician worth his gig bag will tell you that there is no way a rock band could pull off an 3 hour jam, with the basist constantly changing keys, the beat moving, the drummer changing the beat around, the keyboardist making up chords as he goes along, and everybody taking a 5 minute solo. And all this is done completely on the fly, at 280 beats per minute. I love rock, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rush, Cradle Of Filth, Fugazi (very influenced by jazz), the Halo Benders, Dream Theater, The Grateful Dead; but I gotta tell you, jazz runs so much faster and deeper. This is only a partial explanation, and I'm only naming a few jazz legends so as to not confuse, and this is meant for beginners only. You may say this has nothing to do with guitar, but check out Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. Hell, even Steve Vai is in awe of charlie christian, and he is trying to learn jazz guitar. And most importantly, don't knock it if you haven't tried it. All you metal heads, try on some jazz, all you emo kids, go for it, all you country fans.......get the hell out of California.