Listening To Jazz

Jazz can be daunting to a new listener, but keeping in mind a few things, it can be rewarding.

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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.

53 comments sorted by best / new / date

    thekevinfoltmer
    [b]StratEnRegalia[ /b] wrote: Good article. Motorhead references are always accepted. But the Steve Vai and BB King seems off. First, Steve Vai can actually write a melody on top of being one of the most technically gifted people to ever pick up a guitar. BB King has been doing the same slow shit for 50 years. Stylistically not as interesting as Albert King. Just because he's a mythical man doesn't mean he's great. And America has given the world more than jazz my friend. Seeing as how we created jazz, blues, and rock n roll, we basically created the backbone of modern music. Whether this modern stuff is as good as it was way back is debatable, but we created rock. But I'm glad jazz is given credit. It's the shit. I suggest to everyone here to go buy "Let My Children Hear Music" by Charles Mingus. I have listened to that CD 8 times in the last week, and considering the average for myself, that is alot.
    Yo dude steve vai has been doing the same shit he just plays wicked fast and bb king plays slow what do you expect hes old and he plays the blues and has diabites
    Pennyroyal Tea
    Jazz isn't always slow and calm... we get a great jazz festival every summer in Malta, we had Brian Blade playing drums on the second day, he's probably the best drummer i've ever listened to. Good article, nice to know there are jazz fans here, although i've only just started to listen to the genre.
    HomeSlice1963
    HEY NO ONE HERE HAS GIVEN JACO PASTORIOUS VERY MUCH CREDIT. that guy was the legend of bassist legends. to bad he died. if anyone knows anyhting about him then post some info on him here. or do an article on him!
    ChurchNSkate
    I love jazz. HomeSlice1963: Jaco is the man...but as far as jazz goes, I don't find him all that "important."
    Steve"meyer"Via
    if you want to hear some good jazz listen to George benson,joey danfranchesko,John scotfeild, andwes montgomery
    Cymbaline
    This article was good, not very well written but good.... didn't give many examples... good big bands would be the Count Basie Big Band and Glenn Miller Big Band, even the BBC Big Band.... Bobby Darin was a singer who just sang with a big band like Sinatra and Mel Torme and those guys.... the combo setting was what you focused around... Miles Davis and such.... Thelonius Monk was amazing but created a form of jazz with no form that negates your point..... he created Free Jazz where the bass drummer and piano player would make up everything on the spot, time, key, chords, melody... I'm glad to see people actually listen to jazz though... George Benson, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Jaco Pastorious with Weather Report, Charlie Parker, Chuck Mangione, Arturo Sandoval, there are an amazing amount of jazz musicians.... he could have gone much more in depth of the history of jazz and jazz guitar (especially with the comping part)... Freddy Greene creating the original comping... big bands typically having guitarists either doubled melodies or used acoustic guitars to comp.... and freddy greene created the fast quarter note comping style that most people love..... but yeah, I'm rambling so I'll stop
    ferchersan
    Hey Cymabaline, did Monk really invent Free Jazz? Modal, yes, but i thought it was Ornette Coleman that is credited with inventing free jazz. I maybe wrong. Anyway, good article
    nish
    guitarists, listen to john mclaughlin. you'll trip. aslo listen to pat metheny. bassists, jaco pastorius (RIP). And if you want some amazing fusion, listen to Weather Report. Suggested albums are Heavy Weather, Black Market, Tale Spinnin'. Oh yeah, listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra. Birds of Fire is a great album. It'll blow you away.
    Cymbaline
    ferchersan.... maybe you're right... I just saw this bio on Ovation and it said Monk was but I could have misheard
    The UG Squirrel
    Good article, you got your point across and you didn't make yourself look stupid, BUT I think you should've expanded this article and go into more detail about some of the artists and the different types of jazz though.
    Emily...
    ahh jazz..... ....a beautiful, heart breaking, loving style of music.
    deadswordfish
    thefinalcut wrote: "It is widely believed to be one of the only arts that America has given to the world..." Not only do I totally disagree with that but I find it hard to beleive anyone would ever declare that. Great article though.
    Unfortunately, very few of the forms of music that originated in the U.S. are considered "Art". Among them is Jazz and the Blues. Rock a billy, Rock and Roll, R and B,country, and the non descript Rock aren't widely held to be arts. Personally, I feel that rock is an art, perhaps more of a performance art, but an art none the less, with its own distinct forms and meanings.
    oddy nocki
    And America has given the world more than jazz my friend. Seeing as how we created jazz, blues, and rock n roll, we basically created the backbone of modern music. Whether this modern stuff is as good as it was way back is debatable, but we created rock.
    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHH A. All of that music was created due to oppression and hardship by society. Go USA...
    Wolfhound
    I think black Americans created a most of the music styles such as jazz, blues, rock&roll, rap, funk, disco. Europeans probably created classical music, and maybe all that modern dance/techno music that I don't understand.
    Wolfhound
    Actually I forgot metal which was created by spotty teenagers all over the world, and who played guitar with their teeth to hide their pimply faces.
    deadswordfish
    Cymbaline wrote: This article was good, not very well written but good.... didn't give many examples... good big bands would be the Count Basie Big Band and Glenn Miller Big Band, even the BBC Big Band.... Bobby Darin was a singer who just sang with a big band like Sinatra and Mel Torme and those guys.... the combo setting was what you focused around... Miles Davis and such.... Thelonius Monk was amazing but created a form of jazz with no form that negates your point..... he created Free Jazz where the bass drummer and piano player would make up everything on the spot, time, key, chords, melody... I'm glad to see people actually listen to jazz though... George Benson, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Jaco Pastorious with Weather Report, Charlie Parker, Chuck Mangione, Arturo Sandoval, there are an amazing amount of jazz musicians.... he could have gone much more in depth of the history of jazz and jazz guitar (especially with the comping part)... Freddy Greene creating the original comping... big bands typically having guitarists either doubled melodies or used acoustic guitars to comp.... and freddy greene created the fast quarter note comping style that most people love..... but yeah, I'm rambling so I'll stop
    deadswordfish
    Cymbaline wrote: This article was good, not very well written but good.... didn't give many examples... good big bands would be the Count Basie Big Band and Glenn Miller Big Band, even the BBC Big Band.... Bobby Darin was a singer who just sang with a big band like Sinatra and Mel Torme and those guys.... the combo setting was what you focused around... Miles Davis and such.... Thelonius Monk was amazing but created a form of jazz with no form that negates your point..... he created Free Jazz where the bass drummer and piano player would make up everything on the spot, time, key, chords, melody... I'm glad to see people actually listen to jazz though... George Benson, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Jaco Pastorious with Weather Report, Charlie Parker, Chuck Mangione, Arturo Sandoval, there are an amazing amount of jazz musicians.... he could have gone much more in depth of the history of jazz and jazz guitar (especially with the comping part)... Freddy Greene creating the original comping... big bands typically having guitarists either doubled melodies or used acoustic guitars to comp.... and freddy greene created the fast quarter note comping style that most people love..... but yeah, I'm rambling so I'll stop
    I wrote about jazz of the 50's and 60's because more than any other period, they defined what jazz is today. And it wasn't monk who started free jazz, it was miles davis, john coltrane, and monk working together. Listen to the recordings of monk and coltrane playing together. And free jazz is not just everyone making everything up on the spot, thats called "Din", there is still structure to it. Additionally, this is "listening to jazz" not, here "here is some good stuff to listen to". its a first lesson on how to listen to jazz. and i think the comping part was fairly clear. Also,i've talked to many music history and art history proffesors who agree that, since rock and roll in its infancy was just white people playing faster blues and country, and that rock and roll was really developed more in england with the mods and skiffle, rock we know today is much more english than american. Jazz and The Blues were made and developed totally in the US before being shipped over seas and around the world. Oh, and jaco pastorius was an amazing bass player, probably one of the best ever, but really, all he did was play really fast over the chromatic scale. some may say thats the neauty of free jazz, but to me its like masturbating with a taco, it gets the job done, but why would you do it?
    Mikeoman
    I haven't heard much jazz, but from what I've heard, its all pretty good. Lenny Breaus worth a listen.
    fas11030
    Bebop was not the 40s, it was the sixties, and fusion was 60s to now. Also, the drummer doesnt follow the bassline, the bassline follows the drummer. And How could you say that 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." ? Also, jazz does not convey its messages through its structure...and by the way it's called form, not structure.
    tom1thomas1
    Why haven't any rockers ever learned to do 3 hour jams? oh except Jimi Hendrix, in his bio it mentioned an 8hr performance he did, and being Hendrix that's probably a few hours jamming. Not so fast though. I guess they couldn't keep a crowd for 3 hours doing a jam. Who's some jazz lead guitarists? That play same kind of thing as the sax but on guitar?
    Lrn2play
    wtf is with the last part? ....get the hell out of california. wtf the only music scene that can match the smugness of jazz fans are radiohead fans
    Nikkorico_03
    StratEnRegalia wrote: And America has given the world more than jazz my friend. Seeing as how we created jazz, blues, and rock n roll, we basically created the backbone of modern music. Whether this modern stuff is as good as it was way back is debatable, but we created rock.
    That's FALSE man. America didn't create jazz at all. It all started from the slaves who came over in the 18th century and 19th century, with their African beats and odd rhythms. They are the true creators of what all music came from, besides classical and Justin Beiber. Slaves made jazz, jazz made blues, blues make rock n' roll, rock n' roll made all the different kinds of hard music out their now. So in a sense, Slaves made nearly all the kinds of music avalable. RESPECT.
    neocon58
    Yo dude steve vai has been doing the same shit he just plays wicked fast and bb king plays slow what do you expect hes old and he plays the blues and has diabites
    Tard.
    ~Rock~Guitarist
    this is a pretty good article. i wish i had something like this when i was first getting into jazz, so i could have listened to it easier, and not gotten discouraged trying to figure it out myself.
    Metallica12_12
    Ya Jazz is wicked as u can see i didn't always thinks this way, eg when i made this account, but started getting into prg rock in a big way, from there is has spread to blues and jazz, love them both.
    ChordMonger
    nice article man! maybe do another on free jazz, or include some recomended albums? cheers
    mrbounce
    jazz is a complex genre, and is home to some of the best instrumentalists of all kinds. if only i had more
    thefinalcut
    "It is widely believed to be one of the only arts that America has given to the world..." Not only do I totally disagree with that but I find it hard to beleive anyone would ever declare that. Great article though.
    G-Sage
    good article, ive been experimenting with some jazz chords recently, maybe this'll help
    Lydian_Mode
    yeah jazz is sweet. Has anyone heard of john pizzarelli? Hes a modern jazz guitarist and he is amazing.
    coffeeguy9
    A sequel could be awesome, cover some of the simple theories of jazz such as certain progressions and instruments. Also the timeline of what types of jazz became popular when, and a few more jazz legends. And I like your last line too, so true. "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."
    mickjones1982
    ahh its nice to see jazz getting some recognitionnew england is not what you would call a jazz mecca....
    StratEnRegalia
    Good article. Motorhead references are always accepted. But the Steve Vai and BB King seems off. First, Steve Vai can actually write a melody on top of being one of the most technically gifted people to ever pick up a guitar. BB King has been doing the same slow shit for 50 years. Stylistically not as interesting as Albert King. Just because he's a mythical man doesn't mean he's great. And America has given the world more than jazz my friend. Seeing as how we created jazz, blues, and rock n roll, we basically created the backbone of modern music. Whether this modern stuff is as good as it was way back is debatable, but we created rock. But I'm glad jazz is given credit. It's the shit. I suggest to everyone here to go buy "Let My Children Hear Music" by Charles Mingus. I have listened to that CD 8 times in the last week, and considering the average for myself, that is alot.
    AmorVincitOmnia
    thekevinfoltmer wrote: [b]StratEnRegal ia[ /b] wrote: Good article. Motorhead references are always accepted. But the Steve Vai and BB King seems off. First, Steve Vai can actually write a melody on top of being one of the most technically gifted people to ever pick up a guitar. BB King has been doing the same slow shit for 50 years. Stylistically not as interesting as Albert King. Just because he's a mythical man doesn't mean he's great. And America has given the world more than jazz my friend. Seeing as how we created jazz, blues, and rock n roll, we basically created the backbone of modern music. Whether this modern stuff is as good as it was way back is debatable, but we created rock. But I'm glad jazz is given credit. It's the shit. I suggest to everyone here to go buy "Let My Children Hear Music" by Charles Mingus. I have listened to that CD 8 times in the last week, and considering the average for myself, that is alot. Yo dude steve vai has been doing the same shit he just plays wicked fast and bb king plays slow what do you expect hes old and he plays the blues and has diabites
    He's dying of betes?
    Guitarded8988
    Stratenregalia: B.B. King's "same shit" is some of the most inspirational, genius blues guitar work ever. This "slow shit" must be really easy to play since you discredit him so easily. I will give you a dollar for every note from "Thrill is Gone" you can play better and with more soul than B.B. King. Although he's not known for his speed, B.B. is a master of playing soulfully and is revered as a guitar legend. Although I agree that Albert King is my listening preference, it is close minded to say B.B. King is not great. I would listen to that same shit for as long as he makes it. Also, we did not create the blues. It has African and European roots which are well documented. Just because something developed here does not mean it is American. Jazz began in America, validating the author's point that it is a true, pure American music. I would check your sources on the origins of rock and roll as well. It is really nice to know that this site isn't filled solely by pre-pubescent punk rock listeners, and that jazz is receiving some credit. A very nice article, very well done.
    OSFM_Alex
    my favourite thing is to sit down at a jazz bar downtown toronto and listen to someone i dont really know go crazy on stage. ive been doing it since i was 16, and it just opens up your mind to something beyond angst filled hooks and catchy pentatonics. cheers. if only new orleans still stood....
    ThrashDemon
    Metal has a lot of jazz in it, especialy in Tech Death acts like cryptopsy,death,cynic,ath eist
    Rivers
    Ya good article but really some starting points as in particular artists or albums to listen to would be great. Im interested in learning about jazz but have no idea where to start!
    nagirrab
    Good article. I'm a Coltrane fan i was expecting you to mention Metheny at some point (as im listening to him right now) but as you said its such a broad genre of music that you cant mention everyone. Worth to point out that many of the jazz greats could show these rock stars a thing or to about destroying their lives with drugs!
    kirk_tremonti
    Some more technical explanations of jazz please. And also some good albums preferably bands with great guitarists or bassists
    lessthanthree
    jazz is fantastic stuff, congrats from bringing some needed attention to it. The beautiful thing about Jazz, as another poster said, you can just go sit in a jazz/blues cafe and not care who's playing, it just takes you off somewhere.
    lessthanthree
    a few posters have asked for some albums to start you them off so try: Miles Davis: Kind of Blue Charlie Parker: In a Soulful Mood John Coltrane: Giant Steps Donald Byrd: Places and Spaces There's nothing too challenging in their so check em out
    Bati
    Great article. Personally, Ive never been a Jazz fan, its just something I cant listen to if Im not doing something else. Specially those live albums of be-bop or be-bop offsprings whith the sax players always blowing their heads off trying to squeeze 400 notes a second. BUT...I DO like some Jazz now and then. Miles Daviss Kind of Blue and Round Midnight are incredible (Cool Jazz, I believe?); so are most Joe Pass and Tal Farlow albums (If youre a regular tabber here at UG, why dont you try tabbing THAT?). And, of course, the way Jazz players improvise whole chord structures on the fly doesnt cease to astonish me. P.S.: Whoever puts BB King down doesnt know what hes talking about. Jesus, hes 80 and in his last album he blows every guest-star way! Were talking about people 30, 40 and 50 years younger than him! My grandpas eighty, and he just complains about the government. Nixons, that is.