To know Bowie, Kendrick and Gaga, you have to know your jazz: "There is an artisan movement going on in music now just as there is in food”

Salon speaks to Ted Gioia, author of "How to Listen to Jazz," about why it's not a "cultural vitamin"

Published May 18, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar   (AP/Reuters/Shaun Best/Lucy Nicholson/Scott Roth)
David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar (AP/Reuters/Shaun Best/Lucy Nicholson/Scott Roth)

These days, jazz is in a funny state. Musicians like Kamasi Washington and Cecile McLorin Salvant are making memorable music grounded in both the past and the future. Films about trumpeters Miles Davis and Chet Baker have come out recently to good reviews. And David Bowie made his acclaimed final album with New York jazz musicians. (Bowie, who learned the saxophone as a kid, once said that as a teenager, he couldn’t decide whether he wanted “to be a rock’n’roll singer or John Coltrane”.) In some ways, the music is more audible than it’s been in a long time.

And yet, jazz radio is almost nonexistent. Jazz albums sell very poorly. The vast majority of cities have no place to consistently see live jazz. And few newspapers, magazines, or websites aimed at a general audience pay much attention to it. The most serious result of all this is that despite the dedication of a cult audience, many music fans have a curiosity about jazz but little sense of how to enjoy or understand it.

Appropriately, then, music historian Ted Gioia, author of “West Coast Jazz” and “Love Songs," has just released “How to Listen to Jazz.” The book is mostly nontechnical, looking at history, major artists, and key recordings in a way that assumes some love of music but little specific knowledge of jazz itself. An appealingly old-fashioned book, it may be just what our musically confused times need.

We spoke to Gioia from his home near Fort Worth. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

There are a lot of books published about jazz already: Why do we need a new one?

The last 30 years have been a great period for jazz in some ways. Jazz is more respectable than ever, jazz has gotten entrants into universities where previously it'd have been excluded. Jazz musicians get to visit the White House or get Kennedy Center honors. These are all positive developments. But they've also come at a cost; in the eyes of many listeners now, jazz is perceived as a kind of cultural vitamin. Take this, it's good for you. This counters many of the benefits of getting jazz into these institutions. I wanted to write a book that not only showed people how to listen to jazz, but also to enjoy it.

I had those two goals in mind on every page as I take readers through the process. Jazz shouldn't be a kind of nutritional supplement, jazz shouldn't be something people do as a painful process of cultural education: This music is exciting. What brought me into it, what I'm sure brought you into it -- you listen to the music, and it grabbed us. I wanted to teach people the listening skills that allow them not only to grasp analytically what's going on in the music, but also emotionally, so they can feel that visceral excitement of hearing jazz.

What era of jazz tends to grab listeners first?

I've found that there is a cut off point in jazz history — it's driven by the introduction of high fidelity audio recording in the late 1950s. I find that jazz fans tend to know a fair amount about what happens after we have high quality recordings, so in 1958, 1959 you have "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis, you have Dave Brubeck "Time Out," Charles Mingus, "Mingus Ah Um;" from that period on to the next 10, 20 years you have an area in which jazz fans, even casual listeners have often heard that, but if you really want to understand jazz, you've got to go back to the origins.

In my book, I go back to the very beginning, even before the first recordings. You look at the ingredient that allowed jazz to happen in the first place, and try to teach the reader how you listen to those oldest jazz recordings and get enjoyment out of those, and understand what's happening. And this is all drawn from personal experience — when I first started listening to jazz I found it challenging to go back to some recording made in 1923 and hear it with fresh ears, instead of hearing it as old-fashioned music. I learned to hear it as the revolutionary music that it was. This is one of the most interesting things I've run into lately. I talk to college students and their perception of jazz is that it's old-fashioned music. And one of the things I want to counter in my book is that notion, because in every step of its evolution jazz shook up things, and not just the music world, it shook up the culture. It brought us things like integration, it helped usher in the Civil Rights Movement, it changed cultural attitudes on who are outsiders and insiders in the culture, it changed attitudes on what kind of experimentation in lifestyles was acceptable.

So the idea that jazz is fuddy-duddy music that grandma and grandpa listen to is one I'm trying to dispel. I want to bring out the excitement of the music, the transgressive nature of jazz, because it's always been a transgressive type of music.

Is there something jazz can do better than any other music?

Jazz is a touchstone for people who care about musical excellence. I don't think that it's a coincidence that in the last year or so we've seen artists as diverse as Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Kendrick Lamar turning to jazz, they're turning to jazz to raise themselves up to the next level. Even in an age in which much of our music making is created by machines and software, in fact even more because we're in that age, people still want to have the experience of human music making at its highest. The jazz musician still has a mystique in our society, the jazz musician still has respect and allure, because in an age where much is done by sampling and software and machines, the jazz musician still does it by hand. I like to think that there is an artisan movement going on in music now just as there is in food and these other areas. The craft and the quality of the work and the skills are recognized and for people who want to view music as an artisan activity built on craft and skill, inevitably they've got to grapple with jazz because that's the area of music in which those attributes are at the forefront.

Mention an artist or two for people who don't know much about jazz but are curious.

In my book I talk about how jazz musicians create melodic phrases and I highlight those artists who seem to have exceptional skill at shaping the music, at creating those alternative melodies that jazz is built on. I call this quality "intentionality." It's the ability to put your personal intentions into the flow of the music. It's a certain confidence and authority that comes out in the playing of these musicians that have learned how to do this. In many instances with musicians, the music seems to play them rather than them playing the music. But I highlight a handful of individuals who I think are outstanding at playing with that kind of musical intentionality.

Dizzy Gillespie, especially his work in the late 1940s, Lee Morgan, Wes Montgomery, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, even in the current day someone like Pat Metheny. I love listening to how they create their phrases, every phrase has a decisive beginning, a shape, a flow and ends with authority. It doesn't sound like a practice room, it doesn't sound like something they've worked out before the gig, it doesn't sound like it’s wrought, or being played by the fingers. Some of my favorite musicians are those that you can admire what they do just phrase by phrase. Every melodic phrase seems the perfect one. This doesn't mean they're playing loud or boisterous. Someone like Miles Davis is very good at this, sometimes he'll play with just a whisper or just sort of a note or a couple of notes, but still has that intentionality, that personal authority to it.

Besides listening to jazz, what else helps people get into it?

In our age many of us have lost close listening skills. It's not just simply the fact that music is often in the background, but even when we focus our attention on it, we don't have even the basic tools to grapple with it. For example if I took students nowadays and played a recording, just teaching them what's the saxophone, what's the trumpet, what's the trombone, what's a clarinet; those would be very important learning for them because you can grow up in this society and operate as though all music comes out of a machine.

With jazz there is some homework you have to do, but it's delightful homework, and I've watched the process as I've taught students over the years the sense of mastery and satisfaction it has. They identify these songs as more than just combinations of sounds, but as interactions between creative individuals who in real-time were making things happen.

That's why it's so important to go to the jazz club. If you read jazz books nowadays you might be forgiven for thinking that jazz is something that exists only on recordings, but to understand what it's all about, you have to experience it in person in real time. And you're blessed when you do this because jazz as a spontaneous music will surprise you. The jazz performance is different every night.

In the book I divide people into two groups; the one group wants experiences that are predictable and repetitive, these are the kind of people that like scientific formulas and mathematics and experiments, and the laws of physics. In their world, whenever the experiment is performed it produces the same results. There's a different group of people and they are searching for the event that will never be repeated, they're searching for the miraculous. This is the world of your first kiss, or when your child is born or when you got married. These are the events that will never be repeated. Jazz is music for that second group. When a jazz experiment is performed, it never produces the same results. If you're searching for the miraculous, you turn to jazz. If you're searching for the predictable, you have many other options out there.

You spend most of book talking about musicians from the 1920s to the ‘60s. Why stop there?

I think jazz is in a great period today because there's more interaction now between jazz and the rest of the culture than I've seen in years. I see a host of young musicians from outside of jazz who are turning to it for inspiration. This is the kind of rebirth of jazz, that many people in the jazz community are skeptical or unhappy about. They see someone like Kamasi Washington who's made his name on hip-hop records, now turning into a jazz star. For some people I know, this makes them anxious, but I applaud it.

I believe we are on the verge of a great era, in which jazz has strong cultural influence — perhaps not huge record sales, but it will shape the musical dialogue. And so even though in a book of the sort I've just written it's important to take people through the history, I try again and again in the context of the book, to point to things happening right now, what musicians they should hear, in fact at the very end of the book I offer a list of 150 jazz musicians currently in early or mid-career that readers of my book should check out. That's not an exhaustive list, and I could've added more. You can argue about different names, but I wanted to make sure that my readers had some sort of guide to music that was happening in the flesh, at the club or the concert hall. And not just on Spotify or on the compact disc.

So good music still being made, but the sense of roots is as strong as it once was?

People are excited about jazz and the level of interest now, I believe, is higher than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. But the people who are coming into the music, both as performers and fans, often have large gaps in their understanding of the music's history and the different approaches to it that have flourished over the years. Part of the purpose of my book is to fill those gaps, walk people through the heritage and the various aspects of jazz but do it in a way that is enjoyable and enlightening at the same time.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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