Jazz Listening 101

Many people, musicians and civilians alike, have a tendency to get “lost” when listening to jazz. I’m talking about standard song form jazz here, not the more complicated, through-composed or “free” types of jazz. Once the melody of the song has been stated, the rest of the performance sounds like cacophony to some folks. Since improvising is the body and soul of jazz (and what most interests us players, creative beings that we are), I’d like to offer a little assistance to those who don’t understand what “all that noise” is about. And if you’re just getting started playing jazz, this advice will help you too.

Let’s take a simple song, like Pop Goes the Weasel. It’s a silly example perhaps, but I think that most of us can easily sing the melody internally, using our “inner” ear. The ability to internalize a melody like this is the key to being able to enjoy a jazz performance (if you’re a listener) or to keep your place in the form* of a tune (if you’re a player).

A typical performance of Pop Goes the Weasel, say, by the ice cream truck parked in front of your home, plays over and over again, without variation of any kind. You hear the same melody, harmony and form ad nauseam. In a jazz context, all of the elements of a song keep repeating, except for the melody. Everything about the music keeps recurring as if in a loop, but each soloist uses their imagination, experience and skills to superimpose a new melody over the harmony and form of the original song.

In classical music, we refer to this type of composition as “theme and variations”, the only difference is that, during a jazz performance, the variations are being spontaneously composed and played in real time as you’re listening. It’s pretty cool when you think about it.

Endless repetition of every aspect of a piece of music is both boring and grating to most people past the age of 4. This is why I have to suppress my homicidal urges when the ice cream man overstays his welcome. But how does understanding this theme and variations concept help you listen to or play real jazz (as opposed to something as simple as Pop Goes The Weasel)?

Start by listening to a jazz version of a song you already know, because your task is to keep the melody (or theme) playing in your mind during the improvised choruses (variations). So, while the solos are unfolding, you are using the melody as an internal backdrop for what the soloist is doing. This, by the way, is how many jazz musicians keep their place in the music as it is being realized. If you have the melody playing in your inner ear you will be able to hear the soloist’s new melody as a variation of the one you already know. Try it – it works.

Find a recording of a familiar tune by a master jazz artist (Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, you get the idea). To begin with, notice the individual way the artist you’ve chosen states the melody; that in itself can be a lesson in listening, because jazz musicians put their own spin on whatever music they’re playing from the first note onward. Then keep singing the melody to yourself internally while you observe how each soloist on the track composes their take on the given elements of the song. Later on you might want to transcribe (write down) and learn to play someone’s solo on familiar songs; that’s a great way to teach yourself how to improvise.

This is the point at which play-along tracks can really help you. I’ve done some of the legwork for you by posting links at PlayJazzNow from all of our tracks to recordings by jazz masters. You can easily go from learning the melody to using the strategy outlined above to working on your own spontaneous composition by making use of the empty space left for you to experiment with on our tracks.

As a listener and a player, you’ll have to practice this technique if you want to get it, but it’s a gratifying way to open yourself to a whole world of beautiful music that is by no means cacophonous!

*By “form” I mean the organization of the large, recognizable chunks of a song. Terms like verse, chorus and bridge (and the order in which each of these sections appear) describe the form of a song.

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