how to listen to jazz

Book Review: How To Listen To Jazz

By Jason Landry

Fun Fact: “The word “jazz” first appeared in print in a 1912 California paper, where it referred to a wobbly baseball pitch that batters had trouble hitting.”

Generally speaking, you don’t usually need instructions on how to listen to music. The listening part just happens. The brain controls the rest. With one exception: Jazz and their creativity through improvisation. And you should know something from the get-go: Jazz musicians play by their own rules.

Ted Gioia, the author of How To Listen To Jazz has an extensive background in this genre, having been a musician early in his life, and written two other books on the subject: The History of Jazz and The Jazz Standards. When you live it and love it as he does, it’s easy for the words to flow as they do throughout this book. But he urges the listener to be open minded and experience the music for themselves.

As he states early on, “listening, not jargon, is the path into the heart of music. And if we listen at a deep enough level, we enter into the magic of the song – no degrees or formal credentials required.”

One of the first things you might want to look for when listening to jazz is cohesion, he says, meaning is the band tying together nicely. First, listen to an amateur band and then professionals. Once you can feel the tension between the two, you’ll begin to have a better sense of the music. Although for new listeners, it sometimes might not sound like the band is playing the same tune. “The secret of the jazz beat cannot be measured with a metronome.” 

Things that the reader will learn: Jazz musicians concentrate more on self-expression than any other one aspect of playing. The author talks about the “intentionality in a musicians phrasing,” specifically in chapter two. This to me is how the art of jazz music differs than that of other genres. The well-trained musicians are very selective in their note process while the untrained or amateur musician tend to solo or create phrases until they run out of breath or energy.

I loved this one story where a student went for a saxophone lesson with New Orleans great Sidney Bechet. He told the student, “I’m going to give you one note today, see how many ways you can play that note— growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.”

On one hand jazz has some structure, but on the other hand, there are no rules. The author explains that jazz musicians, “Actually build on a finally tuned balance between freedom and structure. Part of their freedom is defined in syncopation—it gives the music its “mojo”. It’s that interruption of the regular flow of rhythm in a song. As for structure, a big influence on jazz can be contributed to early blues music.


The Jazz world is “a type of musical buffet”—There’s New Orleans Jazz, Harlem Stride, Chicago Jazz, Kansas City Jazz, Bebop, Modern Jazz, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, Avant-Guard/Free Jazz, Rock Fusion, Neoclassical, and the list continues to grow. Gioia likens his book How To Listen To Jazz to a group of recipes—it’s up to you to perform a taste test and adjust accordingly to your own palette. Whether you’re new to the genre or a student of jazz, I would read this book and preview the sample of songs that the author lays out in many of the chapters. It’s an enjoyable read from start to finish.

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