Book review: how to navigate the labyrinth of jazz

Ted Gioia proves an able guide as he helps readers find their feet in what can be an off-putting genre – but in the absence of an accompanying CD, we must turn to YouTube for the music

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 7:49am

How to Listen to Jazz

by Ted Gioia


4 stars

I discovered jazz in the early 1950s when my grandfather gave me his ancient wood-cabinet cathedral radio. I kept it on the table beside my bed, and late at night when I was supposed to be asleep I’d turn it on and watch its tubes slowly warm up. They looked like a grand city at night, tall buildings all alight.

With careful tuning, I could bring in live jazz from New York’s famous Hickory House. My parents listened to classical music, but this was my own music, my discovery. I loved it from the first note.

I’ve been a lover of jazz ever since, but not a particularly knowledgeable one. And so music historian and jazz performer Ted Gioia might have written this book just for me. It’s just a few decades late.

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Can anyone learn how to listen to any kind of music by reading about it, even from someone as knowledgeable as Gioia? (Especially without the help of a CD, and none is included with this book.) Count me as sceptical going in. As Fats Waller is said to have warned, “If you have to ask, don’t mess with it.”

Gioia’s early chapters, on rhythm and phrasing – the swing and pulse of jazz – and on self-expression are the least helpful and the most self-evident. “This intensely personal quality to improvisation, its tendency to mirror the psyche,” he writes, “may be the most enchanting aspect of jazz.” For some of us, it’s the only aspect of jazz.

But starting with the chapter on structure, the book really begins to swing. There is no musical notation here – not that I could have read it – and jazz, a music of nuance, is notoriously difficult to transcribe anyway. But there are detailed analyses of three jazz standards: Duke Ellington’s Sepia Panorama, Sidewalk Blues by Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers, and Charlie Parker’s Night in Tunisia.

For each, the author lays bare the basic structure. For example, Night begins with a 12-bar intro, first four guitar, next four adding bass and drums, the final four adding horns. Then on to the A theme, B theme, and so forth to the final repetition of the A theme, then the coda.

Complicated? Not at all. Fortunately each piece is available on YouTube, and with the book in my lap and my computer at my side I listened and counted my way through the labyrinth, bar by bar. It’s helpful to at least know what a bar is, but gradually I began to understand something I had only dimly sensed.

Gioia offers other hints and nudges: if lost follow the bass player, not the drummer. Soloists tend to trade off phrases in four-bar chunks. Sing or hum along as you listen. All basic music appreciation stuff.

Where all this came from is another matter. The origins of jazz are lost in the haze of history, Gioia writes. Unfortunately the first musician we know of to play jazz, one Buddy Bolden, left no recordings, so we have no idea what ur-jazz sounded like. We do know it somehow sprouted at the intersection of race and culture in New Orleans, moving from African roots into the streets and dance halls of the city. Like so many new art forms it began in the underclass, the put-upon and the oppressed. It thrived in a dense, polyglot population. And it borrowed from what was already in place – marches, blues, dance music and the like.

It remains a music of borrowings, the guarantee of its continued vitality. Rumours of the imminent death of jazz are not just exaggerations, Gioia insists: they are lies. To prove his point, after a chapter on the evolution of styles from traditional New Orleans through Chicago, to bebop, free jazz and beyond, and another chapter of mini profiles of key figures in that evolution from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman, each with lists of recommended listening, the book ends with yet another list, 150 early and mid-career jazz artists you may not have heard of yet, but Gioia is betting you soon will. Once again, YouTube is your friend.