This past Saturday night I played with Twin Cities guitarist/composer Cory Wong‘s quartet down at the Artist’s Quarter in St. Paul.  For those who don’t know, the Artist’s Quarter is the big St. Paul Jazz club, and I don’t play there very often.  In fact, I don’t play Jazz very often period anymore (more on that here).  Anyway, it was super fun, and I was reminded again of the huge differences between the languages of Rock/Pop and jazz.  Coincidentally, I’ve also spent the last few weeks discussing the differences between Rock and Jazz with a student of mine – an advanced student who I was surprised to find didn’t already know these differences.

The lessons with this student and the gig last night reminded me that last Spring I intended to do a series of posts on listening to Jazz.  I guess now is as good a time as any to follow up on that.  The truth is that most people don’t fully understand what Jazz is and how it’s different from the popular music of today’s culture.  I’m not pretending to be an expert on this topic, but I do have a fair amount of experience with it, and hopefully a little explaining will help those of you who have always somewhat liked Jazz but never felt like you really understood it.

So here we go…

How To Listen To Jazz, Part 1: Song Structure

Rock music uses a format called “through composing,” which basically just means that the song is composed all the way through. Every section of the song, every beat of each section… it’s all predetermined and happens the same way at every performance. Jazz music, on the other hand, is largely “improvised,” which means that the musicians are feeling the music and responding in the moment to one another in a dialogue of sorts, and therefore the performances will differ from day to day depending on the inspiration/mood of the musicians (along with many other factors).

Most music fans know this fundamental “determined-vs-improv” difference between Rock and Jazz structuring, however, the “Jazz civilians” often make a fatal error in equating improvising in Jazz with what they know as jamming. The difference is huge. Jamming is something musicians do when they have nothing else to do. Someone spontaneously composes a riff or rhythm, and everyone else chimes in with something that goes along with the spontaneous composition, and pretty soon things are sounding pretty cool. BUT… the musicians have no real direction. There’s no end game in view – they are just waiting to see what everyone else will do, and responding accordingly within the role of their particular instrument.

As I said, most Jazz civilians assume that jamming is the same as the improvisation found in Jazz music. You might hear a Jazz noob at a Jazz club say something like, “man, listen to these guys jam… I love it.” But what does a listener love when listening with the assumption that the musicians are only jamming?  For me, the experience of listening to cool music and eating a good meal are very similar.  A delicious, well-prepared dish just tastes good, and it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.  You don’t have to be a food critic to enjoy food, and you don’t have to be a Jazz snob to, at least on some level, enjoy Jazz.  For most music fans, simply the sound of Jazz music “tastes” good – i.e., is pleasant to listen to.

But, in contrast to the food analogy, think of a movie you like. A great movie always involves great acting, cinematography, scenery, lighting, etc… but the most important part of a good film is the PLOT. Everybody knows that, when you’re watching a movie, the actors and scenes aren’t there simply for visual pleasure. There’s more to it. Characters are developing, situations are emerging, circumstances are changing… and pretty soon, as the viewer, you actually feel involved. You begin sympathizing with the characters, and you might even start anticipating what will happen next. You feel the urge to cheer on the protagonist, and you feel very real dislike for the antagonist. The movie might even bring you to tears, or make your heart beat rise sharply in genuine fear. None of this would happen if there were no discernable plot.  Again, you don’t have to be a movie critic to enjoy a movie, but you do need to follow the plot if you want to get the most out of it.  Enter the difference between jamming and improvising.  Improvising, while of course having room for personal expression and spontaneous creating, relies heavily on LOTS of predetermined elements. Chord changes, the number of measures in each part of the progression… the parameters of the dialogue are many.  Jazz improvising takes place within the context of those parameters – it’s so much more than just a jam – and that context gives much more meaning to the notes that are played. The context is the plot, and not knowing the context suddenly takes all the REAL meaning out of the music.

So, while Rock/Pop uses “through composition” as it’s main structure, Jazz music uses an improvising format known as “Head/Solo/Head.”  More on this in Part 2