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Jazz Appreciation Basics

When you start getting a rush from jazz improvisers' rhythms, harmonies, and melodies, you know you're on the road to true jazz appreciation. To truly appreciate jazz, you need to identify each part (bass line, melody, harmony, improvisation) and at the same time hear how all of the parts fit together. And when the music gets under your skin, there's no telling how far you may take this new love affair.

Before going further, take your new knowledge of jazz for a test drive. Cue up some jazz from Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, or Charlie Parker and listen to how some of the following elements jump out of the music:

  • Bassists anchor the bottom end, help drive the rhythms, and play musical counterpoint to other instruments.
  • Drummers fuel the engines, propelling the music forward, also interacting with all other instrumentalists to provide rhythmic variety.
  • Guitarists and pianists hook up with bassists and drummers to keep time but also provide rich harmonic textures, melodies, and solos.
  • Trumpeters, saxophonists, and singers lead the melody and improvise melodic lines around the chords and rhythms.
  • All players use a telepathic empathy that makes the parts of jazz come together, but within this new creation, however, you can still detect the individual personalities of each of jazz's elements.

Tapping the rhythm section

Jazz usually has a juicy beat that you can feel. A basic difference between swing and a stiffer beat stems from the placement of accents. People who're unfamiliar with jazz often clap on the first and third beat in every group of four. Jazz audiences, by contrast, usually emphasize two and four, with a looser, swing feeling that dates back to gospel music in African-American churches.

Although some jazz encompasses complex or irregular rhythms that may escape the tap of your foot, most jazz retains a steady beat embellished by the drummer and other players. If jazz is tough for you to appreciate, its rhythms offer the easiest point of access. You don't have to know a lot of theory to connect with this exciting energy.

Here are some tips to follow to begin feeling the rhythm of jazz:

  • Listen to Louis Armstrong or some other early jazz performers. Tap your foot, clap your hands, or move your body. Try to feel the music, and listen to the way various instruments carry the rhythms. Although all jazz players tie into the music's rhythms, "rhythm sections" have primary rhythmic responsibility.
  • Identify the rhythm section by remembering that it usually consists of standup bass (or tuba), drums, and sometimes piano or guitar (but these versatile instruments can also play harmonies and melodies).
  • Concentrate on the drummer while you tap your foot to the music. Hear how he fills in assorted rhythms all around the primary beat, usually carried by his right foot as it tromps on a pedal that pounds his bass drum.
  • Listen to the bassist (or tuba player) and hear how these bottom-end instruments secure the rhythms with their steady thumping.

Hearing harmony and melody

Harmony is the way two or more notes sound together. With 88 keys on a piano, the harmonic possibilities are nearly infinite. Melody is a series of single notes that together make a musical statement. Melody is what most people commonly call the tune of a song.

Harmony and melody form a vital partnership. Within a jazz song, harmony works on several levels:

  • A guitar player or pianist plays chords — combinations of notes. These notes harmonize with each other in various ways.
  • A singer or sax player adds a melody over the chords. So the melody harmonizes with the chords.
  • A bass player adds another line of music beneath the chords and primary melody, adding yet another layer of harmony.

As you get into jazz by Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Miles Davis, and other legendary jazz players, listen to each new song six times in a row . . . or more. In the first time through, listen for basic rhythms, chords, and melodies. Now go back and listen for harmony. After you feel comfortable with basic rhythms, chords, harmonies, and melodies, start paying attention to the ways in which players improvise.

But how can you tell when they're improvising? It's not always easy. Sometimes, even when playing a familiar song, jazz musicians alter the basic melody. Sometimes you may still recognize it. Other times, familiar songs sound like new songs because of the way jazz musicians reinvent them. In the most common type of jazz song, the band plays the song's signature melody all the way through once before the improvisation begins. Then they usually end the song by playing the melody again.

Comparing jazz's musical personalities

The joy of getting into jazz comes when you begin to recognize the players' "voices." Jazz's legendary players embrace special sounds of their own:

  • Louis Armstrong: spirited cornet and warm, gruff vocals.
  • Miles Davis: muted, whispery trumpet
  • Charlie Parker: sharp, speedy alto sax
  • Lester Young: smooth, sexy tenor saxophone

Listen to various versions of the same tune to distinguish different voices. A prime example: "Body and Soul." Tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins were contemporaries. But Hawkins' readily available 1939 recording of the song is very different from Young's versions of the same tune. The comparison offers a straightforward way to hear how each group combines harmony and melody, how they improvise, and what qualities distinguish their individual voices on saxophone.

Each player was an early modernist but in different ways. Young's versions are generally characterized by

  • Slower tempo: Both musicians played up-tempo tunes, but Young leaned toward slower songs and ballads that showcased his lyrical improvisations.
  • Reverence for the basic melody: Traces of this admiration can be found in his solos, where Young incorporated aspects of a song's original melody in his solos.
  • Long, flowing lines of melody and improvisation, and fewer notes in each line: As a forerunner of '50s cool jazz, Young preferred a languid, understated approach that gave his music an easy flowing quality.
  • Slurry, gentle, and breathy tone: Young's sound romanced your emotions as you listened to his music.

Hawkins' landmark version of "Body and Soul" exhibits other traits:

  • Abandonment of the written melody, in favor of new melodies that Hawkins improvises over the original chords as played by his band
  • Faster, edgier melodic lines, and greater density of notes in his improvisation
  • Gentler tone but with more definition to each note.

From here, your explorations into jazz include many similar comparisons. Most great jazz players recorded versions "standard" tunes, especially ballads. These standards give you a chance to compare the ways in which the best players from different eras interpret the same songs. Discover, for instance, how Fats Waller's original "Honeysuckle Rose" differs from subsequent interpretations by Oscar Peterson and many other jazz greats, or, especially, how the great trumpeters, saxophonists, and vocalists compare in their treatment of tunes.

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