How to Listen to Jazz


By Ted Gioia

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A "radiantly accomplished" music scholar presents an accessible introduction to the art of listening to jazz (Wall Street Journal)

In How to Listen to Jazz, award-winning music scholar Ted Gioia presents a lively introduction to one of America's premier art forms. He tells us what to listen for in a performance and includes a guide to today's leading jazz musicians. From Louis Armstrong's innovative sounds to the jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis, Gioia covers the music's history and reveals the building blocks of improvisation. A true love letter to jazz by a foremost expert, How to Listen to Jazz is a must-read for anyone who's ever wanted to understand and better appreciate America's greatest contribution to music.

"Mr. Gioia could not have done a better job. Through him, jazz might even find new devotees." — Economist



The Mystery of Rhythm


A young scholar decides to devote his life to the study of African rhythms. He moves to Ghana, where he learns under the tutelage of more than a dozen master drummers. He eventually spends a full decade immersed in the musical traditions and practices of the region, but he supplements these teachings with other sources of learning, whether in the halls of Yale University or in the traditional communities of Haiti and other destinations of the African diaspora. With each passing year, his expertise grows, and eventually he becomes much more than a scholar. He is a full-fledged practitioner who now carries on the tradition himself.

But when our expert returns to the United States, he finds it difficult to convey the essence of these practices to outsiders. He tries to teach students how to play the Dagomba drums, and they ask him the simplest question of all: “How do I know when to enter? When do I start playing?” In Western music, there is an easy answer. The conductor waves a baton, or a bandleader counts off the beat, or the musical score provides a cue. But entering into the ongoing flow of a West African musical performance is a much different matter.

“I found that if I tried to demonstrate how to enter with one drum by counting from another drum’s beat, I could not do it,” our scholar admits in frustration. No amount of analysis or rule-making solves his problem. Finally, he realizes that the obstacle can be overcome only by moving away from analysis and entering into the realm of feeling. “The only way to begin correctly,” he eventually discovers, “was to listen a moment and then start right in.”1

Listen a moment and then start right in. There has to be more, no? A decade of apprenticeship, and this is the takeaway? Yet this was the solution, beguiling in its apparent simplicity.

For those who devote the better part of a lifetime to the study of music, stories like this one are humbling. They testify to a magical element in the music, especially in its rhythmic essence, that eludes intellectualization. This aspect of the music must be felt, and if it isn’t felt, academic dissection is futile. The scholar must become more than a scholar to grasp it, and the student determined to follow on the same path must be willing to leave pedagogy behind and embrace something so elusive that, at times, it can hardly be described.

But all parables come with an implicit lesson, and there is one in this story. Our tale—a story from the real life of John Miller Chernoff, one of the most discerning experts on African rhythm and drumming—testifies to the power of listening. In our parable, hearing trumps analysis. And if this superiority of the ear over the brain humbles the trained musicologist, it also should give a dose of encouragement to the outsider who doesn’t know the terminology and codified procedures of the aural arts. 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.

This book is built on the notion that careful listening can demystify virtually all of the intricacies and marvels of jazz. This is not to demean the benefits of formal music study or classroom learning. Yet we do well to remember that the people who first gave us jazz did so without much formal study—and, in some instances, with none at all. But they knew how to listen. And, like Chernoff and his students, they learned to use that capacity as a touchstone in unlocking their own creative potential.

In a similar manner, we do well to recall that the African musical traditions at the root of jazz rarely distinguished between performers and audiences. All members of the community participated in its musical life. Those raised in these cultures would reject the notion that special training or skills might be required to join in the exhilaration and excitement of music-making. In this tradition, there are no outsiders. Everyone has the capability to grasp the music at its most essential level. But there is one inescapable requirement: they must listen, and listen deeply.

These considerations are important in assessing all aspects of jazz, but especially when dealing with its quasi-magical rhythmic essence. Science has expanded considerably our knowledge of the properties of rhythm in recent decades. We can now isolate and measure the impact of rhythm on our brainwaves, our hormones, our immune system, and other aspects of our physiology.2 But these studies have only deepened the mystery. Why does our body respond so powerfully to the beat? Why don’t dogs, for example, match their body movements to external rhythms? Why don’t chimpanzees or cats or horses dance to the beat? They don’t, and you can’t train them to do so. Yet every human society and community provides an outlet for this irresistible response to rhythm—sometimes even relying on it as a pathway to the divine. This propensity is hardwired into our bodies, perhaps into our souls, but do we even know where to start in assessing its aesthetic dimensions?

So here, at the very outset of this book, we run into a huge problem. We need to start with the first and most important ingredient in jazz, its ecstatic rhythmic quality. This is the most difficult aspect of the music to circumscribe and almost impossible to convey in words. Yet if you learn how to listen deeply to this aspect of jazz, you will have made a huge step toward grasping the essentials of the music. So let’s try to unlock the mystery of jazz rhythm. To do that I need to lay bare my own approach to hearing the beat and share the techniques and attitudes that have helped me in my own attempts to penetrate its magic.

The Pulse (or Swing) of Jazz

The first thing I listen for is the degree of rhythmic cohesion between the different musicians in the band. Some jazz critics might describe this as swing. Certainly that’s part of it, at least in most jazz performances. But there is something more than mere finger-tapping momentum involved here. In the great jazz bands, you can hear the individual members lock together rhythmically in a pleasing way that involves an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition. If you listen to the most innovative rhythm sections—for example, the Count Basie band from the prewar years, the Bill Evans trio from the early 1960s, the Miles Davis and John Coltrane groups from the mid-1960s, or ensembles led by Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, and Jason Moran in the current day—you hear a paradoxical type of cooperation taking place in real time. The musicians are adapting to each other but also insisting on their own prerogatives. They are somehow accommodating and demanding at the same time. This pleasing give-and-take results in a holistic synergy that emerges from the blending of individual personalities. The pulse of the music feels alive and potent.

At the other extreme, you can hear amateur bands struggling to achieve this same degree of effortless cohesion. And you can perhaps learn more about swing from listening to the bands that fail to achieve it. Frequently in the pages ahead, I will advise you to seek out and listen to lesser-skilled musicians. You are probably skeptical, and I can hardly blame you. Has any music appreciation teacher ever focused on inferior performances? But I’m convinced that only by listening long and hard to second-rate performers will you ever really appreciate what the world-class artists have achieved. Fortunately this is easy to do nowadays—just go to YouTube and do a search on “student jazz band.” If you listen to a dozen or so beginning and intermediate bands, you will grasp the gap between them and the top-notch professional ensembles. The single biggest limitation of these groups is the awkwardness with which they blend together. You can hear the tension in their playing. You can feel viscerally the sluggishness in their swing. Like a car that needs a tune-up, they aren’t operating on all cylinders.

I don’t say this with any malice. I’ve been there. I’ve lived through this entire struggle myself. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, I spent more than ten thousand hours at the piano, and I know all the mistakes of novice jazz musicians—because I made every one of them myself. In fact, the harshest reviews I’ve ever delivered as a music critic have been directed at myself. I made a number of recordings of my performances in my late teens and early twenties, and later I destroyed all of them. As I subsequently explained my reasons to a curious inquirer: “My musical phrases were fine, except for how they began and how they ended, and everything that came between.” My fingers were dexterous, and I took some pride in my tone control, but many of the most fundamental aspects of musicality came only after much consternation and struggle. Even thinking about this period in my musical education is painful for me nowadays.

I sometimes wish that my accumulated learning had come easier. I’ve spent enough time around musicians with amazing ears and instincts to envy the ease with which they assimilate the jazz craft. When I had the opportunity to play with Stan Getz, I could tell that he instantly heard everything that was happening on the bandstand. If I put an altered note into a chord, he immediately reacted to it. I remember him coming up to me once after we had played “You Stepped Out of a Dream” and commenting: “I liked the way you slipped in that augmented chord.” The fact ºthat he referred to the harmony with that degree of specificity was rare for Getz—it sometimes seemed to me that he still dealt in a pure world of sounds while the rest of us were caught up in our harmonic rules and terminology. But even if I was surprised by the analytical attitude in his comment, I wasn’t at all shocked at his close attention to a very casual and brief substitute chord I had inserted, which had lasted no more than a second or two in the song. Getz’s ears were, in my opinion, one-in-a-million, and I had spent enough time with him to realize that nothing could happen in a performance that would leave him unprepared. He would respond, and without any need to consider harmonic rules and scale patterns.

I wasn’t like that. I have a good ear. Some people might even say I have an outstanding ear. I participated in a study years ago in which my ability to hear and identify intervals was measured, and the researchers told me I was faster at this than anyone they had tested. But I still know that a sizable gap exists between me and someone like Stan Getz or Chet Baker, people who hear everything and don’t even have to think about it. They have a biological advantage, plain and simple. I had to draw on different strengths, analytical and methodological skills that I have honed over the years, and I was fortunate that they proved their own value in the long run. But the bottom line is that I learned the jazz craft a day at a time, with much effort expended in the process.

Sometimes I think I became a better teacher and critic because I had to be detailed and systematic in my own learning. Someone once pointed out to me that the best NBA coaches—people such as Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich—weren’t the most gifted players. When I was a youngster, I saw both Riley and Jackson play, and I can attest that they spent most of the game on the bench. But the very fact that they had to fight for playing time, and work more tenaciously than their colleagues, gave them hard-earned insights that the natural-born geniuses never have to worry about. I feel the same about my own development as a musician. I learned slowly and carefully, and when (as I will often do in this book) I call attention to the ways an amateurish musician falls short, rest assured that I make this comparison with sympathy and a dose of self-recognition.

But let’s get back to swing (or, in this case, the absence of swing). This lack of rhythmic cohesion can be easily heard in second-rate jazz bands. And even listeners who don’t know much about music will sense it subliminally. They won’t get the same kind of satisfaction and enjoyment from the performance. And this is not just the case in fast, finger-snappin’ numbers, but even in meditative mood pieces and romantic ballads where the term “swing” perhaps doesn’t do justice to the rhythmic character of the music. You may think you know nothing about jazz, but if you take the time to compare amateur and professional bands, you will find that you can soon tell the difference from their varying levels of comfort and confidence in their rhythmic interaction.

Let’s now forget about those awkward student bands and turn our attention to the masters of the music. After listening to an amateur ensemble, check out a group of top-tier professionals playing the same song, and marvel at the difference. Can we pinpoint the essence of swing in the music of the premier jazz bands? One way of doing this is to listen to the same performance repeatedly and focus on different instruments with each repetition. If you are seeking out the secret source of swing, a good place to start is with the locking together of the bass and drums. This may be the single most satisfying sound in all of jazz, at least when it’s done by premier artists. Check out how bassist Paul Chambers interacts with drummer Philly Joe Jones on those classic jazz recordings from the 1950s; or Ron Carter and Tony Williams in the 1960s; or Christian McBride and Brian Blade in the current day. No, they aren’t household names—bassists and drummers are rarely the leaders of jazz ensembles—but the stars wouldn’t shine quite so brightly if these partners at the back of the bandstand didn’t possess such powerful musical chemistry.

This mysterious factor in a performance is hardly restricted to jazz. The ‘secret sauce’ behind many successful popular songs is the degree of cohesion between the individual musicians, the effortless blending of each individual’s personal sense of time into a persuasive holistic sound. It’s hardly a coincidence that the most admired accompanists in the record industry have almost always come in teams. Musicians speak with rapt admiration about the Wrecking Crew or the Funk Brothers or the Muscle Shoals Sound—these names refer to teams of studio musicians, rarely stars themselves, but key participants on countless hit records. Producers kept hiring them because they realized that this well-honed collective interaction was just as important as a big-name superstar in turning tracks into hits. The best jazz bands are no different. Even though jazz is a highly individualistic art form, and its leading practitioners are discussed in quasi-heroic terms, this crucial ingredient—my starting point in evaluating a performance—transcends the personal and resides in the collective.

As mentioned above, it’s hard to define what goes into this effortless swing, but we can identify, with some specificity, what doesn’t. First of all, the pleasing pulse of a world-class jazz band has almost nothing to do with rhythmic precision or keeping a steady tempo. If that were true, a software-driven beat would be superior to a jazz drummer, and that is hardly the case. Like John Henry in the famous folk ballad, jazz musicians beat machines, and the competition isn’t even close. By the way, I am not overly concerned if a jazz band gradually changes its tempo during a song—although my experience tells me that acceleration is more acceptable to the listener than deceleration. If you pick up speed as you go along, the listeners may even find it exhilarating, but slowing down is usually painful to hear. Yet, in either case, the secret of the jazz beat cannot be measured with a metronome.

Some years ago I worked with an expert in computer analysis of rhythms, and together we tried to understand what was actually happening to the beat in music that possessed a strong sense of swing.3 What we learned was that especially exciting performances tended to break the rules. Notes were not played right on top of the beat but in a variety of places in the continuum of rhythm, and sometimes they were employed in ambiguous ways. Some melodic phrases seemed to linger between a duple and a triple subdivision of the rhythm, and this ability to exist between the strictly delineated pulsations of traditional Western music is probably one of the key reasons for the appeal of jazz and other idioms that draw on African roots. You can’t read this kind of music off the page—for the simple reason that traditional Western systems of notation can’t contain it—but a listener can feel it, and a skilled jazz player can create it spontaneously.

Three specific kinds of songs provide an excellent measure of a jazz band’s rhythmic cohesion. The first is perhaps the most obvious: Can the group handle a very fast tempo? As the pulsations move beyond three hundred beats per minute, and especially as they approach 350 beats per minute, the musicians face considerable challenges in simply staying together, let alone maintaining a sense of effortless swing. If you look back and trace the evolution of jazz, you will find that performers got much better at these breakneck tempos during the period from 1935 to 1950. Today’s jazz musicians are, in many ways, better trained than their predecessors, especially in terms of assimilating techniques in a systematic and codified manner, but they are still tested at these warp speeds. Certainly jazz can’t be reduced to a demonstration of rapid-fire technique. In fact, some improvisers have justifiable reasons for avoiding these tempos. I understand their hesitancy. Even under ideal conditions, it’s hard to translate what you hear in your head to your instrument, and at ultrafast tempos musicians are tempted to rely on instincts and reflexes rather than real-time melodic improvisation. Even so, few things thrill me more than hearing a top-notch jazz group that can thrive at a blistering pace. And these tempos provide a useful barometer of jazz instrumental prowess.

But, believe it or not, a very slow number can actually be more difficult than a barn burner. If you listen to a wide range of groups playing jazz at around forty beats per minute, you will find that some can handle it without a problem, but in many instances you can hear the tension and discomfort in their playing. Perhaps one or more musicians in the band will even ‘double up the beat’ in response, playing clearly demarcated rhythmic patterns in between the pulses—not so much because they sound good, but because it’s easier to hold the group together with these guideposts in between the beats. In some instances, the entire rhythm section doubles the rhythm: all of a sudden it sounds as if the tempo is twice as fast, and a ballad takes on a bouncy quality. I won’t say this is always wrong; sometimes a bouncy ballad is just what the audience needs to hear. But when I am evaluating the band’s skill level, I prefer to hear how the musicians handle the slower tempo. Does it breathe? Is it relaxed? Is it dreamy and ethereal? Or is it stiff and ungraceful? When the musicians sound much more comfortable after doubling the tempo (which is often the case), you can often discern—if only by comparison—how less skilled they were at the slower pulse.

But I have found that a third kind of song is perhaps an even better measure of a band’s rhythmic cohesion. I’ve never heard anyone else mention this kind of piece as a litmus test of swing, but I’m convinced that it may be the single best gauge of a group’s ability to work holistically as a jazz band. I am referring to a pulse just slightly faster than a typical human heartbeat. These kinds of songs operate in an awkward midpoint between slow and medium tempos—they are too fast to serve as dreamy ballads but too slow to treat as bouncy midtempo swingers. A song of this sort requires a very relaxed kind of delivery but also needs a clear source of propulsion. Many musicians are tempted to rush the beat, and the song thus ends up at an easier tempo to swing. Others are vigilant in keeping strict time, yet the performance sounds sluggish. But the best jazz bands operate comfortably at this pulse, and their playing sounds as effortless as breathing, nothing hurried or cut short. Listen to Count Basie’s recording of “Li’l Darlin’” if you want to hear how this is done at a very high level of virtuosity. Of course, the irony here is that the music on this track hardly sounds difficult. But that’s what it looks like to succeed at this game.

This may sound like a contradiction, but I listen for this same quality of relaxation even in the fastest tempos. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule—and on occasion I can enjoy a band that sounds as if it is almost out-of-control, operating on the verge of meltdown. But this is a tightrope act that few groups can consistently pull off. Very little space separates operating at the brink and falling into the abyss. The bands I have admired most for their up-tempo work—Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Oscar Peterson’s trio come immediately to mind here—almost always seem in total command of the situation, regardless of the tempo. The music sounds fast, but never rushed or labored.

Here’s a final tip on how to tell if a band is in synch. When a group is working together effectively, the individual musicians don’t need to play so many notes. A soloist can toss off casual phrases, and each one seems to hit the mark. An accompanist can underplay, and the group still swings. On the other extreme—and I know this, once again, from painful personal experience—when the band’s rhythmic cohesion is floundering, each individual in the group is tempted to overplay. This is almost a matter of instinct. It’s no different from a second-rate basketball team: when they fail to operate together as a unit, individuals forget the plays, and everyone starts freelancing and going one-on-one. In a band as on the field of play, lots of activity is no substitute for skilled execution.

As you apply these listening strategies, you will find that you are gauging yourself as much as the music. When hearing jazz musicians whose rhythmic command is at the highest level, you will feel yourself drawn more deeply into the flow of the music. The performance will be more satisfying, more compelling. The confidence of the performers will translate itself into a visceral sense of rightness among the audience. This is more than a subjective response. Consider doing these listening sessions with others, and compare your assessments of the various jazz bands on your playlist. Score them on their rhythmic cohesiveness, their ability to enter into a flow state, and the mastery of their beat. You will almost certainly find that, as you get more experienced in listening, your rankings will converge with those of other skilled listeners. There will still be room for personal preferences in these evaluations. One fan might prefer hot and fast, another cool and relaxed—but both will be able to discern the difference between the greats and not-so greats. Once you have achieved this ability to ‘feel’ the rhythms, you will have made a huge leap in your capacity to understand and enjoy jazz.


Getting Inside the Music

EVEN IF I’M A MUSIC CRITIC AND HISTORIAN, I’M STILL NO DIFFERENT from any other fan. I listen to music for pleasure, just like everyone else. But unlike most people, I feel compelled to analyze the music and try to pinpoint why I enjoy it. What hidden factors distinguish a moving performance from a blasé one? Why am I riveted by Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, but when I go to a restaurant on karaoke night, I ask to be seated as far from the music as possible? The song might even be the same—Sinatra songs apparently come prepackaged with karaoke machines—but the effect couldn’t be more different.

When we turn to the experts for guidance on the sources of our aural pleasures and phobias, we encounter a hopeless jumble. Over the last generation, academics have tried to demystify aesthetic taste and show that it is a social construct driven by constantly shifting cultural and economic factors. Yet during this same period, neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, cognitive psychologists, and other researchers have adopted a diametrically opposed position. They have produced stacks of research supporting the view that our responses to music and the other arts are embedded in biological universals, inescapable and ever-present in human society. Do these folks ever talk to each other? They seem to work at the same universities, so maybe someone can arrange a sit-down.

For my part, I’ve learned from both camps, but refuse to give the last word to either. A major focus of my research, especially during the last two decades, has been cross-cultural convergences in the ways people sing and play musical instruments, and my work in this area has convinced me that performance standards are hardly local and arbitrary. If you sing a lullaby, the baby is expected to fall asleep, and this is true across national boundaries and generational divides. When musicians play a dance number, they want people to move their feet; that’s true at an EDM concert today, just as it was true in ancient societies. Every member of the human species draws, to some extent, on a common musical ethos. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t gather together to enjoy shared musical experiences or be able to discuss the matters addressed in this book. On the other hand, I find that the neuroscientists and biologists often overstate their claims and that colorful discussions about “your brain on music” do little to enhance our appreciation of any given work. As soon as they try to assess something concrete and specific—for example, a Miles Davis solo or a Billie Holiday performance—the scientists offer few insights. The masterpiece will never be encompassed by neural analysis.


  • "How to Listen to Jazz is an effort to teach casual listeners how 'careful listening can demystify virtually all of the intricacies and marvels of jazz.'"—New York Times
  • "How to Listen to Jazz fills an important and obvious gap by offering a sensible and jargon-free introduction to what Gioia calls 'the most joyous sound invented during the entire course of twentieth-century music.' The book deserves a place alongside such classic works of jazz criticism as Martin Williams's The Jazz Tradition, Will Friedwald's Jazz Singing, the books of Gary Giddins and Gioia's own The History of Jazz."—Washington Post
  • "[How to Listen to Jazz is a] satisfying new book.... One of the best features of the book is a set of 'music maps,' as Mr. Gioia calls them, that serve as a guide to individual recordings."—Wall Street Journal
  •  “Mr. Gioia could not have done a better job. Through him, jazz might even find new devotees.”
  • "How to Listen to Jazz is a packed and useful introduction to the medium with suggestions and aids for the listener who wants to gain entrance to a rich and complicated body of work."—Weekly Standard
  • “Amid the cacophony of the past year, one paean to improvised order emerged from the pen of music critic Ted Gioia. That book, How to Listen to Jazz, deserves your undivided engagement.”
     —Brock Dahl, Washington Free Beacon
  • "How to Listen to Jazz is a thorough, impassioned guide to a sound that tends either to inspire deep, almost religious devotion or cause eyes to go crossed...[Gioia] elucidates the music in a way that increases the listener's sense of awe and wonder, rather than supplants it."—Columbia Daily Tribune
  • "Gioia's engaging yet authoritative style makes How to Listen to Jazz not just a valuable primer but a delight to read."—City Journal
  • A perfect begin an understanding of a music that is, in truth, very, very easy to love."—Buffalo News
  • “[Gioia] walks fans through a crash course in jazz appreciation that’s suitable for newcomers and intermediate listeners alike…His prose is…inviting and often playful… Most valuable is the extensive catalogue of recommendations, not just of the genre’s top performers but of 150 contemporary jazz musicians—a list that new fans can use to kickstart their journey, and experienced ones can reference to keep up with the form’s continuing evolution.”—Publishers Weekly
  • "How to Listen to Jazz is a fresh, clearly written and infinitely usable book that should put the jazz novice on track."—Library Journal
  • "A pretense-free primer on learning to appreciate jazz.... Curious neophytes can start here."—Mojo
  • "As jazz enters its second century, becoming more multi-faceted apace, guidance for the novice--listener or musician--is more useful than ever, and Ted Gioia offers it expertly, in blessedly readable prose."—Dan Morgenstern, Director emeritus, Institute of Jazz Studies and author of Living with Jazz
  • "This book does what so many have tried to and failed: it teaches without preaching and empowers the reader to search for their own understanding and preferences. It's a welcome and needed addition to everyone's bookshelf."—Wayne Winborne, Executive Director, Institute of Jazz Studies

On Sale
Sep 19, 2017
Hachette Audio

Ted Gioia

About the Author

Ted Gioia is a music historian and the author of eleven books, including How to Listen to Jazz. His three previous books on the social history of music—Work Songs, Healing Songs, and Love Songs—have each been honored with the ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award. Gioia's wide-ranging activities as a critic, scholar, performer, and educator have established him as a leading global guide to music past, present, and future.

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