“I am the world’s greatest listener,” Duke Ellington wrote in his autobiography, “Music Is My Mistress.” It was far from an idle boast, because it was Ellington’s talent for listening that made him the greatest jazz composer ever.
He understood the abilities and instincts of his musicians so well that he wrote a remarkable body of work built on their individual strengths. All of us, Ted Gioia writes in his latest book, “How to Listen to Jazz,” could benefit from Ellington’s keen-eared approach to music.
Jazz is a quintessentially American form of musical expression that has often defied attempts to explain it — and to make it popular. Gioia, a jazz pianist who has written several previous books on music history, seeks to demystify jazz and make it accessible to anyone willing to listen. He seeks a middle path between popular writing — “5 Stars!” — and academic explication. In spite of his background as a musician, Gioia does not include a single example of musical notation in this engaging book.
He touches on many elements other writers have examined before: the African roots of jazz, its blend of musical idioms, the distinctive rhythmic flow known as “swing,” the imaginative flights of improvisation and even the psychological effect of jazz on its performers and listeners. When done right, he notes, jazz is a spontaneous form of musical magic that exists in “the realm of the poetic and miraculous.”
The “first and most important ingredient in jazz,” Gioia writes, is “its ecstatic rhythmic quality.” Everything else — from the exuberant solos of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker to the intimate musings of Billie Holiday and Chet Baker — grows from the rhythmic embrace of the bass and drums. “This may be the single most satisfying sound in all of jazz,” Gioia writes, “the secret source of swing.”
After describing the rhythmic framework of jazz, Gioia goes on to explore musical phrasing, dynamics, pitch and tone — built on an imprecise African model that can sound alien to listeners trained to appreciate a classical ideal of purity. In other forms of music, whether opera or rock-and-roll, audiences know more or less what to expect. But jazz is more eclectic, more surprising, largely because of the often-misunderstood art of improvisation. Gioia is at his best in explaining how jazz improvisation is anything but a random collection of sounds. Instead, it follows an internal logic that, with “its tendency to mirror the psyche, may be the most enchanting aspect of jazz.”
He believes the finest soloists reveal themselves in such a deeply personal way that they create a psychological connection with their listeners. In fact, Gioia writes, “I trust the songs more than biographical facts.” Miles Davis, for instance, was often considered rude and hostile, but “the music tells me a different story.” When Gioia hears Davis play the trumpet, he writes, “He couldn’t have made that body of music if he didn’t possess, at the deepest level, a predisposition to tenderness and vulnerability.”
Davis is among several musicians Gioia cites as examples of how jazz has developed through the years by what can only be called individual genius. The fountainhead, of course, is Armstrong, whose advances in the 1920s were so exceptional that his musical inventions are still being copied today.
Gioia also examines the careers of Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. And throughout the book, there are tips for recommended listening, including an appendix of 150 modern-day “jazz masters” that is superfluous and peculiar: He includes the Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft among top “mid-career” musicians but somehow ignores the extraordinary American pianist Bill Charlap.
Nonetheless, “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.”
His prose is brisk and well-paced, with many surprising insights along the way. The best way to grasp the breakneck music of bebop revolutionary Parker, Gioia says, is counterintuitive yet disarmingly simple: “I want you to sing along with the music.”
At first, you think you’re being asked to drink water from a fire hose. But “even if you stumble or are out of tune, you will gain insights into the music that are much harder to reach via quiet, passive listening.” It’s also a lot of fun, and before long you’re no longer just a listener but an active participant in the music.
Schudel, a Washington Post reporter, often writes about jazz.
By Ted Gioia
Basic. 253 pp. $24.99