How to Listen to Jazz by Ted Gioia – An Appreciation


Ted Gioia’s How to Listen to Jazz does something few critics attempt: he tries to explain the standards he uses to evaluate jazz by presenting with the reader with an analysis of what he is listening for – pulse/swing, phrasing, pitch and timbre, dynamics, personality, and spontaneity. The result is a marvelous introduction to the United States’ greatest art form that illuminates the familiar, reveals aspects of the art that most listeners overlook, and – most importantly – inspires the reader to listen to jazz.
In a short paragraph, Gioia dismisses in devastating fashion those who see art as merely subjective:
It has become quite fashionable in recent decades to emphasize the essential subjectivity of our responses to works of art. Trendy critics have developed a whole vocabulary to express this point – cumbersome terminology that conveys their “anti-foundationalism,” or their antagonism to “privileged” interpretations, or their insistence that works of art are mere simulacra, a kind of representation drained of authenticity or connection back to an originating pulse. Theoretical discussions of this sort are beyond the scope of this book. But I must say in passing, before moving on, that everything I’ve experienced in jazz, whether as performer, critic, or fan, rebels against this attitude. If only from a practical perspective, it represents an impoverished way of listening to music. By their own admission, critics who adopt this extreme subjectivity are merely listening to themselves. (46)
The main drawback of How to Listen to Jazz is that it’s a book – it is not accompanied by an instantly accessible soundtrack that allows us to consider, confirm, and contest Gioia’s judgments. The best way to read it is with YouTube open. In that spirit, here are some personal highlights:
During a 1920s recording session, Morton got into a heated argument with trombonist Zue Robertson over how to play one of the pieces. Robertson had his own way of interpreting the song and stubbornly insisted on it even when his boss, who was both composer and bandleader, got in his face. How was the disagreement resolved? Morton reached into his pocket and pulled out a large pistol, which he placed on top of the piano. On the next take, the trombonist played the melody exactly as Morton had written it. Some commentators see this as a colorful story about Jelly Roll’s criminal leanings, but I prefer to view it as a sign of his commitment to an austere and demanding musical vision (63).
Gioia recounts spending two weeks listening to recordings from before Louis Armstrong’s 1925-8 breakthrough”: the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band, Kid Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, King Oliver’s Creole Band, and others.
Here is Louis Armstrong with King Oliver’s Creole Band in 1923:
Something happened around 1925 that enabled Armstrong to revolutionize music. Gioia writes:
Armstrong literally introduced hundreds of new phrases into the jazz vocabulary. But far more striking than the notes – even those flamboyant high ones – was Armstrong’s virtuosity with syncopation and accents. Jazz possessed a rhythmic vitality from the start, but Armstrong clearly grasped the potential of syncopated phrasing at a level far beyond his predecessors. It’s as if we have moved, in a single, inspired step-change, from Euclid’s geometry to Newton’s calculus (157).
When listening to Armstrong, Gioia instructs us:
Put out of your mind any notion that you are exploring the tradition or revisiting the roots or paying tribute to your great grandpa’s generation, or any such hare-brained idea. This is bold, unapologetic music, and by treating it as an antiquated museum piece you are doing it a disservice. We need to recalibrate our perceptions and experience this music as part of the same spirit that, during the 1920s, also produced the masterworks of Joyce, Woolf, and Proust (157).
In the marvelous section on pitch and timbre (28-37), Gioia talks about how Sidney Bechet instructed jazz broadcaster Richard Hadlock to play the saxophone by giving him one note and telling him to play it as many ways as possible (something that Eric Dolphy practiced as well) (32). The great example of this is Duke Ellington: “In track after track, he showed what a happy marriage between Western note systems and non-Pythagorean sound systems can produce – wonders that neither alone might achieve.” (36)
Gioia goes on to remark
this tells you why Auto-Tuned vocals on many contemporary records sound so shallow and lifeless. It’s almost as if everything we learned from African American music during the twentieth century was thrown out the window by technologists in the twenty-first century. The goal should notbe to sing every note dead center in the middle of the pitch – we escaped from that musical prison a hundred years ago. Why go back? (36)
Pitch and timbre come up later in the section on avant-garde and free jazz:
The avant-garde movement reversed the decades-long process of codifying jazz in terms of Western systems of scales and discrete notes. With the more transgressive works in the avant-garde jazz pantheon – Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity – the music simply resists codification and assimilation into scale-based frameworks (135).
I can’t resist adding Cecil Taylor’s tribute to Ornette Coleman during his funeral last year:
Gioia ends with a list of 150 early and mid-career jazz masters and plea for the importance of live music:
When I think back on all the great musical moments I have experienced, almost all of them happened at a nightclub or concert hall. Recordings have been important to me too, and I probably have learned more from them than live events. But those special feelings, that “immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down” – forgive me from quoting William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, but he comes closer to describing the spirit of a jazz performance than any music critic – only have been granted to me when in direct contact with musicians operating at peak creative levels (207).
In that spirit, here is Vijay Iyer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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