I would argue that all music is about recognising patterns. For this, your brain rewards you. But some patterns razzle-dazzle and subvert expectations. Your brain, pleased at the ploy, rewards you again, in a different way. (In fact, this is also how jokes work.)
The more you listen, the more patterns you recognise. Patterns when repeated enough can get blasé, and your brain, tired, starts becoming unreactive. It then takes something really interesting and different to surprise you.
This explains a lot of things. Why every generation throws a hero up the pop charts that the previous generation feels is rather unsophisticated. Why things like Jazz, and Classical music (Indian and Western) are usually the realm of the silver-haired. (Or at the very least for people who’ve been exposed to a lot of music.) There’s a reason: if you listen to a lot, it will take a lot to surprise you.
(I will one day lay out how this is the fundamental to all creativity, but I digress.)
It’s also no surprise why music like Jazz is so unapproachable. You kind of have to have listened to a lot of it already, before you can start to appreciate it. All this is not helped by the fact that Jazz encompasses a really unwieldly wide range of music that you’ll have to be familiar with.
Additionally, if you ask a musician to define a “waltz” or “blues” there’s actually a tight little definition that it falls within. When asked what Jazz is, Louis Armstrong replied, “Well if you have to ask, you’re never going to know”, which is funny and glib, but exceedingly unhelpful. Well never fear, I’m here to gently guide you into the guileless guild of Jazz. Hopefully you’ll be armed with enough pattern recognition in your pre-frontal cortex to take on entire records and whole concerts.
Let’s take an easy route in. Why don’t you find yourself some high-quality headphones, or hook up the speaker system, press play on the video below and begin reading?
First Kenny Garrett lays down the establishing melody. Luckily for us he drives it into our cranial cache. Then the soloists begin deviating from it. Think of this as someone describing the same thing, in a myriad of different ways. Sentences get more intense. Soon ending the sentence is unimportant. They’re changing the direction halfway through a line. It’s not important to finish anything, it’s important to play and be tormented and be lost. The pain and gentleness intertwine around each other. Hang on a second, hang on a second. Remember the main melody? This is what we’re creating from, just as we are crashing towards it. Does any of this make any sense? Well, that’s Jazz.
Well, where the devil does all of this come from? Jazz as we know it today, is a result of two people, who at different times in history, tectonically shifted music.
Many people think Jazz originated from Blues. It’s certainly similar to Blues, in two respects. One, it’s birthed by the African-Americans. And two, because they’re playing African music, which had entirely different note intervals on their instruments, they’re really trying to warp ideas to approach a sound from their cultural memory. Sounds that are physically impossible to find on Western instruments. This is why you’ll hear of the famed “blue note”. It’s sometimes seen as a slide from one note to an adjacent note. The reason behind that is that they’re trying to approach a note, whose frequency is physically between two adjacent keys on the keyboard.
So somewhere around the 1900s a ragtime band led by the coronet player Buddy Bolden was really causing a storm, playing what was later called “jass music”. Unfortunately, no recordings exist of his band, but this helpful Anime soundtrack* is a good approximation. Press play on this and continue down the article.
Let’s note the characteristics. Far from being a gentle sound, Bolden’s music is wild dance music. It has a fervent energy and can often have several soloists playing at the same time (which is a beautiful staple of New Orleans Jazz to this day). Bolden’s self-taught style adds that same elusive blue note (also found in Blues) to Jazz music.
Bolden ended his days in a mental asylum. There’s a general debate whether it was schizophrenia (as he was diagnosed) or pellagra, a common vitamin deficiency that plagued the African-American community at the time. His life is surrounded by colourful myth and a very small set of devout fans who had actually heard his music first hand. But his ideas caused a revolution, and without a note transcribed or a single surviving recording, he’s made a massive impact on the world of music today.
The second gent who had a similarly massive impact is a name that you may well know, Miles Davis. Through his five-decade career he shifted the genre several times, and coached a whole roster of incredible talent, many of whom went on to becoming Jazz greats in their own right. But his largest contribution is something called Modal Jazz. This might get a bit technical, but hang in there. Start playing the track below.
Our man Miles first established Modal Jazz in his album Kind of Blue. It marked the deviation of him playing hot tunes in earlier music (known as Bebop) to playing music which is more marked by note selection and cool melodic lines. (He had released a compilation album called Birth of the Cool two years earlier.) If you’re interested in what Modal Jazz actually is, I’ll add some liner notes below this article**. But for now, it’s important to know that the music subverts what was thought to be a basic part of music, the key centre. It also allows a greater freedom to the soloists, who can play unrestrained by meeting a deadline of when the chord is scheduled to change. The result is something effervescent, it subverts all expected pattern recognition leading to that juicy, juicy dopamine reward.
Jazz can now become about reharmonisation. Here’s pianist Brad Mehldau taking that well known tune “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music and changing the chords (and also the timing) behind the basic melody. If you’re not familiar with the original, the same point can be made with a selection of any song you like here.
Where does that leave us in the modern day? Jazz has fused itself with a broad range of musical theory and influences. It borrows from the diverse but convergent legacies of Miles Davis and King Bolden. It’s not really bounded any longer to the African-American community, and no longer rests on conventions like a swung beat. (That’s just another way of breaking away from the normal, and as soon as that became normal, it was not needed anymore.) Here’s Hiromi Uehara and a group of uber talented musicians bringing all those different styles into a contemporary context.
By now you might notice a couple of things from Bolden to Hiromi. It’s a searching music, but simultaneously an intrepid sound. It makes gigantic splashes on the canvas, but unlike let’s say Rock music, it’s always approaching, never quite on the nose there. It is a style that pays off the more attentive you are to it. And it’s certainly a style of music that benefits from a live listening. Being largely improvised, a band of musicians don’t know every note they’re going to play. They’re also playing off one another. So, they have to be daring, yet searching by their very nature.
I hope this leaves you with a deeper understanding, or an entry point to Jazz music. Scattered around this article is a tonne of recommendations for further listening, and hopefully enough to engrave your YouTube algorithm with many hours of stellar music to come.
*This article was initially meant to be “Understanding Jazz entirely through Anime OSTs,” but I realized that would be niche (though, I’ll still maintain, fiendishly cool). It is true that the Jazz music in Anime is some of the best composed Jazz pieces out there, and Japan has some of the best musicians period, but because they are attached to cartoons, mostly unappreciated. Here are some of those songs to give you a taste of what that article might have been.
** To understand what Modal Jazz is, in all its technical detail, play the song So What whose link is also given above. The song has a little bit of a rev up, and then starts properly at about 0:36. Here you’ll hear a call and response between the bassist and the pianist. Within the legacy of the song, the bassist is making some form of point, and the pianist responds with two chords, which are singing “So What?” as a response, hence the name of the song.
I say two chords, and I suppose technically they are chords, but they’re very unusual chords. Explaining why is going to be a bit of a challenge, but here goes.
One conventionally hears of major chords and minor chords, and then one can stack some other notes on top of it to make it juicier. A feature of both the major and the minor chord is that it contains the fifth note of the scale. If you’re using Western notation, of the Do Re Mi variety, both contain the note called So. The fifth is so embedded that even in Indian classical music, the tanpura is tuned to the Sa, Pa and Sa (the first, fifth and eighth notes).
Pianist Bill Evans isn’t playing the fifth note. He’s doing something else as well, which is even more mind blowing and more difficult to explain. He happens to be playing white notes (of the piano) for the first bit of the song. Most musicians will tell you that means that he’s playing in the key of C, and therefore the home note should logically be C. But mysteriously his home note is D. (Another way of putting it is that he’s playing Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do Re, when the rest of the world was playing Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do.) This is closer to ragas in Indian classical music (though it doesn't sound like it) than most post Gregorian Western Music. It unlocks a whole new way of playing and is extremely freeing for the soloist.*** This is called Modal Music, and when applied to Jazz, Modal Jazz.
*** If you’ve always dreamed of being a Jazz soloist, So What is the easiest track to do it on. Dig out a dinky synth, or download the piano app on your phone. Put this video on. During the A section play any tune on the white keys (you can even bang two notes next to each other together, really anything goes). On the B section play the black notes. Voila, you’re a jazz performer. And you actually understand how freeing Modal Jazz can be.