Howard's Blog

This is Howard C. Park's blog. Interests: live music, simulations and modeling, languages, iPod, social and business networking, systems thinking, history of science, management, BBQ, trivia, good coffee, organizational learning, traveling, personal histories.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Secret of Jazz (Part I)

This post will be the first in a series... probably over several months.

I once started a list of "100 things to do". On that list was "discover the secret to jazz". I didn't grow up listening or "doing" jazz. There was lots of music I've had a chance to play and see up close. And here lies the difficulty for me to discovering the secret of jazz. For many people, listening to music is fine way of absorbing what that song, artist, genre, instrument, period, etc. is about. Not for me. In order for me to "understand" and even "like" a specific piece of music or genre, I have to somehow see myself in the music. I have to imagine myself playing an instrument, recording a part, writing or arranging the song, singing the backup, holding the mic.. somthing directly related to what I'm hearing.

This is not about talent or a specific ability. In fact, most of what I enjoy listening to, I can't play. Oh I can play a part here, or may have even covered a song. But the best way I enjoy music is to somehow see myself in the music, even pretending to play something I know I don't know how to play.

Which is why it's been hard for me to discover the secret of Jazz. I've listened to a lot of jazz over the years, but I haven't been able to place myself in it. I play percussion, but jazz drummers play in a way that seems very foreign to what I know on drums. I can follow a bass line, but I can't follow the chord changes, and I can't seem to be able to know where a complex line is going.

Katheryn has listened to a lot more jazz than I have, and she loves it! The last time we were in NYC, we went to The Jazz Standard to hear The Steve Nelson Quartet. We went with some friends who are musicians. The music was wonderful.

I started to see something I hadn't picked up on before in the times that I have seen jazz, and of course almost impossible to pick up when you're listening to a recording. That ability comes with time, I think. There must be many secrets to jazz, but I want to keep it simple for now, and build from that. One word stands out: influence.
|| hcpark, 10:04 PM


Maybe you can shed some light on the mysteries of jazz for me. I just don't get it. About the only jazz I like is dixieland.
Blogger Sarah Hazel, at 9:20 PM  
I'm just starting to understand it. But I think it's something you have to find out for yourself. Sure, it helps to read what others are discovering about it, but you gotta eat it yourself.

Somebody asked Louis Armstrong, "What is jazz?". He responded, “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.”
Blogger hcpark, at 9:49 PM  
While at UT, I took a jazz appreciation class. The professor still called people "cats" and so on. Granted this was now 12-14 years ago, but I wrote in a paper that I felt that jazz lacked structure - next to which he wrote a large red "?!" (I don't think I did so well on that paper).
But that said, there is simply less structure than what most of us are used to. Chord changes can be faster & more extreme, melodies only hinted at, tempos that don't allow for hand-clapping, etc.
I think an important thing to remember in appreciating jazz is that it is a very wide section of music. If you begin listening to the avant-garde jazz of the 1960's, you may find yourself losing interest quickly. Just as if you wanted to get into classical & began with Bela Bartok or John Cage. In fact, I think how you educate & introduce yourself to the music is significant. You can appreciate Beethoven more if you're familiar with Haydn, Mozart & Bach. Jazz is no different - begin at the beginning. As a layperson, I would recommend listening to the "founding fathers" like Armstrong. I would also highly recommend renting (via Netflix et al) Ken Burns' Jazz documentary. I've only seen parts of it, but what a great overview!
Anonymous skrippel, at 8:59 PM  
May I add that I think improvisational jazz is better in a live setting - whether that be in a venue or in a live recording.
Anonymous Scott Krippel, at 9:02 PM  
Some great comments, Scott.

I recall learning about philosophy. I was told that most of philosophy is commentary on previous philosophy. To understand Foucault & Derrida, you have to know what Lacan said, To understand what Lacan was saying, you have to know what Freud was saying. (I haven't actually read any of these guys, and I'm not even sure I have the spellings correct or the precendents--anyway, you get the point.)

In order to really understand philosophy (or modern philosophical discourse), you have to at some point go back to Aristotle and Socrates. Every other philosopher is commentary that came after that.

So it is with jazz. I have to start at the beginning. Since jazz is a "living" art, defined at the moment of playing, a performance is necessarily dependent on precendent to which it refers. Like all art, you have to understand how something fits into the larger framework.

So where did jazz come from?
Blogger hcpark, at 12:52 AM  

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