How to Listen to Jazz

Keep and open mind and explore different artistic possibilities.

J. Travis Smith

Jazz music is an ever-evolving fusion of style, a national art form embodying the metaphor of America as a complex cultural melting pot. From the start, early American musical elements — West African rhythms, elements of spirituals and the blues, and America’s marching band instruments, brass and reeds — came together in ragtime music. That developed into classic jazz. That morphed from Chicago to Kansas style to bebop. Hard bop of the late ’50s gave way to experimental forms. From the ’80s onward, elements of Afro-Cuban music and hip-hop were infused into the jazz we know today.

In short, the jazz catalogue is deeply complex and has many countless stylistic branches. For many listeners the harmonically complex instrumental music, extended improvisations, and avant-garde sounds can be overwhelming. But with a few pointers and some thoughtful listening, the language becomes more clear. Though the best way to immerse yourself in the genre is to attend live concerts, there is a vast amount of recordings available for listeners — stemming from both the studio and live concerts — looking to explore the different eras and artists. When surveying anything, it’s best to practice patience, but to help guide you along your aural experience, we invited acclaimed drummer Mark Guiliana to weigh in with some listening advice.

About the Expert


Mark Guiliana, composer and drummer: Over the past decade, Mark Guiliana has created a notable buzz in the jazz community for his forward-thinking approach to the instrument. He has performed on over 30 albums with artists ranging from Avishai Cohen to Lionel Loueke, Matisyahu and David Bowie. Time Out London explained his style as follows: “What happens when you add hard bop drum masters Elvin Jones and Art Blakey to a 1980s Roland 808 drum machine, divide the result by J Dilla and then multiply to the power of Squarepusher? Answer: Mark Guiliana.” Listen Here

Keep an open mind. “If you look at where jazz started and where it has gone, it is all about innovation. Even if we look backwards, and we look at the way the music sounded in the ’20s or ’30s, it sounds like it’s almost 100 years old, but really in that moment it was very new, very innovative and very progressive. I think that you can make that observation about every major chapter in jazz’s evolution, and as we know, innovation isn’t always accepted and appreciated in real time. I would encourage the listener to approach it with an open mind, because the things that you’re hearing, especially the more innovative approaches, might take time to digest.”

Follow your bliss and explore. “As a listener, please follow your bliss. I would never fault a listener for only focusing on what they love — that’s so important. Whatever music touches you and whatever music makes you feel good is the music you should absolutely be listening to.

“That being said, I would encourage everyone to try to always have that open mind and explore and look for more music that will potentially create that good feeling in their body. For me — and a lot of my teachers always preached this, and now I find myself preaching this — it starts with identifying what you like and then trying to do the research to find out, whoever it is you like, what those guys and girls were checking out. I think that you can do that easier than ever nowadays with Google, and you can try to find some interviews.”

Go to a live show. “Speaking for myself, the way that I get the most joy and enrichment from the music is when I see it live.

“If I was trying to convince someone to like jazz — which I wouldn’t do because I think hopefully the music speaks for itself — but if I was really trying to sell them on it, I would do one thing and one thing only: I would bring them to a live show. I think that goes for the majority of arts: the personal experience is all-important in digesting whatever art it is.”

Listen to the details on a studio album. “Both studio recordings and live recordings are equally important to the jazz catalogue. Now, more and more with technology, it’s getting easier and easier to manipulate the recorded material. I think if we take out politics and business, I would trust that what ends up on the CD is exactly what the artist intended. And that intention is the most important thing. So if it meant that he wanted to erase two notes that he played because he didn’t like them, yes, by definition, it is not a true picture of what happened in that moment, but you could say that it is a true picture of what he imagined in his mind.

“The other advantage: it’s rare — though it’s getting closer and closer — that a live recording will have the fidelity of a studio recording. So therefore the studio recording allows you to hear greater detail, and I think as a listener, especially as a new listener, that’s a big bonus to really say, ‘Oh wow, I can hear exactly what the piano player is playing underneath the saxophone solo. This is really helpful to me.’ Whereas maybe the live recording is of a lesser quality, so you’re getting more of the raw emotion, but to really dig into the details of what’s happening might be a little more difficult.”

Listen to different versions of the same song. “One thing that I love, and one thing to try to seek out intentionally, is to find multiple versions of the same song. For example, if you can find Frank Sinatra singing ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ and you can find ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ on the Roy Haynes album Out of the Afternoon, they are very different musical statements, but to me they’re of equal musical importance.

“Not only are you learning more about this song as you’re hearing different versions, you’re really learning a lot about the individuality and the personality of each musician and the way that they are presenting it. I think one of the beauties of dealing with the standard repertoire is that, of course the song is often beautiful, but it’s the interpretation that really gives it a new life.”


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This content is imported from Spotify. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

Remember that jazz is a fusion of influences. Jazz has always been built on fusing elements. I think that the best results have come when that’s happened in the least forced way… My favorite examples of these new combinations of things are happening from people where it’s really just what they know, it’s intuitive, it doesn’t feel like this premeditated position to try to put two things together.”

On Chris Dave’s Work with Robert Glasber:
“When I hear them play, that’s just the way music sounds to them based on their life experiences, based on their influences. I could never play that way because I haven’t had those life experiences. I think that’s true of all my favorite musicians: they’re true to themselves and are speaking through their instrument and that’s what makes them special.”

This content is imported from Spotify. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

Put yourself in the soloist’s shoes. “Let’s take John Coltrane for example — he’s been known to play some long solos. Really try to imagine the solo as a story and try to identify the ways that he’s developing themes, and the self-exploration. He’s taking risks, he’s experimenting, he’s pushing himself and the other musicians. One of the most exciting things in art, to me, is to witness a really master improviser creating in the moment, really searching for new possibilities. Wayne Shorter — another one of my heroes — talks about exploring the unknown. It takes a lot of courage to do that, it takes a lot of confidence to do that — [his band] will walk out in front of 5,000 people in a beautiful theater, and really just trust each other and search for the music in the moment. So I’d encourage the listener to try to put yourself in their shoes.

“Also, really try to pay close attention to the interaction between all the musicians, because again, at the highest level, improvising is a conversation between the musicians onstage. And, it’s really exciting and fulfilling to, maybe if you notice something the drummer played, immediately hear another member of the band respond to that in a complementary way. When the musicians are really listening to each other and are really in the moment, it can lead to some incredible results.”


This content is imported from Spotify. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

This content is imported from Spotify. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

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