Basic jazz guide for the layman

"You don't need to understand music theory to enjoy jazz, you don't need to be very cool and know Coltrane's discography, you just need to listen" - Sarah Teodoro

Jazz is perhaps one of the most worshiped genres by music lovers, and not for nothing. It has so many variations within itself, and so many great names in its hall, that make it one of the richest musical styles there is.

It is difficult to know where to begin to listen to or understand a little more jazz.

We have prepared a short and brief guide for you to understand a little more and to venture into the style. But, before you start reading the article, play our jazz for the layman below and get in the mood.

What is jazz?

Jazz emerged in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. The genre was born from the variation of two other styles: it brings the swing and improvisation of ragtime with the incorporation of blue notes (semitoned notes with a more melancholic characteristic), from the blues.

The main characteristic of jazz is that it does not stick to a fixed structure or score. Improvisation is one of the key elements here, giving the artists freedom in performing a song. He has to stick to just a few harmonic structures.

This freedom in jazz means that the best way to enjoy the genre is live, since one performance by a band or artist can always be different from another.

A cool curiosity is that jazz musicians of the past often tried to outdo each other. Some did this when composing their music.

Others, on the other hand, challenged their competitors to "musical battles" where they would jam session to see who was better live.

A common jazz band features a solo instrument (such as a trumpet or saxophone) accompanied by a rhythm section (drums, bass and double bass) and harmonic instruments (piano and guitar).

As for the artists in this style, they usually perform in trios and quartets, or in big bands made up of several members.

Another important thing to understand is that jazz has several sub-styles within it: Hard bop, new orleans, swing, third stream, post bop...

There are so many strands and variations that it gets a little boring to try to understand the differences between each one. I recommend that you start slowly, listening to some of the exponents of the genre before trying to memorize or understand difficult terminology.

Artists you must know

As I said before, jazz is a style with many strands and variations, each with its own great stars and exponents.

However, there are some artists that are a guaranteed presence in any list or great jazz collection. I have separated nine of them:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Charlie "Bird" Parker
  • Miles Davis
  • Bill Evans
  • Thelonious Monk
  • John Coltrane
  • Herbie Hancock
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Dizzy Gillespie

Each of them has their own best of CD or hit collection. After you listen to our jazz playlist for the layman If you want to go deeper, listen to each one.

It is a good way to slowly get to know the individual style and variation of these guys. You can find one that you identify with more and follow his line to find your taste within jazz.

The best way to start listening to jazz

Musical taste is something impersonal and non-transferable. Listen to different songs from different jazz eras and familiarize yourself with them. There is everything from jazz with only slower instrumental music to sung and faster versions.

I recommend you start listening to some playlists with diverse music until you begin to understand what kind of sound sets your vibe.

Mine, for example, is in the line that Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk work. Yours may be completely different.

It may seem a little intimidating, but like any acquired taste, you must spend a little time and attention to understand a little more of the object being studied and draw out your tastes within it.

I recommend that, if you are listening at home, you leave the room in the half-light, open a bottle of whisky - or a good beer - and enjoy the sound over a good headphone. It will help you to get a feel for the different textures and instruments present in each jazz song.

If you want a more vivid experience, I highly recommend that you look for a jazz club in your city, sit at a table, order a good drink, and enjoy the sound.

If you go with someone, choose someone who has the sensitivity to sit still and enjoy the music with you. A jazz club is not a bar or steakhouse where people scream and laugh while the artist begs for attention.

If you are in or coming to São Paulo, I highly recommend Bourbon Street Music Club In addition to good service and a broad cultural program, both spaces have that jazz club feel that we see in the movies.

Books to understand a little more about jazz

Come on, for those of you who really want to get into jazz, there are a lot of books available that cover not only the history, but also the cultural influence of the genre after its heyday.

Check out our list of books to learn more about jazz:

  • "All That Jazz" by Geoff Dyer
  • "Jazz - From Rag to Rock", by Joachim Berendt
  • "Social History of Jazz" by Eric Hobsbawm
  • "Jazz - A History of America's Music", by Ken Burns
  • "Kind of Blue" by Ashley Kahn
  • "The House that Trane Built" by Ashley Kahn
  • Freedom, Rhythm & Sound

Movies to understand jazz

And last but not least, jazz has also been the subject of many great movies in Hollywood history, including the first great talking movie called "The Jazz Singer", which was a revolution for its time.

Check out the list of movies to understand more about jazz below:

  • The Jazz Singer (1927)
  • Music and Tears (1953)
  • The Fall of a Star (1972)bir
  • Cotton Club (1984)
  • Bird (1988)
  • Kansas City (1996)
  • Few and Good (1999)
  • Whiplash (2014)
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