A lot of people insist that there is no such thing as “bad jazz.” They may be right. So many times, what is a perfect fit for one jazz enthusiast’s ear is a terrible clunker in another ear. Because jazz is such an extensive genre both in terms of style and longevity, it is easy to say that one man’s (or woman’s) “trash” is another’s treasure when it comes to jazz.
However, as with most types of art, there will always be people who want to be able to make value judgments about the relative caliber of one musician or creative individual over another. Particularly if you are new to jazz appreciation, it can be frustrating to feel as if you do not know if you are listening to something “good” that simply does not appeal to you or if you have mastered the “jazz ear” and now can comment on relative merits of one jazz piece over another.
To help with this process and, hopefully, bring more jazz lovers into the fold where they belong and can learn to really appreciate all forms of this musical style, here is a starter list of three ways you can spot jazz music that is, in all likelihood, truly good jazz. Now, do not get carried away. At no point should I ever hear, “Well, the Scat Cats say you’re out to lunch*because you don’t meet these three points for good jazz.” Nope. Better not. Because that would be, as jazz musicians might say, a real bringdown**. In fact, it might lead us to blow our top***and call you a birdbrain****if we were feeling particularly feisty.
You just use these three pointers as a starting place and be fly*****while you learn to love jazz.
Good Jazz Goal #1: The music “tells a story”
Most jazz musicians use some level of improvisation when they perform even if they are playing old classics. When the instrumental comes in, listen for that improvisation. Are the musicians having fun? Are they working together to make that instrumental section really tell a story? If so, then you are probably listening to some good jazz.
Good Jazz Goal #2: You can tell the musicians have their own voice
This goes along with #1 quite a bit. There are a lot of jazz classics out there, but most of us who really love those tunes make them our own. However, you don’t want a musician to muddle through the song or add things that sound out of place just to be unique. If the jazz is good, you think, “Wow, that is a great song; I never thought of quite that way before,” and you know the musician put his or her own style on it.
Good Jazz Goal #3: They can stretch the beat but don’t break it
Jazz has a very difficult rhythm to play because it allows for notes both before and behind the beat, but you also have to keep perfect time in addition to creating a syncopated sound. It is hard. If you are listening to good jazz, you will find yourself amazed at the technical ability of the musicians in addition to enjoying their tunes.
Need a few pointers for the “jazz lingo” up top? Check out the translations below.
* “Out to lunch” means lame or a bad jazz musician. “I can’t stand that guy’s style. He is really out to lunch.”
** “Bringdown” is a verb that means to depress someone. Can also be used as an adjective. “That guy is a real bringdown, so let’s leave before he starts complaining.”
*** “Blow our top” expresses exasperation, but it can also indicate enthusiasm. In this article, it implies exasperation. “We don’t want to blow our top so do not push our patience.”
**** “Birdbrain” is a term for someone who is not original or informed. “Only a birdbrainwould say that Benny Goodman wasn’t a jazz great.”
***** “Be fly” is an adjective that means smooth or cool. “I love the Scat Cats. That is one flygroup.”