If you love jazz, then you know that sooner or later someone is going to tell you how much they hate it. That information will likely be closely followed up with something like this: “It just doesn’t make any sense to me! How can you enjoy something that never sounds the same twice?” Then, you are forced to decide whether you will (probably futilely) attempt to correct this blatantly incorrect assessment of the musical genre or simply close your eyes in defeat and step away from the topic.
This post is not for those of you who step away. It’s for the jazz lover who stays to fight and, hopefully, convert the uninitiated to the wonders of jazz.
Usually when someone complains about the “sound” of jazz, it is not that they really don’t like the soft, mellow, catchy and enchanting sounds in the melodies. It is more that they really do not understand what is going on when the musicians start to improvise.
Duke Ellington used to say about music that it is the process of “finding some way to say [something] without saying it.” Jazz musicians, like all musicians, tend to put their “stamp” on music when they successfully perform it. However, unlike musicians who stick closely to a score and, as a result, usually create instantly recognizable tunes, a jazz musician may have an instantly recognizable improvisational style as well. It’s that improvisation that people who “hate jazz” tend to have a problem with.
Here’s one way to explain it:
First, tell the person that a lot of jazz has nothing to do with that unpredictable element they dislike. After all, don’t they recognize Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing” every time they hear it? What about Armstong’s “What a Wonderful World?” Yep. Jazz greats.
Once they’re listening, then point out that jazz improvisation is not invented on the spur of the moment. It’s created around a flexible structure, kind of like a sculpture in the air. A good jazz musician, regardless of whether they play an instrument or employ their voice, will improvise along a series of predetermined tunes and “roles” for their instruments. They are creating spontaneous art but, if you give it a chance, your ear will quickly identify the direction in which the composition is going.
And if this doesn’t happen? Well, we implore you to give it another shot because it’s possible that jazz band just wasn’t very good at that part of jazz. As Wynton Marsalis said, “There is no right or wrong [in jazz], just some choices that are better than others.” Maybe in your experience, the performers made a few too many inferior choices along the score.
If your friend, loved one, or acquaintance decides to write off jazz without really understanding the musical process, we know it is a serious musical loss to them. Even if the process is trying, take a few minutes and attempt to clear the muddy waters surrounding improvisation. Odds are, if they’ll give jazz another try, they will find they soon share your affection for it.