The Music of Meaning

Review: Ted Gioia, 'How to Listen to Jazz'

Louis Armstrong with his trumpet / AP
January 15, 2017

Amid the cacophony of the past year, one paean to improvised order emerged from the pen of music critic Ted Gioia. That book, How to Listen to Jazz, deserves your undivided engagement. Ultimately, Gioia tells you not only how to listen to jazz, but why.

In the mind, jazz may connote intellectuals in berets and irrelevant conversations. Yet in his succinct masterpiece, Gioia shows the genre to be something much more gritty and consequential. By the end of the sojourn through what Gioia terms the "soundtrack to American life," one learns to appreciate the art form on its own terms. More importantly, one is inclined to do the exact thing the author urges throughout his work—to listen.

The Godfather of Jazz in America, Gioia is best known for his prior epics on the genre, The History of Jazz and The Jazz Standards. For connoisseurs, those works remain foundational to a deeper understanding of the form. Yet in this much shorter work, the author teaches casual listeners how to experience jazz, and in doing so broadens their horizons.

A jazz pianist and former Stanford professor of music, Gioia introduces his readers to the fundamental building blocks of the genre. His first two chapters explore the mysteries of rhythm in music. It is an esoteric topic to be sure, but hesitant readers are rewarded by Gioia's delivered promise to lay bare his listening strategies. Then comes the book's most compelling claim: that understanding jazz is not just about personal taste, that instead there are standards by which to judge and enjoy it. Impressively, he notes, "We can tell that we are encountering a real work of art by the degree to which it resists our subjectivity."

Gioia begins his instruction on listening strategies by explaining that listeners must be attentive to an artist's "phrasing," the "intricate web of notes" that artists string together into their own forms of expression. Flexibility in phrasing, according to the author, is "one of the chief delights of hearing jazz."

He then advises his audience to pay attention to pitch and timbre. Here, he quotes New Orleans jazz luminary Sydney Bechet, who instructed a pupil to practice only one specific note at a time to "See how many ways you can play that note—growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That's how you express your feelings in this music. It's like talking." Gioia reveals the mystery of the music in this anecdote. The listener's "mandate" is not simply to listen to notes, but to what is being done to them. The entire book is worth this single truth.

Gioia introduces two other building blocks of good listening: attention to dynamics and personality. He describes dynamics as variations in volume. Is the artist yelling or whispering? What mood does that choice create? With respect to personality, he shows us that the way music is played says a lot about the musician's own temperament. While Miles Davis had a reputation for aggression, his music also reveals a deep tenderness. Thus, the music is a way to relate to and understand the artist. There is an implicit plea for the revival of local jazz bars in this truth, as venues where that kind of engagement can be most fruitful.

The rest of the book describes how the genre evolved, and what one should be attentive to when listening to jazz from various periods and artists. Gioia renders his judgment on key artists and their contributions to the development of jazz, showing that true virtuosity lies in mastery of the form. These sections amount to a condensed Great Courses series on jazz appreciation, empowering readers to download their own playlists and follow Gioia's guidance to understanding.

Wittingly or not, Gioia accomplishes something far beyond expanding the reader's critical ability. He gives his pupil a window into a deeper insight about music and our age. Gioia recounts the story of Charles Mingus's response when one of his bandmates played a particularly delightful solo. "Don't ever do that again!" Mingus yelled at its conclusion. He said this, as Gioia puts it, because jazz relies on the spontaneity that animates life; it is an art form for "those who want to be present when the miracle happens."

The truth is that anarchy is overrated, whether it is expressed in the debased rootlessness of post-modernism, a canvas with random streaks of paint, or a cacophony of noise without direction. As in so many things, ordered liberty in jazz provides the foundation for meaning. By contrast, jazz as anarchy is jazz misunderstood.