Jazz is an aural (Merriam-Webesters defines aural as: of or relating to the ear or to the sense of hearing) art form. We learn by listening. We learn by copying, imitating, transcribing, and overall, digesting jazz through our ears. Being a music educator, I believe that you cannot learn to play jazz without a heavy dose of listening. HOW we listen lies at the heart of this post.
Traditionally, jazz was consumed through live performances, over the radio, or by purchasing LP’s at the local record store. Much of jazz’s history has been defined by the classic albums of the jazz greats. Think of the year 1959 – John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come were all released during this momentous year. If you wanted to check out the new sound of free jazz produced by Ornette, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, you had to purchase the record, the physical product at a record store. You then ran home and threw the LP on the record player, and proceeded to spend hours listening, reading the liner notes, scanning the album artwork, and digesting that record. It is of my opinion that through this process, the physical act of purchasing and owning a jazz album, that one obtains a deeper understanding and appreciation for the music.
Fast forward to the 21st century. We now have mp3s, the World Wide Web, iTunes, and other various devices that provide us access to all forms of media at our fingertips, any time we want. There is no question that the advantages of living in this era are significant. We can instantly listen to Chris Potter’s most recent album on iTunes, and can watch thousands of hours of video from the hard-bop era on YouTube. NPR uploads a host of interviews, concerts, and videos to their jazz site. Smalls Jazz Club conducts live video streams of their shows on a nightly basis. The world of jazz is at our fingertips, so to speak.
However, has all this digital information helped us to become better listeners, or has it simply divided our time and allowed us to superficially consume more media? There’s no doubt that the jazz resources we have today are advantageous to a budding and seasoned jazz musician in many ways. However, if you truly want to digest an album, a player, a style, then pull out that LP or CD, put a pair of good headphones on, and listen away!
Grant Larson is a saxophonist/educator in the Colorado-area. Explore http://www.grantblarson.com to find out more about his musical (and outdoor) explorations.