Toronto Jazz Band
Toronto Jazz Band



Toronto Jazz Band

All That Jazz!

A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Jazz

At different times in history, Jazz has managed to capture the attention of the mainstream music listener. Songs like: Swingin’ Sheppard Blues by Moe Koffman, Take Five by Dave Brubeck, A Tisket A Tasket sung by Ella Fitzgerald, and of course Sing, Sing, Sing featuring the drumming of Gene Krupa, have all managed to make it into the listening space of the masses.

The people that invested their hard earned money in purchasing the recordings made by these and many other jazz artists are, and probably still remain, mystified as to why they love this music. Who really understands jazz? What is it about these records that cause people to listen repeatedly, over extended periods of time? What makes these songs timeless? New generations of music lovers fall in love all over again with records like these; records that where listened to and loved by several previous generations.

Let’s be honest: most people do not have a clue about jazz! I know it hurts to admit this, particularly in light of the fact most of the "in-crowd, hip, and (who could forget) the beautiful people, all claim to be "jazz aficionados!" For a lot of these "jazz aficionados," knowing a jazz artist and owning a few of their records somehow equates to being "in the know."

When queried beyond the liner notes of an old jazz LP, or having dedicated a good deal of time and money to following the careers of certain jazz artists when they come to town to play at a local watering hole; the average aficionado in the jazz world is somewhat limited. But that is perfectly acceptable, quite normal, and frankly; the mechanism that keeps jazz in front of the mainstream listener.

It’s important to know right up front that you do not have to pass a theory, history, or technical facility exam, to become one of the chosen few that proudly wears the moniker: "Jazz Fan." Anyone can become a jazz fan and the path toward becoming a "Jazz Aficionado," is not as far-reaching as you may think. As a matter of fact, it is quite reasonably within the grasp of anyone with a sincere curiosity to understand jazz and a little time on their hands, to do a great deal of listening.

Jazz is an Artform. Jazz is a musical form of expression. Jazz is about listening. Jazz is about hearing. (Yes, there can sometimes be a big difference between listening and hearing.) Jazz is about feeling. Jazz is about seeing, Jazz is about experiencing. Jazz is mood altering. Jazz can be inspiring. Jazz can be uplifting. Jazz can be motivational. Jazz is an escape. Jazz can quicken your pulse or it can totally relax you. Jazz can be romantic. Jazz can be funny. Jazz can be sad. Jazz can be fiery. Jazz can be disturbing. Jazz can take you on a journey of the mind. Jazz can take you on a journey of the spirit. Jazz can speak to your soul. Jazz is a memory recalled, and jazz can be anything you want it to be.

Jazz can be distinctive to a region. New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, Florida, Texas, The West Coast, The East Coast, Southern Jazz, Northern Jazz. There are subtle differences that distinguish the unique offerings of each geographic region.

Some people find and create their own comfort zones by labeling the experiential trips that they take. A few paragraphs back Jazz was labeled as: "Jazz is…" There are groups of people, possibly due in part to cultural exposures, that have a need to define experiences with points of reference that are metaphorically or anecdotally related to that which is already known.

Contrasting those people, are those that can just be "in the moment." These people can accept an experience for what it is, without having to define that experience with some referential point of comparison. They get "caught up in the moment" or "swept away" by the experience and allow themselves to "go with the flow."

For someone wanting to truly understand jazz, it is important to note that this is what the jazz musician continually strives to achieve. The experience of being in the moment; being swept away, losing all track of time and space; or going with the flow; is the place where all jazz musicians work towards.

When a musician plays jazz, particularly while soloing, they do not think of categorizing the content of their musical offering. Instead, they fully invest themselves into responding to the song as it is taking place, making a statement based on some aspect of the melody, chords, or rhythm. They work toward allowing the music they are playing to take them on a journey that is timeless and without defined parameters.

If one were to talk to a musician that does not like labels, one might be quickly scolded for attempting to put "jazz in a jar" to be taken down from the shelf for "analytic consumption" at a later date. If one were to talk to a Zen Master, one might be told: "If you find the right label to describe Jazz, in the middle of the road, you must kill it for it is an illusion."

In seeking to understand jazz, one must look toward the historical contribution of those that have paved the way for jazz to germinate as an art form. To have a semblance of how it is jazz developed, it is important to book a trip with your local "historical jazz travel agent."

Now if you are one of the deprived few that do not have a "historical jazz travel agent" in your neck of the woods, allow me to temporarily act in that capacity. In the next paragraph, you are going to read a gaggle of names. These names may or may not be familiar: either way, that’s OK! I would encourage you to look upon these names as one might look at a travel brochure, when contemplating the merits of discovering a new destination to travel towards.

Miles, Bird, Trane, Diz, Bix, Prez, Duke, Count, Monk, Chick Webb, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jay McShan, OP, Billie Ekstine, Chet Baker, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Cleo Lane, Johnny Dankworth, Maynard Ferguson, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Mel Lewis, Thad Jones, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Hubert Laws, Phil Nimmons, The Chairman of the Board.

Chick Corea, Return to Forever, Airto, Wayne Shorter, Weather Report, Joe Zawinal, Jaco Pastorious, Time Warp, The Boss Brass, The Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, The Brecker Brothers, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, The Marsalis Family, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, Arturo Sandoval, Joey Calderazzo, Pat Methany, Pat Martino, Pat LaBarbara, Chuck Mangione

Select one of these names as a featured destination. Before embarking on an exploratory journey to "Monkville, Birdland or even Nutville," I would encourage you to travel many "Miles" by "Trane," to a "Tain" a thorough perspective on the "Miles" needed to travel, to truly understand jazz.

"Well You Needn’t, but you could take a "Buddy" with you on your journey, and you don’t have to be "Rich" to enjoy the trip to the "Preservation Hall." You don’t have to be a "Duke" or a "Count" or a "Prez" or even "The Chairman of the Board" to "Getz" jazz. Frankly, it doesn’t matter! Know what I mean?

If you’re not catching my drift: "Well You Needn’t." "So What," if you’re having trouble finding "Chelsea Bridge," or "Mr. PC" for that matter." Use your "Body and Soul" to appreciate the journey to understanding jazz. Did you know that "A Nightingale Sang in Barkley Square?" A "Monk" would have to have "Steepian Faith" to live an existence void of jazz. "Have You Met Miss Jones?" She’s one "Satin Doll" of a woman; a very "Sophisticated Lady!"

"Take the A Train," it’s the quickest way to get to Harlem or any other place you may want to visit on your jazz explorations. You could also go to "Spain" or "Corea" with the "Chick" of your choice. (Ok, I know I’m really "getting outside" here, but humor me, I’m having fun. For the sake of art, introducing song titles to the unannointed, and as a really cheesy way to play out this "historical jazz travel agent shtick, allow me to indulge you with further {smelly} cheese!)

On your trip to see "Alice In Wonderland," you may discover some of your "Favorite Things!" Now, I realize you may say: "Baby, It’s Cold Outside," but after you take a "Blood Count," you could take "My Ship" to "Perdido" or "Brazil."

"Whisper Not," but always remember: "On The Sunny Side of The Street," "Ishfahan" lives with his "Horacescope," just waiting for the next "Equinox." Although a "Devil May Care" attitude might be considered "Mean To Me," "A Child Is Born" every second and that is usually the result of someone saying: "Let’s Fall In Love." It could also be the result of someone’s "Mo Joe" working.

When taking "Route 66," "Don’t Forget the Poet," or "The Dogs In The Wine Shop." "The Duke" and his "Escher Sketch" are "Forever" doing "The Freedom Jazz Dance." "In Your Own Sweet Way" you may say: "I’ve Got The World On A String." You may be "Five Hundred Miles High" in a "Moments Notice" when taking the journey to understand jazz, but "After The Rain," you’ll be doing "Impressions" of the "Giant Steps" required to climb "Jacobs Ladder!" "Dear Lord," this "Skippy-Ing" all over the jazz map, has had me "Strollin" "Till There Was You." Finding jazz is like saying: "You’re My Everything, You’re Everything!" It can be a real "Sea Journey" or a "Dolphin Dance."

It’s kind of like dating a "Sophisticated Lady:" you would never ask her to become "Stablemates!" Even if you took her out midnight sailing to gather "Stardust," chances are you would see "So Many Stars," even though they are "Sweet and Lovely" and "Suddenly" you run the risk of becoming "Star Crossed Lovers."

Ah, but I have digressed, with only the kindest intentions of foisting my hidden agenda upon you. Understanding jazz requires both jazz musician and an aficionado alike to develop a certain repertoire or library of jazz standards. A jazz standard is a song that is commonly known and performed by jazz musicians all over the world.

To familiarize yourself with these "standards," it takes time and patience. "Take Five" minutes a day to do some listening and over time, you will develop your knowledge of jazz standards. (Ok, I’ll stop with the cheesy references.)

If you were to revisit the previous ten paragraphs, you will notice that a number of references have been made to song titles. Those references are capitalized and in quotations. These are the "jazz standards" that I have made reference to, and if you look carefully, you will find a "smattering" of reference, to the names of some of those that have penned those standards.

The reasons for acquiring this knowledge of standard jazz repertoire are many.

Once you are familiar with the "standards," you can walk into almost any jazz club the world over, and have an understanding or a point of commonality with whatever it is that is taking place during the performance. Familiarizing yourself with the "standards" allows you to "hear the melody in your head" while the soloist is improvising. In other words, the melody is the reference point from which a solo is constructed. The more familiar you are with the melody of the song you are listening to, the greater the likely-hood you will understand the statement being made by the soloist. When a "standard" is approached from a different perspective, the resulting effect is: "the old can sound new."

For example:

    "Take Five" is a great jazz standard written in the odd time signature of five-four. The standard time signatures that jazz is commonly played in are: four-four or three-four. "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck, broke through a barrier when it first came out. People were deeply intrigued by this different time signature.

    One Saturday morning I was driving along, listening to my favorite local jazz radio station (CJRT 91.1 FM), and the announcer said: "Here’s a new take on an old standard. Have a listen to "Tito Puente’s" version of: "Take Five." Two things stood out immediately: Tito arranged the tune in four-four time, not the standard time signature of five-four that everyone had become used to hearing. And, the rhythmic style was Latin - not jazz. Tito arranged the tune with a very strong reference to the melody, used very "hip" jazz chordal voicing, but the rhythmic approach was totally unique.
This is what makes knowing and understand the "standards" so valuable. When someone does something unique, you have a point of understanding that will allow you to appreciate the musical offering to a much higher degree than a listener without this "standard" point of reference.

There is so much more to learn on the enjoyable path to understanding jazz. Even for those that consider themselves to be full-time jazz musicians, the path to learning is endless.

Knowing this well in advance of your quest to understand jazz can make it far easier to accept the one basic truth that you will need to come to terms with: "It takes time to learn about and understand the musical artform of jazz."

Everyone has their own unique approach to acquiring and retaining knowledge. You will have a natural time-line and degree of commitment that will ultimately determine your status as a "jazz fan or jazz aficionado." You can alter that time-line to a certain degree if you have the desire to expedite your progress.

There are a number of great reference sources that you can tap into to learn more about jazz. Go into an online search engine like and type in the word "jazz" and see what comes up. When I did this, Google found 177,000 jazz websites! Exploring that many websites revolving around jazz would be a massive project, but a worthwhile one!

Another suggestion you may want to consider in your quest: is to take a "Jazz Appreciation Course" at a local Community College or University. My good friend (and "World-Class Jazz Bass Player/founder of award winning jazz super-group: Time Warp!), Al Henderson teaches a course at the University of Toronto, on Jazz Appreciation.

Al really puts his heart and soul into teaching this program and you will definitely come out of the experience with a great understanding of how jazz evolved to the point it is at today. Al is also a Professor of Music at York University. His courses are always jam-packed with great information about jazz!

The jazz community has a very loyal and dedicated following. One of the best sources of information is the various jazz magazines that are out there to serve the purpose of exposing jazz to a wider audience. "Down Beat Magazine," is one of the best known resources for information on jazz. Again, I would encourage you to tap into the vast Google database. Type in "Jazz Magazines," and go exploring!

As another source, I have included a list of jazz musicians, jazz clubs, jazz terminologies and jazz record companies for you to have fun researching. Visit our Jazz Terms page, pick a name from our Jazz Names page, plug our terms and names into Google or one of the other search engines on the internet, and see what comes up. This is a great way to better your understanding of jazz.



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Toronto Jazz Band

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