The Importance of Jazz to the Casual Music Enthusiast

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This summer, I visited San Francisco, California, and among the many sights I saw was the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, named after the legendary American jazz saxophonist, at which I attended a service. It started as a normal church service, until the priest began rambling about how today’s top 40 music was “garbage” and contributed to the “ills of the world,” and that people needed to “listen to more John Coltrane.” He then proceeded to pick up a saxophone and play upbeat jazz with the rest of the clergy and any willing audience participants. Once this surreal experience ended and my awe died down, I began to meditate more on his advice. Listen to more John Coltrane. The more involved members at the church would spend every Sunday morning meditating to Coltrane’s magnum opus A Love Supreme for 45 minutes, but why? What value does jazz offer to the folks that go and worship every Sunday? And more importantly, what value does jazz offer to the average music listener?

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: What’s the difference between a rock musician and jazz musician? A rock musician plays three chords in front of thousands of people, while a jazz musician plays thousands of chords in front of three people. While this is obviously poking fun at jazz, it does hold a few grains of truth; for example, it highlights the fact that jazz is complex--the entirety of modern jazz is based on musicians making bold calls and taking risks with their music. As pianist Keith Jarrett said, “Jazz is the only music in the Western world in which the most risk yields the greatest results.”

In short, jazz musicians stretch the creative capacity of the human mind to the extreme. On top of the complexity of the chords and harmonies, musicians seemingly try to paradoxically create an infinite melody using a finite set of notes within the key; and best of all, it’s made up on the spot (for the most part). This greatly contrasts with other types of music, which are constructed meticulously before performance. They craft a four-course meal from a recipe for the listener, which is presented on a silver platter, while the jazz musician ditches the recipe and cooks from scratch.

If one can understand jazz, then one can understand all types of Western music. It’s similar to the fact that if one understands advanced calculus, then an algebra test would come with ease. This isn’t to disparage more popular forms of music, but to highlight the fact that jazz requires more attention and patience in order to construct, listen to, and more importantly, understand.

This isn’t to say that you should enjoy jazz; I understand as much as anyone that some jazz comes off as abrasive, antagonistic, and downright unlistenable, like Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, which is often considered to be one of the highest form of human musical expression. But I offer you a challenge today; listen to Free Jazz from start to finish, with nothing around to distract you. Put your undivided attention into the patterns that arise, how it makes you feel, and how the rhythm, harmony, and melody act separately in order to create a single, cohesive piece of music. It most likely won’t make sense to you, nor will you like it, but it’s important to listen to in order to understand the mind of the quintessential jazz musician.

image source: Wikimedia

What We ThinkJoe ElvinJazz