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How to Listen to Jazz

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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After surviving a near-fatal marriage and returning once again to the Original Geniusdome, the site of some of my best work (remember that really funny thing I wrote about jazz that time?), I recently took some time to reflect upon my contributions to Our Music. As the Dean of American Jazz Humorists©®, I have long considered it my responsibility both to demystify some of the more esoteric aspects of jazz and to loosen the death grip of the zealot so that the music can breathe. And if by fulfilling these duties, I should somehow end up rich and famous, romantically linked to unspeakably hot actresses like Christina Hendricks and/or Scarlett Johansson and given a lifetime supply of beer by the Anheuser-Busch corporation for my work promoting the consumption of their product by tireless example, well, then, so be it.

But in the process of sifting through my collected works, a glaring oversight was pointed out to me by my parakeet/bodyguard Luca Brasi. "Yes, we get it, Wynton Marsalis has a very round head. But where in all this do you give JazzNoobs a lesson in how to listen to this sometimes daunting music?" he said, making a valid point for someone who spends a significant portion of his day chirping at his own reflection in a mirror.

Sure enough, in eight years of occupying my mantle here at AAJ, I had not once addressed the very basic issue that is probably most responsible for keeping people from making a more dedicated foray into the seemingly impenetrable depths of Our Music that lie beyond the safety and comfort of the familiar kind of jazz one hears on those 1970's TV shows where people in polyester bell-bottoms and crocheted sweater-vests are supposed to be hip.

Be that as it may.

To the uninitiated, jazz may seem either irrelevant or impenetrable. The soundtrack by which middle-aged men with ponytails drive their Volkswagen Passats to Whole Foods, a tuneless mishmash of meandering solos and jarring chords set atop a seemingly unrelated rhythm. Jazz comes off as inaccessible to the average Joe (not Joe Zawinul, obviously), like a 12-page wine list in one of those places where they call green beans "haricot verts" like they're better than you or something.

Yet, every day people from all walks of life find themselves exposed to some aspect of Our Music that makes them pause and think, "I like this, I wonder what kind of music it is?" When informed by a helpful passer-by that it is, in fact, jazz, most people go through the same five steps:

Denial. "That can't be jazz!"
Anger. "Jazz is for people with .edu e-mail addresses and too many cats, for crissakes!"
Bargaining. "Maybe it is kinda jazzy, but I wouldn't call it jazz."
Depression. "Me, listening to jazz? I might as well go buy some Birkenstocks and a Prius right now. And they'll never let me back in the Moose Lodge. All is lost."
Acceptance. "Maybe jazz is alright after all. Maybe I'll go buy me a whole jazz CD. And I might even try one of them mocha lattes they serve in places that sell jazz."

Upon admitting jazz to be a viable form of alternative listening, though, there is still the issue of how to make sense of the torrent of new sounds and advanced musical concepts. Unlike most forms of music, jazz is primarily active listening. That is, it requires participation from the listener, rather than lying passively in the background like the inoffensive music they play in grocery stores to make you shop slower and not steal anything. The problem is, most people lack active listening skills because most of the music we hear today requires nothing more than the ability to tolerate endless repetition of simple bass-heavy rhythms and frequent use of the word "booty."

Active listening is the difference between a fast-food burrito and a burrito from a little hole-in-the-wall joint where someone's abuelita is in the back making the tortillas. The fast food burrito is hot, fast, relatively tasty, and readily available. It is also bland, predictable, and safe. You don't run the risk of tasting anything you can't identify.

The hole-in-the-wall burrito requires a little more effort to find. It requires a little more effort to order, since it doesn't automatically come filled with shredded textured beef protein and happy-face-yellow processed cheese product. It requires a little more effort to eat, because it there are tastes and textures that may take some work to figure out. Is that cumin? What the hell is cumin? Is it as naughty as it sounds? And what is it doing in my burrito?

Relax, Paco.

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