For a person to say he enjoys jazz and smooth jazz music in 2014 is a terrifying prospect, particularly when that person is not:
-a jazz musician
-an aging New York City art gallery owner
-a director of some documentary film about jazz
-a trendy urban bicycle or coffee shop owner
-a person who teaches music
-a person trying to impress friends at a dinner party
-a person who owns an amount of stock in or a percentage of a company which produces albums (with its most-oft recorded albums tending to be jazz albums)
-a Grammy Awards board member tasked with making a decision of the “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” of that year
-2013 “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” Grammy winner Pat Metheny
For some reason, jazz evokes very strong opinions in some people. This is odd, because jazz is not up in anyone’s face. It’s certainly not like that Kid Rock “All Summer Long” song, or whatever this thing is that we’re all currently calling “pop-country.” In fact, if you really want to hear jazz, and I mean real jazz, you actually have to go looking for it. This can be done, most often, by visiting the lower ends of your FM radio dial, which almost no one ever does.
For a musical medium to be technically considered so hip (a term literally created by the African-American jazz scene of the 1930’s and -40’s), there’s nothing dorkier than admitting that you listen to jazz. Instantly, people think you’re an old person, a hipster goofball or a person who clearly is only saying he’s into jazz because there’s no way he’s really into jazz music, right? Right?
Here’s the thing, though: I am into jazz; or, you know, as much as a guy can be who didn’t grow up around jazz at all. At all. I’m not the guy whose childhood was filled with stories of him sneaking into smoky clubs and watching his dad jam with the other guys from the neighborhood, nor did I grow up in the Huxtable household of mid-eighties Brooklyn, where influential jazz musicians stopped by to share stories about the old days and then sit around and play some music. I came to jazz cleanly and on my own, and as such I kind of feel like in a way my affection for jazz music pretty much completely belongs to me. No one ever wants to talk to me about jazz, and that’s fine. It’s preferable. I don’t know everything about it; and the field is so gigantic there’s no way I’d not come off looking stupid because it’s like asking someone “If you’re so into arthropods, why don’t you tell me about all the species?” Jazz music is a big pool; it’s best for each person to just jump in and swim around. Once you start tooting horns about your jazz knowledge you’re in deep water. Because when someone calls you on it — and that’s unlikely in the circles you probably run in, but you never know — you’re going to be in trouble.
I guess I started listening to jazz about five or six years ago; I’m a writer, and I needed some music to play when I worked in my home office. I couldn’t use music I already knew, because mentally I’d be thinking about those familiar songs as I listened to them. I couldn’t use new music with new lyrics, because I’d be distracted by listening to those new lyrics. Chill and ambient music is good for that kind of thing, but there’s little to no variety at all. So I started listening to some jazz radio online, one station out of Chicago and another out of Seattle, and found that it provided a nice soundtrack. Before long I was recognizing names of certain artists and hearing songs which were familiar. And after that, I had to face the fact that I guess I liked jazz music. After all, I was starting to listen to it quite a bit.
I’m not going to tell you to listen to jazz, because that’s a condescending thing to do to someone. We agree there. But what I will say is that you may be surprised to learn that in all the iterations of jazz music, there’s probably some form of jazz that you would enjoy.
Latin Jazz tends to have sort of a Cuban sound to it, if you like that kind of thing. Tito Puente, Chick Corea. You’ve probably heard of these guys, even if you have never listened to them.
Acid Jazz is jazz with disco or hip-hop elements to it, and you already perhaps know or are a fan of some of the names of acid jazz: Jamiroquai, Bonobo, The Brand New Heavies, even elements of A Tribe Called Quest (“trip-hop” is a derivative of acid jazz).
Cool Jazz is probably my favorite. That’s Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck — you know, the names you could throw out to people if you wanted to look like a real intellectual douchebag. But it’s great music, full of creativity and life. This is often the type of music you associate with a bunch of jazz musicians getting on stage together and just “riffing” (God, I sound so horrible. Ugh. I’m sorry I just typed “riffing.”) together. It’s fun because, if you’re a creative type, it’s very interesting to hear five, six, even eight or nine musicians playing together for the first time and creating something pretty cool. There’s something so improvisational and cool about it. This, to me, is the best kind of music to work to. I mean, really, just listen to this for a little bit:
Smooth Jazz deserves a little defense. Look, I know you are going to say that you hate this; and there’s a reason why you never hear anyone, ever, say out loud that they like it. HOWEVER. There’s a perfect time and place for smooth jazz, and it’s a.) when you want to get to sleep, or b.) when you need to relax. After all, think about the places in your lives that you hear smooth jazz. Smooth jazz helps you not to freak the hell out when you’re waiting in a doctor’s office, or in a packed elevator, or waiting for 300: Rise of an Empire to start. Plus, promotional photographs of smooth jazz artists are always THE BEST.
There are a million more, all with names that will make you sound like a huge a**hole if you mention them in mixed company: neo-swing, neo-bop, novelty ragtime, stride jazz, west coast gypsy jazz, hard bop. Maybe one of these is for you. Maybe you will absolutely hate all of it. Who knows? I’m certainly not here to tell you what you’re going to like. I’m just here to tell you that I’ve become increasingly surprised (and frightened by) my predilection for jazz music. For most of my life, jazz was not only a thing I knew nothing about — it wasn’t on the radar anywhere at all in my life. I knew of it, sure, and knew some pioneers by name, but I didn’t know what it was like to listen to it for any length of time. Now it’s become a slight soundtrack for a lot that I do, and I’m okay with that.
In fact, I’m listening to it right now. So, yeah. It’s whatever. It’s my secret thing. And I’ll own it.
THE MORE YOU KNOW
If you’d like to know more about jazz music, give the following online radio stations a try. They’re pretty good ones. Or don’t. It’s a free country.
JazzFM – Based out of London, England, a good mix of a lot of different styles.
WHPK – Broadcast out of the University of Chicago, another decent mix that offers a taste of different genres. (Opens in iTunes radio as well)