The Columbia Record Club sent me a letter last week, a request to join. They offered fun times and savings for the whole family; free CDs or some such. They also offered a brochure showcasing the various genres of music their club held beneath its branches, from pop to rock to country to electronica to jazz. Next to each genre, they pictured (and captioned) 2 artists, side by side, as examples indicative of that genre, so I would know what they were talking about when they said (for example) pop. The two artists listed under jazz were Miles Davis and Kenny G.

Miles Davis and Kenny fucking G.

There is a crisis afoot in America today.

This guide will not actually teach you to appreciate jazz without really trying. This is because there is no way to appreciate jazz without really trying (assuming you don't already appreciate it) -- the only way to appreciate jazz is to listen to it, a lot of it, over extended periods of time. Post-swing Jazz is of a far different musical tradition than most modern popular music4; beginning in the 1940s with bebop (and perhaps even before that), jazz has been, for most practical purposes, a different dialect than pop/rock, if not an entirely different language.5

Have no fear, though -- this guide will not require you to Really Try. Hence, you will not actually appreciate jazz after finishing it (unless, of course, you already do). You will, however, be able to distinguish between real jazz (Miles Davis et al) and fake jazz (Kenny G et al).1 Why would anyone want such a skill? Good question.

  • To impress your elitist friends. Or rather, to decrease the chance of them surreptitiously bashing your head in with something or other after hearing you say "this is some wonderful jazz" of a Kenny G2 recording played for irony.
  • To flirt effectively with foreign exchange students (and Europeans in general). (Note: any Europeans reading this guide are assumed to be here for kicks. They're European. At the very least, they know how to identify jazz; they probably appreciate it.)
  • To not feel stupid. How can you, who rarely if ever heard jazz, compete for intellect points with people who were played Thelonious Monk in the womb and cite Coltrane in metahistorical analogies? Why, by having the ability to identify jazz, of course.
  • To avoid karmic unhappiness and ruptures in the fabric of spacetime. If you find yourself in a non-Starbucks coffeeshop reading a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and sipping an Espresso while listening to a CD player containing Kenny G's Greatest Hits2, you are dangerously upsetting the balance of the universe. Be prepared to get struck by lightning, or fall into a black hole, or spontaneously combust, or something.

In short, though this guide won't impart much deep, real information on the workings of jazz (which would, of course, take effort to absorb) it will help you in social situations. Call it "Jazz Appreciation for CEOs".

Okay, let's get on with it. Here's what to look for:3

  • Instrumentation Traditionally, most small jazz ensembles (combos) consist of a lead player (a trumpet, for example, or a saxophone) backed by a rhythm section consisting of a piano player, a bass player, and a drummer. If it has a guitar player, or if there are synthesizers and Riverdance-esqe drums in the background, be suspicious. (This isn't a hard and fast rule -- there are some great jazz bands with non-traditional instrumentation. That said, almost all lead-piano-bass-drums ensembles are real jazz (this is doubly true for ensembles with an upright bass, and triply true for those without a lead instrument).
  • Structure The typical format for real jazz is this: A tune at the beginning, weird stuff in the middle (long solos by each player), the same tune at the end. (The tune at the beginning and end is called the head section, incidentally, and the weird stuff in the middle is called improvisation. If it doesn't have improvisation, it's almost certainly not jazz.)
  • Length. Since the '50s, jazz recordings have generally been several minutes long, to allow for more freedom and creativity. (There's an interesting story behind this that I should look up sometime.) If a song only lasts 2 or 3 minutes, be a little suspicious (though be warned: some of the greatest of the greats created short recordings in the 1940s and before).
  • Dissonance. Remember that scene in Jerry Maguire where the weird guy gives Tom Cruise a jazz mix tape ("John Coltrane, Copenhagen, 1966 -- the apex of the only truly american art form!") for use during sex with the female lead whose name for the moment escapes me? Remember how they're going at it and Cruise turns off the tape and says something to the effect of "what the hell is this music?" You guessed it -- that there's some great jazz. (Incidentally, it's not actually Coltrane; it's Charles Mingus and his band, playing Haitian Fight Song.)

    Jazz, as mentioned, is (to varying degrees) a different language from pop. If you don't understand a language, it can sound like gibberish. Most jazz is not actually very dissonant, but to unfamiliar ears it can seem positively corrosive; if you hear strange chords, if you hear long, unpleasant flights of ugly clashes, it's not Kenny G2. (Keep in mind that some jazz, like Dave Brubeck, is quite accessible even to the uninitiated.)
  • Corniness (or lack thereof). You're smart enough to use the internet and be interested in this site; you must have some sort of corniness filter. Set it to maximum. Doing something new and creative has been a top priority for jazz musicians for a half century, sometimes to a fault. If it sounds cliché or forced or overdramatic, if it's even remotely corny, it's probably not jazz.
  • Artists Some players come up again and again. If memorization is your thing, these musicians (among many, many others, of course) played real jazz and little else: These players do not play real jazz, and suck:
    • Kenny G2
    • Yanni (Actually, I've never listened to Yanni (to my knowledge) but he often seems to be mentioned in the same breath as Kenny. Correct me if I'm wrong here.)
    These players do not play real jazz, but do not suck:

There you have it. Have fun with your newfound ability. Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

1 Perhaps I should have named it something else, but, you know, "How to Distinguish Jazz From Anti-Jazz Without Really Trying" doesn't have much oomph. "How to Identify Jazz" could work. But my title kicks ass. And it's named after a musical.

2 As we've already esablished that Kenny G is shlock, I feel I should produce some other example of non-jazz. Unfortunately, I am mostly unfamiliar with this strange genre; if anyone knows of a particularly horrible Kenny G sound-alike, message me.

3 These are not the only things distinguishing jazz from anti-jazz, of course, nor are they the most important; they are merely the easiest to identify.

4 Note that I didn't say, "stems from far different roots than most modern popular music" -- of course jazz and pop are branches of the same tree. But yes, jazz is of a different musical tradition, a different way of playing, a different way of thinking about music (I rephrased that line, by the way, but I think its meaning is mostly preserved). That's why you can't record jazz a track at a time, overlaying the drums, then the bass, then the piano, then the lead, like pop is recorded. You just can't, it doesn't work. That's not the way jazz is, and something recorded that way will not be jazz (OK, that's not true, but it's mostly true).

That's not to say jazz is completely alien, of course, that it's nothing whatsoever like pop, that you can't dance to it. Bop is not anti-dance; Coltrane is not anti-dance. Download a copy of Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca and if it doesn't at least get your foot tapping you're comatose. (And it's worth remembering that the Monk himself used to get up and dance in the middle of sets.)

5 Perhaps not a different language; that may be overstepping (though it may not). But certanly a different dialect. I speak from experience.

I was quite the music connoseaur as a pre-teen; I listened to the Beatles a lot, and the Beach Boys, and Weezer, and Louis Armstrong. I knew bebop was reputed to be a very cool, deep form of music, but (not having been played much jazz during my formative years) when I listened to it I heard discordant noise.

Jimi Hendrix can double over with laughter all he likes; I'm not the genius he is and can't grok things as readily, and neither can most people. It wasn't until my trumpet teacher actually bought me a book of bop solos and made me learn to play some of them (which required that I go over them slowly and find all the hidden leaps that had eluded me at the lightning pace on the records) that I actually realized what it was I had been missing and reconfigured my hearing, that I could finally appreciate that famous Charlie Parker quote, Music is finding the beautiful notes. I'm all for blasting the Basie from car stereos, but I'm also all for getting the most out of what you hear. For those of us unlucky enough not to have grown up listening to jazz, that usually means making a conscious effort to understand it.

Update, January 2003: Since writing this, I've stumbled across nu jazz, a modern day fusion that combines breakbeat, hiphop, mainstream electronica, world music, and lots and lots of real, honest-to-god jazz into something totally new, indescribably cool, far better than the old-school Weather Report set (at least to these gen-Y ears), and (gasp) pretty damn popular, at least outside the U.S. Go download some Jazzanova and Koop, for starters.

Node your failed job interviews.