Learning the Language of Jazz
- Written by Jae Sinnett
- Category: Featured - Radio
- Published: 20 July 2021
This is a twofold piece. I was having a conversation recently with a former student about the challenges of keeping your musical abilities sharp and ready when you don't have many live performance opportunities. This is the situation that confronts many jazz musicians in the Hampton Roads area. The other part of this is these challenges present interesting obstacles for developing your craft but why can't we hear more live jazz? It's simple, more people need to come out consistently for live jazz to thrive, but jazz is an acquired taste. This part isn't so simple, and this is why educating the general public about the music is critical in developing a fan listening and appreciation base for the music. Jazz isn't a music that generally, with one take, makes you hit the like button. It’s a bit more complicated.
There's a nurturing process that has to be in place. You take steps. You listen, get a little, come back, get a little more until you start to feel and conceptualize what you're hearing and how you're connecting. It's not important that you understand the musicality of jazz but grasping what you hear to a point of it stimulating your curiosity... and within this curiosity...you start to feel good listening. Certain things will start to reach you...the rhythm... improvisation..., etc. The music starts to intrigue your senses in a positive way. Why is it like this in learning to appreciate jazz?
Jazz for starters is primarily instrumental. Yes, of course, there are jazz singers, but jazz is mostly played instrumentally. Outside of classical and jazz most music features the spoken word which is something everyone can relate to. Jazz though, speaks differently in it's instrumental context. It is a type of language. The rhythm of jazz as one example, is quite different. Its foundation is based in the swing concept. Swing is an elastic, sophisticated way to interpret eighth note structures that started permeating the American experience coming into the 1900s. The swing rhythm though, in various capacities, was demonstrated percussively in Western Africa long before the concept ventured onto our shores. So, when you hear this rhythm, it might be jolting because it's not heard and felt in everyday circles.
When you drive down a busy road and come up to a light at an intersection with your windows down, chances are you're not going to hear jazz. When you watch TV—commercials and programs—chances are you're not going to hear jazz. My point being is jazz isn’t a music you're exposed to in your everyday regular routines. Those of us that enjoy and appreciate jazz must search it out. We know there are fewer places to find the music. Not the case for rock or top 40 pop. Those genres are everywhere. This is one reason why public broadcasting was created. To give art genres such as jazz and classical a broadcasting home. Folk, blues, and bluegrass too. Educating is a huge part of this mission. Exposure helps to breed familiarity so in learning to appreciate the music you must seek it out and listen and not be intimidated by what you may not musically understand and be patient.
For a musician that wants to play jazz in an area where live performance opportunities are rare, it puts your practicing routines into a different perspective. You must become more creative with how you structure your practice sessions. One of the things I would recommend are playing with play-a-longs or doing virtual performances with other musicians. During the peak of the pandemic my trio recorded and played together constantly, virtually. One of us would record our part then the others would record their parts to that first one, using a click track to keep us in time. Once all the parts were finished, we would edit them together, so we appear to all be playing in real time. It was the closest thing we did to playing live. It kept our focus where it needed to be. The energy. The enthusiasm. It keeps your technique on point. When you're not playing much out and about, you have to think differently in how you can get the most productivity out of your practice and study.
Listen to the best in jazz spanning 60 years on Jae's program Sinnett in Session on WHRV FM Monday-Thursday, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.