Breaking Into: JAZZ

Jazz Legend Louis Armstrong

This article is for people who want to experience a new kind of music. Maybe you’re completely new to jazz music and want to know where to start or maybe you’ve heard some stuff and just want to know more.

So why do I like jazz?

Partly because jazz musicians have guts. I’m not belittling other musical styles, just stating a fact about true jazz. A good jazz song basically has an intro and an ending figured out beforehand and the rest is just made up on the fly. Sure you got a tonal structure to work with, but it’s up to the soloist to find their way through it.

What makes jazz different?

The main theme behind jazz  is improvisation. True, unapologetic, unadulterated jazz has improvisation as a principle. A jazz song typically has a few solos where the artists make it all up on the fly. One cool thing about jazz albums is that they’ll sometimes release alternate takes of the same song, but since the solos are improvised, you get a whole different experience.

Another key part of some (but not all) jazz music is swinging eighths. Without getting into too much music theory, basically the tail end of an eighth note beat gets delayed a little bit, which produces that characteristic “swing” sound. Also, some instrumentalists modify their sound using plungers or hats on their horns. Drummers sometimes use brushes instead of sticks.

So where do I start?

Jazz is actually a really broad category so where to start might depend on what you’re looking for. Click on the links for YouTube videos featuring differnet types of jazz music.

If you’re interested in starting with “where it all began”, check out Louis Armstrong. Technically he’s not the founder of jazz music, but he was arguably the most influential jazz musician ever and was instrumental in shaping the music. Armstrong was a noted trumpet player (checking out the introductory fanfare to West End Blues is a must!) and scat singer. [Warning!] His voice isn’t for everybody, it’s pretty gravelly but with a great sense of rhythm.

If you’re looking for orchestra jazz, Duke Ellington is the man. Gifted pianist and composer, Duke Ellington led a full orchestra and wrote many jazz ballad standards. Personal favorites include Black and Tan Fantasy and Mood Indigo (watch how the Duke flips the role of the clarinet and the trombone right on its head!).

If you want swingin’ big band sound, you might want to start off with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (especially when Gene Krupa manned the drums). Sing, Sing, Sing is the iconic piece that Krupa and Goodman made famous.

Maybe you’re looking for something a little more bluesy and modern, try Miles Davis – especially his modal jazz album Kind of Blue (see below album recommendations).

If you want some crazy jazz, try some bebop. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie are two big names to start with.

If you like anime, check out The Seatbelts (see previous article by my friend Charlie B. here on The Seatbelts). Tank! (Cowboy Bebop opening theme) is a prime example of bebop. The Seatbelts aren’t content to sit still however, they feature a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of it “jazzy”.

If you want to spice it up, check out Latin jazz! A series of compilation albums known as The Colors of Latin Jazz have a lot great hits. I love this unique subset of jazz because the percussion often is amazing!

If you want to jam to some of that funky jazz hybrid, try the Brecker Bros. Skunk Funk is energetic and…well pretty funky.

If you don’t know where to start from here…listen to them all!!!

Other noteworthy artists (nowhere near a complete list!):

  • Ella Fitzgerald – very talented jazz singer
  • John Coltrane – brilliant and sometimes crazy-sounding saxophonist (free jazz)
  • Count Basie – great pianist (knew the value of less is more) and orchestra leader
  • Dave Brubeck – noted for experimenting with unsual time signatures (such as 5/4 or 9/8)
  • Buddy Rich – the best rudimentary drummer ever
  • Tito Puente – influential Latin timbalero and vibraphonist

A Few Recommended Albums:

Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor sax), “Cannonball” Adderley (alto sax), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (piano). Very impressive album, great combo music and a must-have for any jazz lover!

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Great Summit – Duke brings the tunes, Louis the band and magic happens! Seriously amazing combo work which displayed just how versatile Duke Ellington is behind the keyboard. Armstrong has some vocals so if you don’t like his voice, you should perhaps avoid. If you can appreciate its jazzy qualities, then this is an epic album with two of the most influential musicians ever!

The Colors of Latin Jazz – compilation of great Latin artists, such as: Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Poncho Sanchez, Pete Escovado, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Vega, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto and many more!




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