Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
What to Listen For in Jazz

What to Listen For in Jazz

Barry Kernfeld
Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: Yale University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    What to Listen For in Jazz
    Book Description:

    Exhilarating and exciting, subtle and profound-jazz requires knowledge and understanding to be truly appreciated. Barry Kernfeld here provides a thorough, learned, and accessible introduction to jazz, discussing its musical concepts, procedures, and styles and providing the background necessary to fully enjoy this musical art. The book is organized around twenty-one historical jazz recordings-from the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' Tin Roof Blues (1923) to Ornette Coleman's Honeymooners (1987)-that are analyzed in the text and included in a compact disc that accompanies the book. Barry Kernfeld draws from these musical works to illustrate jazz rhythm, forms, arrangement, composition, improvisation, style, and sound (recording fidelity, tuning systems, instrumentation, and timbre). Included in the book are eighty-five notated music examples keyed to the compact disc and a biographical dictionary of musicians who figure prominently on the disc.  By laying out musical ideas that unify the genre, rather than by splintering it along stylistic lines, this authoritative book offers a new method for enhancing enjoyment and understanding of jazz. It will be a valued resource for students and general listeners who wish to know more about this unique musical form.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15776-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Music Examples
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. List of CD Tracks
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Sources and Permissions for Music Examples
    (pp. xv-xx)
  7. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Jazz can be blatantly exhilarating and exciting. A performance such as Duke Ellington’s Trumpet No End has exactly this sort of immediate attraction. It moves along from the first note with relentless drive and ends with Cat Anderson cleanly popping out an unbelievable high note on the trumpet in a moment of true virtuosity. This sort of listening requires no explanation. Let the music wash over you. Play it again, louder. Tap your foot. Listen in awe.

    Jazz may also be subtle and profound, its understanding requiring years of experience and careful listening. Perhaps an explanation of the process of...

  8. 2 Rhythm
    (pp. 5-38)

    For all the changes that jazz has undergone in its headlong rush through the twentieth century, the music first played in the streets, dance halls, and saloons of New Orleans continues to make itself felt, not only by being recreated, revised, and adapted, but more broadly by underpinning certain basic assumptions about jazz performance. The most important assumption has to do with rhythm: except in some types of free jazz, the vast majority of musicians agree on the need to keep feet tapping, walking, marching, and dancing. Even when the New Orleans style has been transformed into a drastically different...

  9. 3 Forms
    (pp. 39-73)

    The repertory of jazz consists of at least several thousand pieces (perhaps more than ten thousand), and—except for those players who have forthrightly rejected tradition to play in a style in which a conventional repertory is insignificant or irrelevant—any respected jazz musician is expected to be able to deal with hundreds of these at a moment’s notice. In fact, established musicians often put newcomers to this test, and the resulting anecdotes are endless: at a jam session in Kansas City, the young Charlie Parker had a cymbal tossed at him for his inept attempt to make his way...

  10. 4 Arrangement
    (pp. 74-98)

    Listeners are often curious about how jazz is made. Is a performance arranged, composed, or improvised? In this chapter on arrangement and in the chapters that follow, the aim is to continue with the approach taken for rhythm and forms: to endeavor to give a practical, commonsense explanation of how these concepts work in jazz, with clear examples drawn from a set of great recordings. But there are other aims as well. These three chapters compare related pieces (using additional musical selections) and interpret the comparisons in terms of the creative procedure. With this background, the listener may be able...

  11. 5 Composition
    (pp. 99-118)

    Newcomers to jazz often ask: Is it true that jazz is all improvised? Somehow the casual and romantic notion that jazz is generated in an entirely spontaneous manner has become deeply rooted in our society. Presumably this book will have dispelled that notion by now. With the addition of this chapter devoted to jazz composition, newcomers should begin listening to jazz, and thinking about what they hear, in a different way. Readers already well familiar with nonspontaneous aspects of jazz will forgive me for offering a warning that they did not need to hear.

    The main aim in this chapter...

  12. 6 Improvisation
    (pp. 119-158)

    Improvisation—the spontaneous creation of music—is the element of jazz that many listeners find most fascinating and mysterious. How do musicians organize their collaborations during an improvisation? What methods do individual improvisers use? Taking as its inspiration Charles Mingus’s instruction in his succinct put-down of thoughtless, unprepared improvisation—“You gotta improvise on somethin’ ”—this last of three chapters on procedures provides insights into that “somethin’ ” from the points of view of group organization and individual method.

    One way to understand improvisation in jazz is to explore the relative prominence of members of an ensemble: several members may...

  13. 7 Sound
    (pp. 159-183)

    A pliable set of sounds is at the heart of jazz. The main ingredients are a collection of principal instruments, in which an emphasis on percussion is virtually indispensable, and a personalized approach to the production of timbre and vibrato. In many cases these sounds have been developed within jazz by its musicians, as a consequence of their experimental spirit.

    A lesser ingredient is the type of tuning system used. Although tuning does not necessarily have a special identity or origin in jazz, it too affects the instantaneous impression that the music makes, its sound.

    Before trying to describe the...

    (pp. 184-199)

    The design of What to Listen For in Jazz has been inspired in great part out of frustration with a stylistic approach. In a little over five decades, from around 1913 to the late 1960s, the term jazz came to embrace a collection of five broad stylistic categories: New Orleans jazz, swing, bop, free jazz, and fusion. Because these styles emerged in a rapid and unordered fashion, countless examples of stylistically eclectic pieces resulted. These so-called problematic performances—which, though possibly lacking in stylistic uniformity, may have displayed perfect coherence otherwise—arose as the result of many factors: the fluid...

  15. Appendix 1. Notating Chords
    (pp. 200-205)
  16. Appendix 2. Discography
    (pp. 206-211)
  17. Appendix 3. Biographical Sketches of Key Musicians
    (pp. 212-230)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 231-235)
  19. Glossary of Percussion Instruments
    (pp. 236-238)
  20. Index
    (pp. 239-247)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 248-250)