Written by Jane Seung
“I’m here in the cause of happiness.” – Louis Armstrong, 1964
Jazz, to a disappointing majority, is no more than some elevator music or the average cocktail hour playlist – it doesn’t really matter which song plays, just as long as it does the job of being pleasant and uninteresting. There is a strange stigma surrounding jazz nowadays that depicts the genre as something obscure and unapproachable – some would even go as far as to call it pretentious.
I, too, shared this sentiment at one point. The principally improvisatory nature of jazz puts the music at a risk of sounding merely free and unstructured, which, when compared to the more perhaps traditional genre of classical music for example, could make jazz seem less legitimate of a genre. However after having spent a significant proportion of my adolescence studying jazz and performing it, I learned that jazz, in fact, requires a strict structural and harmonic underpinning that distinctly separates what is musically right and wrong.
Since the rise of the genre, jazz has emerged in the form of many distinct subgenres – swing, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, and Bossa Nova to name a few. The genre has also successfully weaved its way into almost every major popular musical style such as funk, rock and roll, pop, reggae, and R&B. Despite its many branches and derivations, jazz still remains as one of the most unapproachable genres of music and intimidating topics for small talk. Most people don’t know the parameters of jazz music well enough to even be aware of just how prevalent jazz music is in the popular music we consume today. In an attempt to relinquish this stigma that surrounds jazz and help you see just how interesting and approachable jazz is, I’ve put together a list of tracks that convey jazz in all its splendor.
1. The Blues: Cantaloupe Island - Herbie Hancock
Having its roots in African-American musical traditions, jazz was developed from the earlier genres of blues and ragtime, which emerged in the late 19th century. The elements of blues, in particular the blues scale, became a defining characteristic of jazz music. Most people will recognize the notes of a blues scale as notes that are played or sung at a pitch that is slightly “off” from the standard scale. "Cantaloupe Island", a jazz standard composed by Herbie Hancock and recorded for his 1964 album Empyrean Isles, features a melody that is not only built on a blues scale, but also embodies the structure of a traditional blues melody in that the first and second phrases are identical and the third one is some sort of a conclusion.
2. Swing: Herman’s Habit (La La Land) - Justin Hurwitz
The swing style of jazz is predominantly characterized by the “lilting” swing time rhythm. It uses a strong rhythm section of double bass and drums as the anchor for a lead section of brass and woodwind instruments such as trumpets and trombones, saxophone and clarinets. This song, composed by Justin Hurwitz and featured in the original motion picture La La Land, starts out with a drum intro and a walking bass line that perfectly embody this “swing feel”: fast tempo, groovy, and danceable.
3. Improvisation: Blue Bossa - Dexter Gordon
Improvisation is a defining characteristic of jazz music for many people. Most often, players in a jazz band would play the main chorus together at the beginning and end of a song, but take turns taking a “solo” in the middle, which would typically take up most of the piece. When improvising, players are free to explore any music idea as long as they follow the changing harmonic progression throughout the song– that is, for each section of a verse or a chorus, they can only play a particular set of notes that are akin to the harmony of that particular section of the piece. These progressions can often be complicated and require a lot of practice for a musician to reach the point where they can comfortably explore their musical ideas without having to consciously judge the accuracy of each note as they play. For singers, a vocal improvisation is called scatting.
4. Bossa Nova: The Girl From Ipanema - Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto
Bossa nova, a genre of Brazilian music which developed in the 1950s and 1960s, is one of the main categories of Latin Jazz. Bossa nova has a very distinctive drum pattern that is nicely exemplified in the song “The Girl From Ipanema”, a Brazilian bossa nova originally composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim in 1962. The link above is a version by Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz, which popularized the song in 1964. Bossa nova is most commonly performed on the nylon-string classical guitar and played with the fingers rather than with a pick. Bossa nova also has a distinctive rhythm that is based on samba, which has an emphasis on the second beat and combines the rhythmic patterns and feel originating in former African slave communities.
5. Jazz Standards: Autumn Leaves - Chet Baker
Another fact of jazz is that a lot of the greatest jazz tracks are in fact covers of classic jazz songs, or “jazz standards”. The term "jazz standard" describes a classic jazz song that's been covered many times over the course of many years by many artists who put their own spin on the song. For example, the song “Autumn Leaves”, originally written by Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma and poet Jacques Prévert in 1945, lives on to this day in 75 different versions (according to the song’s Wikipedia page). These include recordings by artists such as Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, Bill Evans, Frank Sinatra, and Chet Baker, to name a few.
6. Bebop: Giant Steps - Miles Davis
Bebop is a style of jazz developed in the early to mid-1940s in the US (side note: this one is my favorite!), which is characterized by a fast tempo, complex chord progressions with rapid chord changes and numerous changes of key, instrumental virtuosity, and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structures. In short, bebop is like jazz on steroids. Bebop developed as the younger generation of jazz musicians started to expand the creative possibilities of jazz beyond the popular, dance-oriented style with a new "musician's music" that was not as danceable and demanded close listening. The song “Giant Steps”, composed and recorded by John Coltrane in 1959, is actually of the hard bop genre, which is an extension of bebop, with an additional rollicking, rhythmic feeling.
7. Big Band: Caravan (Whiplash) - Justin Hurwitz
A big band is a band associated with playing jazz music, and typically consists of approximately 12 to 25 musicians who play saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section (piano, drums, and double-bass). In contrast to smaller jazz combos, in which most of the music is improvised, music played by big bands is highly "arranged", or prepared in advance and notated on sheet music.
"Caravan" is a jazz standard composed by Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington, and first performed by Ellington in 1936. As you might have guessed from the clip, the song is heavily featured in the 2014 film Whiplash as an important plot element. The first recording of the song by Ellington features a small jazz orchestra, similar to the big band featured in the Whiplash version. Some famous big bands of all time include the BBC Big Band and the Glen Miller Orchestra.