Jazz 101: Listening


Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look at listening. Now that we’ve covered a fair share of the elements in jazz, as well as given some historical context, we can finally discuss what to look out for when you listen to jazz music.

Last time, we looked a bit at the history of jazz, and some of its sources. We saw how it came from New Orleans, as well as the undeniable European and African influences on jazz.

Now we’ll look at a few key elements to keep in mind when you’re listening to jazz. The goal here is to give jazz novices a bit of a helping hand. If you’ve ever had a desire to learn about jazz, but didn’t know where to begin, this article should be particularly helpful.


One important point to note before we get too far in, is that your experience and enjoyment will depend on the environment you’re in when listening. Also, since jazz can encompass such a wide range of styles and sub-genres, we’re not going to offer any blanket rules or suggestions. People experience music differently, and this is in no way a guide on how to listen ‘correctly’. Szwed offers another approach.

“But jazz can also be listened to with different degrees and modalities of intellectual activity–say, as a kind of auditory architecture or visual structure, while hearing melodies built note by note, forming figures against a ground of rhythm and harmony” (p. 63).

We won’t be explaining anymore methods of listening now. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the three different elements that we can listen for, to further our understanding of jazz.


It seems like we discuss rhythm a lot in this series, but there’s good reason for it. While I won’t say that rhythm is at the heart of jazz, that wouldn’t be too far off. It’s definitely a part of the circulatory system, at least. “Rhythm is found in all music, of course, but in jazz it is fundamental, and elevated to an equal status with melody and harmony” (p. 63).

This could be said about most genres, but in jazz, the rhythm section centers and drives the music. We’ve already discussed how it operates as a living, breathing entity within an ensemble. Soloists play against it, or with it, but always keep it in their minds.


Another element to look for is variation, which is seen frequently in jazz. Most solos and ensembles bring fresh twists and approaches to a familiar melody, forming new and personal links to it. Variation may be heard throughout the entire song, or in one place, such as a solo. Szwed offers a look at how variation in jazz can be confusing to fans of different genres.

“Pop fans hearing jazz wonder what happened to the melody, since variation is not especially important in pop songs. Classical fans may also wonder about jazz melody, but they should know better, as variation underlies their music as well” (p. 64).

Since jazz naturally borrows from anything and everything, variation is a necessary element in its construction. This natural responsiveness of jazz can also be seen in the final element of listening.


The third and last element to listen for is interaction. This is the way in which musicians in an ensemble respond to one another during a performance. “Shifts made in response to what another has played is basic to jazz, and a form of collective improvisation” (p. 65).

The use of interaction takes place on nearly every level in a jazz ensemble. From the chords the keyboardist plays, to his timing and rhythmic use of those chords in response to what the soloist is playing. And at the same time, the soloist is responding in turn, kept on his toes by the choices being made around him.

Even the use of silence plays in to how jazz musicians interact within an arrangement. “But it is more complex than that. The independent choices made by the bassist and drummer at the same time are also part of the mix of interplay” (p. 65-6).

Final Thoughts

Hopefully now you are properly equipped with everything you need to start listening to jazz on your own. If you do, try to identify the elements we discussed here. While this seems like a natural stopping point, we aren’t even close to being done with jazz. Although this does conclude the first part of Szwed’s book. From now on, we’ll start looking at specific, significant eras in jazz. By the end, we should have a comprehensive picture of the evolution of jazz over the years.

Next time, we’ll start our discussion by looking more closely at jazz styles, and the beginnings of jazz.



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