What Makes Jazz Swing? An Expert's Advice on How to Listen


By Barry Kernfeld

Yale University Press

247 pp., $40

(CD included)

'What to Listen For in Jazz" echoes composer Aaron Copland's classic, "What to Listen for in Music." Try a more active kind of listening, "whether you listen to Mozart or Duke Ellington," wrote Copland. He said only the closest listening can unravel the intricacy of a jazz band, America's "own original contribution to new orchestral timbres."

How do you listen closely to a jazz band when all you want to do is tap your foot? That's what Barry Kernfeld explains in both words and music with the help of 21 vintage tracks on an accompanying CD. His audience: serious inquirers who may or may not know much about jazz.

If you don't read music you could almost learn while listening to Billie Holiday's vocal reconstruction of "Georgia on My Mind." In the book, it is written out to compare it measure for measure with (a) Hoagy Carmichael's original melody and (b) Holiday's "take 2" version (not, alas, on the CD).

The CD illustrates rhythm, form, types of improvisation, etc. - not a history of jazz. Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Wynton Marsalis are just a few of the stars omitted .

But a sense of the jazz spectrum comes alive in tracks from 1923 (New Orleans Rhythm Kings) to 1987 (Ornette Coleman and Prime Time). And wonderful connections leap the years when hand-clapping joins the electronic sounds of Weather Report to drive a climactic passage - the way an old-fashioned tom-tom backbeat does in a Jelly Roll Morton track.

Tips for discerning various kinds of improvisation: Keep the familiar tune of "Sweet Sue - Just You" in mind to grasp what Earl Hines's spectacular piano variations do to it. Wait for "Blue Skies" to peek through Duke Ellington's stratospheric "Trumpet No End" which is based on it. Don't try to hum along with the Coleman Hawkins saxophone version of "The Man I Love," a whole new swinging thing.

What about John Coltrane's "free jazz?" Thirty years later, its "collective improvisation" still sounds chaotic at first - as Stravinsky's 82-year-old "Rite of Spring" still means noisy modern music to many concertgoers. Kernfeld suggests repeated listening to appreciate innovative jazz, as Copland does to open one's ears to contemporary classical music, "an otherwise unobtainable aesthetic experience."

It's a half century since Winthrop Sargeant pioneered an analytical approach in "Jazz: Hot and Hybrid." France's Andre Hodeir came along a decade later with "Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence." Gunther Schuller provides the most massive analytical/historical account in "Early Jazz" and "The Swing Era," with another volume to come. If only those books had companion CDs!

What makes jazz "swing," for example? Among other things, Hodeir speaks of the balance of "relaxation" and "vital drive." Schuller identifies "perfect equilibrium between the horizontal and vertical relationships of musical sounds." Kernfeld details how classically played eighth notes are different from the "swing" eighth notes on most of the CD. We catch the contrast in "Misterioso," where Thelonious Monk slyly starts out like a piano student playing straight eighths.

The book is demanding in making points and comparisons by referring back and forth among the players, not to mention among the CD tracks. We must get a remote control, dear.

Kernfeld clearly knows and loves jazz past and present, with a few inklings of the future. He is editor of "The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz," whose 1994 edition I enjoyed for several months before the present book appeared.

But, as a sometime drummer, I'm crying. "What to Listen For in Jazz" defines "rim shot" as striking the upper rim of the snare drum "rather than the head itself." But that would be a mere click, not the sounds that a master drummer like Joe Morello can turn into a virtual melody - striking the rim and the head simultaneously. Fortunately Kernfeld need only turn to the definition in his own big Grove's, which gets "rim shot" right.

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