Op-Ed Commentary: Listening to Jazz vs. Listening to Pop

By Roger Crane

Jazz and pop, no matter how symbiotic their relationship, never lodge at the same inn too long. Although related, Jazz is not pop. The music called jazz is not popular music for that is not the intent. Sure, jazz artists wish to make a living, and hopefully a good living, but the honest ones do not “water down” their music to appeal to the masses. In fact, most jazz players wouldn’t even know how, for — as the cliche goes — “you don’t choose jazz, it chooses you.”  Unlike pop, much jazz is a demanding virtuoso music. In fact, the type of jazz known as “bop” is surely the most virtuoso music ever to take root in the American vernacular, just as rock music is very likely the most elemental.

Unlike most popular music, jazz requires great skill and that is why many jazz artists can play effective classical music, although most classical players cannot play convincing jazz. Their performance may be perfectly executed but the jazz component of the chosen piece is lost, since very few classical musicians can generate the momentum we call “swing.” Classical music is a composer’s art. Even the record stores reflect this fact by organizing the CDs via composer name (Bach to Wagner, for instance). But jazz is a performer’s art and we find the CDs arranged by performer name (Armstrong to Zeitlin, for instance).

Louis Armstrong

Why the emphasis on this seemingly minor point? Well, because, when one listens to jazz, we are not listening to hear Carmichael and Gershwin melodies as composed, we are listening for a jazz artist’s interpretation. The best jazz musicians not only know what they are doing, but do it with a unique voice. We expect the unexpected, the utterly illuminating.

In his notes for the art portfolio “Jazz,” noted French artist Henri Matisse quotes his fellow painter Auguste Renoir as having said, “When I have arranged a bouquet, in order to paint it, I go around to the side that I have not looked at.” In a sense, that is what great jazz musicians do when they interpret a piece of musical material, whether it’s a Gershwin ballad, a composed blues, or an original composition. Jazz musicians are especially adept at “going around to the side they have not looked at.  ”Their intention is always to say something musically interesting about a piece by revealing a facet of it that is not readily obvious – and to do so spontaneously, by improvisation. And the best ones do that with a voice and style as unmistakably their own as is the artistic style of Matisse, or Renoir, or Van Gogh. The great  jazz writer Whitney Balliett once observed that “Jazz is the art of surprise.” Note that word, he did not say that jazz is the art of recognition – rather, surprise and that surprise often derives from seeing that “other side.” Thus, unlike most pop, we can say that jazz is “idea” music and a sophisticated listener is anticipating and listening to hear those “other side” ideas.

Also, unlike most popular music, at the heart of jazz lies the improvisation of all three  music components: melody,  harmony and  rhythm, which implies freshness, originality and, at its best, enchantment. In fact, the better jazz performers “write” new songs with every chorus they play. Whether alchemizing songs from the Great American Songbook or illuminating some shopworn old blues, they are songwriters as surely as Gershwin. “Tell your story” a jazz fan sometimes shouts out and indeed the jazz artists do. A popular artist tells a story too, of course, but he is telling the composer’s story, very often one that the audience already knows and wishes to hear again. Thus, pop music also tends to be a composer’s music, whereas, as noted, jazz is a performer’s music that reflects his or her ideas.

Lester Young

Admittedly, displays of technique can quickly wear thin in the world of jazz improvising. How many rapid arpeggios, scales and runs can the listener’s mind absorb — or care to absorb. Admiring technique for technique’s sake is a short-term satisfaction. All it really shows us is that the player knows his instrument but doesn’t show us that he has heart. The best jazz artists play music not notes and  you can be a technical wizard and not make any music. The improvisation, the technique should always be in service to the music. When the piece subsides we should not be saying “Man, can that guy play!” we should be saying “Man, that piece was beautiful (or exciting, or both)!” The very best jazz artists can often play only a simple phrase and melt every heart in the room. The famous trumpeter, Harry “Sweets” Edison had that ability, as did saxophonist Lester Young and his friend, vocalist Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday

For the very reasons noted above jazz, unlike pop, is a minority art. As the saying goes, it takes “good ears” to appreciate it and thus jazz is not for everybody. Except for the big band/Swing era when good music was popular and popular music was good, the popularity of jazz is usually down in the single digits. Rock is performed in packed stadiums with flashing lights, smoke and mirrors. Jazz is performed in a corner of a restaurant or hotel lobby, often with a dozen or less patrons. The jazz community is confined and intimate and thus the followers tend to bond and to know one another. If a jazz artist does become popular, he is often looked upon by the cognoscenti with suspicion. “Aha, he sold out” might be the cry. The very people who claim to love jazz are often the ones who secretly do not want it to have a large audience, since that would vitiate their claim to special perception. True, popularity and quality are separate attributes, but occasionally they do reside together. For instance, despite his popularity, the great Louis Armstrong never “sold out.”

Jazz is many things: it is exciting, it is challenging (and even prickly), it is often elegant. The best jazz artists are making our world “new.” That is, they are overcoming the deadening effects of habit and our perceptions and allowing us to hear with new ears. Unlike rock — and all of its various cousins (rap, hip-hop, etc) — jazz requires we patrons to meet the performers half way and to actively Listen.  (Yes, the capital L is intended).

To read more of Roger Crane’s reviews and articles check out his website, The Song Scout.


One thought on “Op-Ed Commentary: Listening to Jazz vs. Listening to Pop

  1. It’s all music. The problem with jazz today is that it’s been made inaccessible to young and poor people. Wynton Marsalis and the whole Lincoln Center situation is foreboding to young people when they can go see rock, blues, pop, reggae, and just about any other style music for a reasonable price and a less stuffy atmosphere. Jazz has the velvet rope around it like classical music for the most part. I hear of days when Duke, Kenton, and Bird were all seen at dance halls at the same time. Fun!
    Just like Albert King, Hendrix, and Gabor Szabo, during the Bill Graham days. Like Miles said..”If Monk were alive today, he’d still be on the forefront playing Sh@# like Prince…
    Those pioneers saw it all as music, well maybe not Mingus.
    When I began to learn guitar, I knew right away that there was a fine line between what Miles was playing on Kind Of Blue and B.B. King’s phrasing, it’s all music. Let the kids hear the Jonas Brothers and Eric Dolphy without labels.


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