Daft or is it endearing how this NPR item comes over? 'Uninitiated' in its title How To Like Jazz, For The Uninitiated makes it all sound as if you have to swear some sort of oath and probably do something unspeakable to a badger.
SARAH MCCAMMON: Music that maybe you've told yourself you really don't like, like opera, hip-hop or country. So this month, we're bringing in some people to help you mix up your playlists. And today we're going talk about jazz with NPR's senior arts editor Tom Cole. Hi, Tom.
TOM COLE: Hi.
So far so good.
MCCAMMON: OK. If someone asked you why they should check out jazz, what would you say?
COLE: I'd ask them to give it a listen. I think listening is really important. Jazz is emotionally engaging music. For me, jazz is especially expressive because it's based on improvisation. A lot of the tunes will start out with a theme or a melody. And then the musicians will improvise over it. So maybe, let's start with one of the most famous jazz saxophonists – Charlie Parker.
COLE: Now let's listen to what Parker does with it in his solo. He'll be playing off the notes and scales and chords in the theme and letting his imagination just go wherever he's feeling at that moment, just let him carry himself away. Listen to his sound, too. For me, it sounds like a human voice speaking.
Huh? To be fair, stuff that is said on the radio can sound amazingly mellifluous until you write it down as here and then it can sound exceedingly odd.
MCCAMMON: OK. So that's music that was recorded back in the 1940s. And, Tom, one thing you might hear people say is that jazz is music that their parents or grandparents listened to. How do you respond to that?
Curveball question and the voice of reason.
COLE: Well, there's been a lot recorded since then.
Deep. Professorial tone injected.
And sure, jazz might seem old-fashioned to some people. But keep in mind, too, that jazz was America's popular music at one point in the big-band era of the 30s and 40s. You know, people like Benny Goodman were stars. Everybody listened to the music, not just parents. They listened to it. And they danced to it.
Parents here have warped into another species entirely.
That's another thing about jazz – it's active music.
Like bareknuckle boxing, I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say.
It sort of demands your participation. You've got to give yourself a little bit to it to get something out of it.
Cue stage invasions, streaking.
MCCAMMON: Not just background music.
COLE: Exactly, not sonic wallpaper. Absolutely.
Perish the thought.
And it was popular again in the 1960s when top 40 radio used to play instrumental tunes. That was a long time ago. Back then, the Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond hit 'Take Five' was even in the jukebox in my favourite neighbourhood bar a decade after it was released, perhaps in spite of or because of its unusual rhythm.
People in neighbourhood bars are too busy concentrating on ignoring the 'sonic wallpaper' to really fixate on the 'unusual rhythm.'
MCCAMMON: A familiar tune there.
Turning into quite the Socratic dialogue.
COLE: Oh, yes.
COLE: Let's listen to Paul Desmond.
We are in kindergarten by now. Back to reality.
COLE: Desmond wrote the tune – beautiful saxophone player. It was music that you could both listen to and sway to out on the college dance floor. And college audiences, young audiences, were a big part of Brubeck's success.
Sway to? Hmmm, let's go swaying tonight, Doris.
MCCAMMON: Tom, you talk about how long ago, jazz was sort of the popular music. What is happening in jazz right now?
COLE: There are a lot of young people playing jazz and playing very interesting music. I'd like to wrap up with two recordings. The first is by a jazz cellist named Tomeka Reid and her quartet. In this particular group, everybody kind of talks together. It's like a conversation.
Great that everyone 'kind of talks together' as opposed to not talking at all, uttering even one single solitary syllable.
MCCAMMON: So, Tom, if you're just getting started and if you're, you know – if you're somebody who doesn't think of yourself as a jazz aficionado, maybe aren't that into it, where would you tell somebody to start?
Can't wait for the response here.
COLE: Back in the olden days when I was young and was listening to rock 'n' roll, there was a record store that I always used to go to. And, you know, I knew all the buyers – the rock buyer and the blues buyer. And I knew the jazz buyer, too.
And one day, I just went up to him and said, listen, I want to get into jazz. What should I listen to? And he picked five records for me – Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the Thelonious Monk Quartet, Charles Mingus, the Art Ensemble of Chicago Les Stances à Sophie – and wonderful trumpet player, who's not as well-remembered as he should be, named Booker Little and an equally outstanding tenor saxophonist, who's also not as well known as he should be, named Booker Ervin.
So that would be a great start. And that sort of keeps you in the past. But if you ground yourself in the past, then there's lots to explore.
Losing the will to live.
MCCAMMON: Build from there.