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Editor’s choice: ‘How to Listen to Jazz’ by Ted Gioia

How To Listen to Jazz by Ted Gioia, Basic Books, 253 pages, $27.99.

The last time an especially fine historian and critic published a “how to” book aimed at audiences on the most basic level was David Thomson’s “How to Watch a Movie.” Despite patches of poetry and outrageous panache, the book was so willful and lacking in readerly savvy (a notably odd fault in a book by the author of the “Biographical Dictionary of Film”) that it couldn’t in any real way be considered a success.

Ted Gioia’s “How to Listen to Jazz” couldn’t, in any way, be accounted a failure. This is a perfect book to counteract the most regrettable problem of jazz. To wit, that some happy listeners to pop and classical music just don’t “get it.” It never helped that the most famous wisecrack about jazz – variously attibuted to Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and everybody but your hip Aunt Lucy – was supposedly said to a little old lady who inquired “What is jazz?” “Lady, if you have to ask, don’t mess with it.”

Gioia knows better. A lot better. “Listening, not jargon, is the path into the heart of music. And if we listen at a deep enough level, we enter into the magic of the song – no degree or formal credential is required.”

One smart thing, among many, that Gioia advises throughout the book is that listeners “seek out and listen to lesser-skilled musicians” to understand the jazz greats. Just go on YouTube, he says, and search for “student jazz band” and “you can hear the tension in their playing. You can feel viscerally the sluggishnesss of their swing. Like a car that needs a tune-up, they aren’t operating on all cylinders.”

One tiny example of what Gioia – a musician himself – insists listeners notice: he tells readers about Miles Davis that “no musician of his generation did a better job of blending with the rest of the group, of creating holistic statements that integrated the contributions of every member of the ensemble, many of them almost as assertive and demonstrative as their boss.”

He ends with an appendix of 150 “early and mid-career” jazz masters of today from guitarist Rez Abbasi to alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon. A perfect way, then, to begin an understanding of a music that is, in truth, very, very easy to love. – Jeff Simon