Jazz can, at times, feel like an exclusive club. We live in an era where most music differs from traditional Jazz music. Currently most “popular” rock songs have a guitar as a primary instrument, have a singer, and no solos or improvisation of any kind. While Jazz music is dominated by saxophones, usually all instrumental music, and soloing/ improvisation is a critical part of the music. So listening to Jazz can be an intimidating endeavor especially when around those knowledgable on the music.
So to begin pick a Jazz song you already enjoy to listen to. If unsure of what to select picking something that is classic jazz would probably be best, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue Album, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus album, or some Louis Armstrong are good places to start.I would shy away from Coltrane or the more “Modern” stuff for now. Although that music is amazing, it can be too much for a beginner and can discourage you from listening to Jazz. Think of this as an exercise for you ears. You wouldn’t begin any workout regimen trying to keep up with someone who is clearly advanced. It would be dangerous, strenuous, and discouraging, if you did. The same thing holds true here, start with something you know, like, or feel comfortable with.
It will take multiple listenings to understand the form of a song. This holds true whether you are always listening to Jazz or new to the genre. So on the first listen I would just listen to the record as I normally do. Write down anything that seems obvious or catches your attention. What instruments are in this song? Does the song sound like it has an intro? Do all instruments play together immediately or do some come in later? When does the melody end? When do the solo begin? If your selection is a well known Jazz standard it can help if you have sheet music to go along with the recording, but be careful! There can be errors in sheet music and of course musicians also have different interpretations of a standard, faster tempos, changing of keys, intros, etc..
Next establish if the song has an intro or begins with the melody immediately. A good rule of thumb is if only one musician is playing, it is more likely an intro. A prime example of this is So What a song of off Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue. It begins with a bass line followed by piano, and then Miles Davis begins to play the melody. Once you’ve established when the melody begins you need to establish when it ends. Typically, the melody is played through its entirety twice, then followed by solos, and finally, back to the melody. The end of a melody is much more clear if a different instrument from the one that played the melody solos first. This is not the case in So What since Miles Davis solos immediately following the melody he plays. However, the drummer does a hit to signify that the melody is over and solos have begun. After establishing when the melody ends and solos begin the next step is to realize when the melody begins again. This should be easier since it should essentially be the same as earlier. Again, always exceptions to the rules, especially in Jazz, but I would say this holds true for most Jazz songs.
If you have followed all these steps then Congratulations! You have analyzed a jazz record! You should be proud, very few people go through the trouble of figuring out what is actually happening in the music they listen to. Do not be discouraged if you struggled, are still confused, or unsure if your comprehension has improved much. Like any exercise you will only get better with time and the most important aspect is starting. Jazz is not an exclusive club. However, we do have our own terminology and style different from what most people are accustomed to. Taking the time to understand the structure of the music will give you a higher level of comprehension as to what is happening in Jazz music and ultimately, that’s the goal. A higher level of understanding and enjoyment of the music we love.