The Summer Music Season is Upon Us, Here’s a Beginner’s Guide to Jazz Listening (with Audio)

Credit: Montclair Music Festival.

Summer in and around the Oranges means jazz will be on the streets, in the parks and in the air. A lot of the audience will be jazz aficionados. A lot more of the audience will be casual, even accidental, concert goers.

Friends and neighbors in the latter categories ask me how to listen. I grilled my jazz musician husband, musician friends, and my on-air guru for this guide.

Listening Versus Hearing, Jazz Standards

I asked ace pianist and organist Dave Braham, “What do you want in an audience?” 

“Listen,” Dave said. “Please listen.”

Just as many museum goers seem to watch art but not see it, folks hear music but don’t listen. “Music is becoming something in the background,” renowned jazz drummer Billy Drummond said.

First, some general thoughts and definitions. Jazz can be played solo, duo, small group, big band and full orchestra. There are many styles of jazz. For Arts Beat, we are concentrating on mainstream styles, formats and ideas.

A simple definition of jazz is virtuoso musicians having a conversation. Sometimes they talk as a group. Other times one player takes the lead in a solo while his bandmates accompany him, or less often, sit out.

“In pop or classical music, everything is planned in advance — the music is written out or rehearsed to sound the same way each time it’s played. Jazz is all about the spontaneous, improvised interplay among the players,” said master bassist Steve LaSpina. “Start by listening to the group overall, then focus in on the soloist and the interactions of the group referencing him.”

Let’s start our listening party with organ soul-jazz. Soul-jazz has a long tradition in the many jazz clubs that long lit up Newark, the Oranges, Montclair, Paterson, Atlantic City and Trenton. Organ groups remain highly popular. Two of the past masters are Jimmy Smith, the father of modern organ jazz, and guitarist supreme Wes Montgomery. Here they trade ideas on Wes’s tune, “Road Song (OGD)” from their 1966 album, Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes. 

Call and Response

Jazz musicians have been performing this song ever since its debut, earning it the status of a jazz standard. And in jazz, a musician sometimes revisits his own tune, as here from Wes Montgomery’s 1968 album Road Song with full orchestra including strings and featuring pianist Herbie Hancock.

In both versions, you can hear that jazz is call and response. My husband Bob DeVos, the veteran jazz guitarist who came up playing with most of the jazz organ greats, notes: “In the second, Wes states (calls out) the theme and the orchestra responds, this time with a quote from ‘Going Out of My Head,’ an earlier Wes hit. That’s part of the humor in jazz,” Bob said.

Some of you haven’t listened to much jazz, but some tunes will sound familiar. Staying with Herbie Hancock (who is playing brilliantly at age 83), here’s his “Cantaloupe Island” from 1964. This cut, another jazz standard, has been used in TV commercials and soundtracks and frequently sampled, notably the 1992 rap “Cantaloop, Flip Fantasia.” That’s Freddie Hubbard cornet, Ron Carter bass, and Tony Williams drums, all names to know. In jazz, with its emphasis on interplay, sidemen are important.

Credit: Bob DeVos.

The Great American Songbook & Improvisation

When I taught high school, few students left my American History classes without knowing Louis Armstrong’s pivotal role in American culture. Most heard Ella Fitzgerald, too. Both Louis and Ella were throwaway kids — Louis, an early 20th-century orphan; Ella, a Depression-era street kid, escaping her abusive stepfather. Pitch perfect, Ella is the First Lady of Song. When the two are paired, there is a joy— and jazz has a lot of joy — you can’t miss, no matter how forgotten this vintage Irving Berlin tune, “Cheek to Cheek.” You’ll hear the call and response between voice and instrument. Listen for how both Louis and Ella’s voices are instruments. With Oscar Peterson, piano, Ray Brown, bass.

Some thoughts about the tune. Irving Berlin wrote it in the 1930s for a Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers film, Top Hat. This tune and hundreds more were composed between roughly the 1920s and 1950s and are known as standards. They comprise what is called the Great American Songbook or simply, the Songbook. Leading lights included Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Harold Arlen. I grew up singing their songs. Probably you know at least a handful.

It’s the variations on both these standards and jazz standards that excite jazz listeners. There are tweaks with time or twists and embellishments on the melody. Most exciting is the soloist improvising a whole new melody live and in the moment.

Let’s pause and wonder. I quote the late great pianist Harold Mabern from a casual conversation years ago. “Jazz musicians are geniuses. Even the most mediocre jazz musician is half a genius,” Harold had proclaimed.

No argument from me.

But how do the soloist’s bandmates know how to accompany him? What are they following if the original tune—often stated in the opening measures and called the head–has been jettisoned?

There are rules, sometimes abandoned, but that’s not our concern here. The new melodic lines fit the same underlying harmonies of the original song. If the term harmony is giving you pause, think of a progression of three or five or seven note combinations that are called chords. They give structure and an underlying richness to a tune. Jazz musicians of all generations must memorize the melodies of standards and their chord progressions.

Let’s listen to an example of this process. A standard many of you know is “My Favorite Things,” composed by Richard Rodgers for The Sound of Music. But, even if you don’t know the tune, listen to John Coltrane on soprano saxophone state the melody (again, the head) and then improvise new melodic lines based on the same harmonies.


Before turning to the rhythm section and blue notes, many readers have heard Duke Ellington’s dictum, “It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got that Swing.” Swing is easier to sense than to explain and is easier to explain than to play.

It’s the feel of many jazz tunes. It’s kind of messed up triplets. Interpretation and execution vary. If you don’t know what triplets are, don’t worry. Basically, swing is what gives a sense of forward movement, of excitement. An entryway to swing is the drummer’s cymbal beat: ding, ding-a-ding, spang-a-lang. Since, we haven’t heard any big band jazz, the popular music of the 1930s and 1940s, here’s Count Basie, the King of Swing, live in 1965 with his Orchestra. This recording includes the video of the performance. It’s another standard, “April in Paris” by Vernon Duke.

The Rhythm Section & Blue Notes

It’s time to add a consideration of rhythm and here’s where the audience comes in. If many famed jazz recordings are based on Western music and the Great American Songbook, the rhythmic base is West African polyrhythms. There are a lot of jazz rhythms and modern jazz drummers are playing many at once.

Some jazz compositions favor rhythm over melody or harmony. Dave Braham cites tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris and his 1965 “Freedom Jazz Dance” as an example of a jazz improvisation inspired by the rhythm. Bob DeVos elaborates: “The song opens with piano, bass and drum setting up the opening vamp, groove. Harris’ melody is played over this rhythmic vamp that repeats though the tune. The soloing is also over that vamp,” DeVos said. This track is from the original recording with Cedar Walton, piano, Ron Carter, bass and Billy Higgins, drums.

(“Freedom Jazz Dance” is about civil rights and personal freedom. It’s not to be confused with free jazz, another genre where a lot of the rules are tossed aside.)

West African polyrhythms leads to a consideration of another jazz essential: blue notes. Many musicologists think blue notes derive from African scales. Blue notes don’t exist in common Western scales. Think of these notes as the tone between two piano keys or the tone a blues guitarist attains in bending a note on a string. You hear blue notes a lot in hard bop, a popular jazz format many jazz groups play today that is based on bebop, soul, gospel and R&B.

Here is the brilliant jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell on the title track from 1963 “Midnight Blue.” (We’ll talk about the blues, a forerunner to jazz, some other time.)

Final instructions to the audience: Now that you’re listening, do clap, but, please, not on the downbeat. Clap on the second and fourth beats. Jazz is syncopated. If you came up in the Black church or jumped double Dutch on the playground, you are way ahead of the game.

If you clap right, you are part of the rhythm section.

Applaud after solos. An old school, “YES!” punctuating the air is good too. The musicians thrive on audience response.

Free Summer Jazz Events

When my husband isn’t home spinning vinyl — jazz is best live, next best are vinyl and CDs — I have an on-air listening guru in Sid Gribetz, longtime host at WKCR 89.9FM radio, and his in-depth jazz profiles.

“Sid, what should I tell readers?”

Sid kept it simple: “Even if you’re a new listener and might feel intimidated to go to a jazz concert, attending a free and easy summer event is the best way to begin your experience of the joy of jazz,” Sid said.

Go! Oh, and bring little kids. Without preconceptions or social media telling them what to like, they get it.

Special thanks to Dave Braham, Billy Drummond, Steve LaSpina, and Bob DeVos for their music and insights. Bob listened to all the audio selections to assure they were from the original releases. See their websites for schedules, music, bios, and more or follow them on Facebook.

See WKCR’s website for Sid’s schedule and articles. Newark’s famed WBGO 88.3FM plays a variety of jazz and blues styles 24 hours daily and holds live events. For area events, sign up for the Four Oranges Weekend Arts Guide, delivered free to your inbox each Friday.


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6:30PM– 8:30PM

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Montclair Jazz Festival

Saturday, August 12, 2023

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West Orange Jazz Festival

Saturday, September 23, 2023


Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center

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