Mama sings sweet.
While that snoozy, woozy baby
Sleeps deep, deep, deep.
from Jazz Baby
written by Lisa Wheeler
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Clarion Books, 2007
I used to think I didn’t like jazz. Then I stopped listening so hard and surprise! it became a kind of experience. Turns out that instinctively, I did the exact, right thing. Jazz is free-form, improvisational. By paying such close attention, I was trying to confine it to a form.
My grandmother, Mom’s mom, had an ear for music. She told me once that she could sing along to any song, even one she hadn’t heard before because she could anticipate where the next note will fall or what kind of chord moves a melody along and how the rhythm keeps it all together.
But, as I found out, we’ll feel frustrated if we try to use those active-listening skills when we’re surrounded by jazz. We aren’t able to anticipate where the artist is moving the music. Actually, when scientists at Johns Hopkins used fMRI technology to study creativity and spontaneity, they found that jazz musicians, when they improvise, turn off the areas in their brains linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow.
So they may be just as surprised by the music they create as the rest of us are when we listen.
But how about the rest of us? A term unique to music therapy is the iso effect. Coined in the 1950s and simply put, a client listens to music that matches their mood. They are gradually introduced to music that helps them shift to a different mood.
Students at Tufts University developed a chart that identifies different characteristics of musical pieces. You can find it here. It is a rubric that defines music on two axes, from happy to sad on the horizontal (stress) axis and calm to energetic on the vertical (energy) axis. Playlists can be developed that move up or down each scale.
Many components determine a song’s place on this scale called Thayer’s Mood Model. Tempo, volume, pitch, timbre (qualities of sound that let us differentiate the same pitch when played on a flute or say a piano), harmonies (whether simple or complex) and rhythmic qualities (regular, syncopated, improvised among others). These components working together influence our moods.
While jazz is comprised of many different forms including ragtime, blues, swing, and the newer electric, experimental pieces, when I think of jazz, I think of Ella Fitzgerald’s scat, or Thelonius Monk’s piano, or even Kenny Gee’s sax.
Jazz’s complexity is based on the way an artist builds chords then strings notes based on those chords into a melody line that floats above. That’s the innovative factor. That’s the part, when a musician is improvising, that transports us (and them) into a realm where we are receptive, “tuned in.”
When I was young, I learned to be an active listener. I’d anticipate where the melody was going and how it would get there. I looked for patterns in the rhythms. I studied Music Theory.
But none of that prepared me for jazz. Jazz is improvisational. Jazz builds its own rhythms. Jazz sings its own melodies. In Mysterious Thelonius, a picture book by Chris Raschka, he said of Monk: “He played not one wrong note, not one. His piano had none, not one.”
Thelonius Monk is the second most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington. He influenced Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis.
Depending on who you ask (or which Google hit you click on) you’ll discover that jazz isn’t just one thing. It’s music, of course, but since its invention in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century, Jazz has evolved, like everything alive is bound to do.
Jazz, America’s gift to the world.
-—be curious! (and take time to relax…with music)
My Book of the Week:
Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed (Little, Brown and Company; 2021) is a memoir, a travelogue, and a well-researched history documenting one journalist’s impressions as he travels to several historic sites. Looking through his Black lens, Mr. Smith uses his expertise to expose the horrors of slavery and relates his own feelings as well as those of his fellow visitors. Museum curators and his own grandfather’s recollections round out this powerful narrative.