What it is and how to get it. 🎹

The "rope station" at the top of Mount Hakone, Japan, overlooks Mt. Fuji and the Tokyo metro basin.

A coworker once asked me "What was some good jazz music to get into?"

Oh boy! What a great question! Someone is open to this lost art form!

I say "lost art" somewhat seriously. Yes, plenty of great players out there today. And a few of the players from Bird's time are still alive (as of this writing), e.g. Barry Harris, Ahmad Jamal. But we just lost Tyner this year (2020). Barry, bless his soul, still gives workshops in NYC. So yes, plenty of great players killing "the scene" today. But the era of jazz is long gone. You see? This is about culture. This is where the term "lost art" comes back. There's no need to get into the silly conversation about how "our jazz" of today is alive and well, and that I'm missing the point of exactly what jazz is about: change.

It turns out, I didn't give my coworker any helpful advice on where to turn for jazz music, but it wasn't without trying. My first question was, "What are you listening to now?"

"Anything, everything," he said.

"Everything what?" I asked.

"Everything on KPLU," he replied. KPLU/KNXX is, of course, Seattle/Tacoma's NPR affiliate and as I like to call them: "easy listening". (KNXX also happens to be run by crypto-fascists. See the recent firing of meteorologist Cliff Mass over a harmless tweet.)

I don't do easy listening. I find easy listening to be tedious listening because it does not challenge the mind. I'm looking for puzzles. I'm looking for complexity in simplicity. Easy example, but not the best, is this: there is no "outside playing" on this station. Very little.

Don't get me wrong. I love the tunes they play. Most of the good stuff is the old stuff. It's classic. You can’t go wrong. So, like classic rock radio stations, playing all the super safe stuff that was in the top 40 over the last half century, jazz music finds itself in the same predicament of being "classic".

So this whole time I’m thinking: I can’t help this guy.

Music is about feeling and about intelligence, as in: thinking. Both those things make experience personal. Those two things alone are what makes us human. Those two things combined provide your awareness with plenty of things to do.

That is really all there is to it. A drum says boom boom boom and you start tapping your foot. That's feeling. You start counting beats and make connections to things in your own life. That's thinking. So you can see that all music is about being human, which is this mash of feeling and thinking, at the core.

So rather than blabber on about philosophy I just ran my list of players. I told this guy, "Ok, you want some stuff to bend your ear…"

Now right about here a reader will point out that this is all stuff you can sometimes hear on the radio, but nowadays you can always hear it online in numerous places. Anything you want is out there.

To this I agree, of course. Hunt down whatever suits your fancy. And that is my actual listening advice. If you need to ask others what to listen to, you might be looking for new ideas or you might be looking for easy answers, in which case easy listening might be suited to your listening ambitions. But music is about a feeling. Right? That’s what they always say. But you must add the "thinking" part to the equation. Even the most wildly played tune with complete reckless abandon starts with a "thought". There is yin and yang here.

I kept going with my list:

Another reader will point out: what about so-and-so? What about these guys over here and those guys over there? What about Duke for chrissakes!?

Yes. We all have our players. Jazz is personal.

As for Duke, I like the "Duke Ellington & John Coltrane" record. There's something pretty melancholy happening here. Like a goodbye. I find it to be a hauntingly beautiful record.

"Now go listen to Bird. All of it."

— Arlo Emerson, North Bend, Washington April 2020.