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Close(d) Listening: Ted Gioia’s “How to Listen to Jazz”

Jazz's past bests its present in worthwhile if flawed new book

Ted Gioia

It happens with amusing regularity: I meet somebody at a party and the talk turns toward what we do for a living. When I say I write about music, there’s a flicker of startled curiosity, followed fast by a sharpening of attention. “What kind of music?” asks my new pal. “Mostly jazz,” comes the reply, and with that I can watch the clouds roll in.

“Oh,” he or she says, and I don’t need much more context to know what’s going on. Jazz, and my presumed expertise in the subject, has pressurized the conversation. Sometimes what comes next feels like a defensive apology, and sometimes it’s a veiled dismissal, but even when it’s more earnest-“So, what should I be listening to?”-a stubborn insecurity suddenly hulks at the center of our exchange. The mere idea of jazz strikes this person as lofty and intimidating, esoteric and possibly scary. And as an arbiter of this self-serious music, I stand for tsk-tsking superiority and judgment.

The best response a critic can muster in this situation is to disarm presumptions, wrestling the fear back to a manageable scale. The second-best response is to offer a way forward, with clear vision and concrete recommendations. Ted Gioia, a veteran jazz critic and historian, attempts to combine these two approaches in his new book, How to Listen to Jazz (Basic). Part music-appreciation manual, part pocket history, part conversion tract, it feels like a considered response to precisely the sort of exchange I’ve just described. Early on, Gioia lays out a thesis, “the notion that careful listening can demystify virtually all of the intricacies and marvels of jazz.”

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