Enjoying jazz is easier than one might think

Courtesy of Tori Kim ‘25

Many disparaging misconceptions plague the artistic reputation of jazz music. Compared to other musical genres, it seems like an uncompromising, alien style, existing in a separate world of improvisational chaos and overly avant-garde sensibilities. Even among fellow music fans who appreciate a wide variety of artists, I have often noticed that a lot of people do not bother engaging with jazz. In reality, these assumptions about jazz being unenjoyable prove to be incorrect and poorly informed. If more people gave jazz a chance, they would find that it is more accessible than it may seem.

Complicated experimental songs can be daunting, but there are plenty of jazz pieces with simpler structures. Much of the big-band or swing jazz of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s has resulted in shorter songs with easy to follow melodies, danceable rhythms and reliance on compositional form rather than improvisational freedom. For many, these traits dismantle jazz’s image as pretentious and unenjoyable, since these components are common in most popular music. The swing style propelled jazz to dominate in the American music scene of the ’30s and ’40s, with the great success of artists like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Standards such as “Chicago” or “A String of Pearls” are iconic, catchy and well-representative of the style as a whole, demonstrating that jazz can captivate all audiences. 

Importantly, jazz music has more to offer than instrumental pieces. The vocal jazz tunes of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong and more are even easier to get into. Singers accompanying instrumental jazz backgrounds often provide first-time listeners with a more comfortable experience; it is easier for them to enjoy a song with vocals rather than something purely instrumental, as this resembles a wider range of popular music.

Beyond big-band music, many other accessible jazz albums are great options for beginner fans. Cool jazz provides a relaxed, downtempo and mellow listening experience. With the endeavors of musicians like Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck in the late ’40s and ’50s, cool jazz stands in contrast to the often disorienting and blisteringly fast bebop, which emerged during the same time period. Brubeck’s “Time Out” was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies, demonstrating its wide appeal and inviting qualities despite the fact that it experiments with uncommon time signatures. The subdued style of this album or Davis’ “Kind of Blue” are perfect starting points for someone who needs an easygoing first-time experience with the genre. 

For those who yearn for more excitement, an album like Charles Mingus’ “Ah Um” is full of playful, higher-tempo songs with impressive solos and memorable choruses. Hard bop is another style for newer fans to try. Records like Art Blakey’s “Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers” or John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” feature prominent melodies as well as blues-influenced chord progressions, a structure essential to rock music. Whatever your speed, you are sure to find something to enjoy within the varied content of these records.

Another angle to approach the genre is by listening to artists that infuse jazz with other genres such as funk, pop or rock. Steely Dan is a shining example of how a group can seamlessly blend jazz, rock and pop music, resulting in a smooth, radio-friendly sound. The band performs and records albums like “Aja” with extreme precision, but remain jazzy despite their polished aesthetic. Herbie Hancock’s uplifting and warm brand of jazz-funk results in songs with impeccable groove and varied sonic qualities. His synth playing is astonishing to hear for the first time, and albums like “Head Hunters” have rightfully earned their place in the jazz canon while simultaneously remaining accessible to newcomers. Modern jazz artists like Thundercat and Esperanza Spalding are also great stepping stones for those nervous about diving into instrumental jazz head on. For fans of hip hop, a wide catalog of jazz-rap artists awaits, with highlights including Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest. 

In media, the soundtracks of works like “A Charlie Brown Christmas’” or “Cowboy Bebop” are full of inventive and sensational jazz music, often appealing to those who claim they don’t “get” jazz. Wherever your preferences lie, there are alternative paths to engage with jazz that incorporate diverse ranges of musical genres. 

Like the music itself, there is no one correct way to engage with jazz music. As a listener exploring the genre, tailoring this musical journey to one’s personal tastes will help the listener quickly find something enjoyable. Jazz as a genre encompasses many distinct moods and subgenres, offering something uniquely different and entertaining to everyone who seeks it out. A little patience and an open mind will reward your ears. Give jazz a chance, and it will certainly be satisfying in return.

Below is a playlist to check out the music mentioned in the article, along with additional songs: 

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/61mjrzl4Dx0fD9R3h2yJuG?si=89a245d581884c09

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