A friend asked on Facebook the other day why jazz fans like jazz and it made me start thinking about why I like jazz. I certainly don’t like ALL jazz – the more experimental jazz, or the jazz that doesn’t feature guitar still puts me off. Well, more like puts me to sleep. I just can’t keep up with it, I guess.
So what do I like about (some) jazz?
Well, for one thing, it’s easy to play solo. I don’t mean it’s not difficult to play jazz – some of those chords are crazy – but it’s sonically pleasing to play jazz on your own. It’s very self-sufficient and doesn’t rely on any other instruments (provided you’re playing guitar and not, say, drums. You can add instruments to really flush it out, but it’s fine with just a guitar. The guitar doesn’t even need to be plugged in. Acoustic jazz is just as awesome as electric jazz, perhaps even more so to me because acoustic recordings always have a little more “raw” feel to them when you can hear a few more instances of fret buzz or complex chords not being nailed quite perfectly. This humanity is inspiring to me because jazz guitarists are the giants to me and if THEY make mistakes, then they’re not mistake-free guitar gods, but humans after all. And if they can do it, perhaps I can too.
Almost every chord played is beautiful and full-sounding and you can vary the speed and delivery technique so much that you can make the same song sound radically different using nothing more than picking-hand technique.
Which brings me to the second reason I like jazz: you don’t get bored playing it. With a standard three or four-chord song, the verse riffs are generally low-key and on the back burner for the singer’s sake and, while jazz is no different VOLUME-wise (always giving the singer the most prominent position), the intricacies and number of chords you’re subtlety playing keeps you on your toes. As much as you’re part of a group (if you’re playing with a group), you’re off in your own world, focused on what you’re doing. When I play jazz with people, I just focus so much on what I’m playing that it’s merely the HOPE that it’s with the rest of the band. I just don’t want to mess up and there’s so much you can mess up on! If I start to relax and listen to the music that we’re creating, that is almost certainly when my timing starts to go, and then I trip over myself and just like that, the song ends in a train wreck with casualties galore.
I certainly don’t mind being all alone in my own little world though. Which brings me to third reason I like some jazz: You’re probably not the center of attention. A good example of this is from the hilarious movie All of Me where Steve Martin plays a lawyer who lost control to half of his body to the spirit of a rich, dead woman. Hijinks ensue, for sure, but near the end of the movie, Steve Martin needs to play guitar with a jazz band and he’s telling her in his brain “strum, strum, strum, strum.” Thank goodness he didn’t lose control to his fretting side or he would have been boned.
Anyway, he’s tucked off to the side and is able to sneak away when necessary to further the plot – something someone like Steve Vai can never do.
Because when you’re playing with a jazz band, your contribution is all well and good, but not the main draw – at least not all the time. There may be a solo here or there, but generally you’re there more as a rhythm player, just out of the limelight and this isn’t always a bad thing. Perhaps you don’t want to be stared at all night. Being a guitar player in a jazz band, especially one that also has a piano and maybe a trumpet, is a good way to go about being a real player, but not one that’s the center of attention.
Unless you want that sort of thing.
Which brings me to my fourth reason I like some jazz: You can totally be the center of attention if you want to. Gypsy jazz band the Lost Fingers is a three-piece band with a bassist and two acoustic guitarists. The lead guitarist breaks tradition and also takes care of vast majority of the singing. And it’s not just a little bit of lead playing – this is some crazy lead stuff going on. The singer IS the attention. He’s the singer, so right away he’s got 99% of the audience’s attention but he’s also a smoking lead player so he’s also got the 1% that are guitarists. He’s probably also commanding the respect of the .5% of that 1% who go to concerts to scoff and say they can play it better.
The last reason I like jazz is because of the rhythm. Some slow, meandering jazz is OK, but a little goes a long way. Generally I like medium to fast paced jazz where you can feel the energy from the guitar player. The quick strumstrumstrumstrum of the backing track is what I prefer over the intricate lead guitar solo because I like to grab on to chords and hold on for dear life. Like Joe Strummer, I’m not nearly as into “the fiddly bits,” though they’re fun to play sometimes. Generally I prefer to play rhythm. That’s the fun stuff for me.
Jazz is a huge genre, there’s no doubt about it. It’s also a very inclusive genre. School kids in band learn jazz stuff, just about any instrument can be used for jazz, and people from all walks of life can perform it. It isn’t one of those genres that demand a certain look or background, though you can certainly raise eyebrows if you pull out an odd guitar. My eyebrows were raised when I watched a kid on PBS bust out some great jazz licks on a black Schecter seven string, but it was a pleasant surprise.
And with such a huge genre and so many players in it, there’s a lot NOT to like. But there’s also a lot TO like and what you need to do is focus on a trait that you like whether it’s not being the center of attention, being the center of attention, the complex fiddly bits, the complex (but satisfying) chords of rhythm playing, the challenge of the music, or just the fun of hanging on to the rhythm and then delving deeper into THAT and expanding on your likes. Don’t pass on jazz just because you can’t stand Miles Davis. There’s a lot here to love, so get digging!