Beautiful Music

Appears in the October 2019 issue.

Doug Beach calls jazz “America’s gift to the arts,” but the veteran trumpeter and director of jazz studies for the acclaimed program at Elmhurst College knows that most Americans don’t necessarily appreciate that fact. Unfairly saddled with labels like “complicated” or “challenging,” and deprived of the mainstream attention afforded more popular musical genres, jazz often struggles to connect with new listeners. But Beach says learning to really hear what’s going on in a jazz tune is to discover a brilliant new musical world.

Understand the elements
All music consists of three elements, and Beach says getting familiar with them can help unlock the beauty of a jazz song. Melody is the tune or the theme, and is likely the most prominent sound one hears. Harmony supports the melody and consists of multiple notes happening at the same time, often supplied by the piano or guitar. Finally, rhythm determines space and time by defining the duration of each note—drums are a good listen here, since everything a drummer does is rhythmic.

Identify the instruments
Instruments are from families, including the brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba, etc.), the woodwinds (saxophone, clarinet, etc.), and the rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass and drums). “As you listen to a recording, try to focus in on each instrument and listen to the role it plays in the music,” Beach advises.

Follow the improv
While most jazz players love the freedom to create spontaneously in the moment, improv can be one of the most challenging and confusing parts of the music to a nonmusician. Beach says a good way to better understand improvisation is to start with an album that is more approachable, such as the Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue. To put these listening tips to the test, try one of Beach’s five favorite jazz recordings:

Miles Davis
“This is arguably most famous album in the history of jazz. Recorded in 1959, it is a doorway to jazz history, featuring not only Miles, but also John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, and others.”
Shirley Horn
“There has to be a vocalist on this list, and this is the perfect choice. This recording features great songs, with arrangements and orchestrations by the incomparable Johnny Mandel.”
Count Basie and his Orchestra
“Essential Basie. No big band swings like Basie, and this recording was made by a band that consisted of some of his greatest players performing many legendary arrangements.”
Louis Armstrong
“Louis was the first great genius of jazz, and his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups created some of the greatest music in the genre’s early years.”
Duke Ellington
“This recording, from one of America’s greatest composer-arrangers, features one of his greatest bands playing some of his most important works.”

Photograph by Olivia Kohler