What to Listen to and Watch for When Enjoying Jazz

For Jazz Appreciation Month, a guide to understanding the nuances, subtleties and surprises of America’s unique music

In a Count Basie performance of the “Basie Boogie,” the musician's fingers fly across the piano keys as if they are doing the dance themselves. Saxophone, clarinet and string soloists add their own voices to the sway of the movement. The drummer's rhythmic downbeats dance in time.

The United States has now snapped its fingers to the syncopated heartbeat of jazz for more than a century. As a music genre, it is a uniquely American invention that began in Louisiana and diffused to different parts of the country, and later, the world. “Since jazz first emerged, it has radically changed, from a localized music for accompanying dances in New Orleans to an international art form with many styles and dialects,” says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Since its origins, ongoing reinvention has been a defining feature of jazz.

"The music has undergone a number of paradigm shifts, as its conceptions of rhythm, harmony, melody, tone color, soloing, improvisation and length have changed over the decades," says Hasse.

As the reach and form of jazz continues to evolve, so too does the relationship it has with its audience. “Initially, before recordings captured its sound, jazz audience members listened only in real time, and typically, up close and personal," he says,  “There was often little physical divide between the performers and the listeners; they were in close proximity.”

Today, jazz can be heard across myriad platforms including recordings, radio and online. Its influence is also pervasive in modern-day melodies of pop, rock, hip-hop, rap and bluegrass music. Given its accessibility, jazz is an art form that “can be gratifying without deep knowledge of its underlying structure,” states Discover Jazz, a book that Hasse co-edited along with Tad Lathrop. However, for those interested in developing a keener ear for various elements of the genre, here are some guidelines.

Count Basie - Basie Boogie

Start by finding a song’s original melody

At its core, jazz, like other music genres, relies on a constant melody to serve as a foundation for songs. What differentiates it are the deviations that take place with every performance, the improvisations that many people have heard before. “It serves as a tool for personal expression beyond what the original composer may have had in mind," says the book.

A typical jazz performance starts off sticking close to the original composition, establishing what jazz musicians call the “head,” the main melody of a song or tune. Once the musicians play the melody, they will then improvise upon it or its underlying harmonies. Often, the performance will conclude with a return to the main melody, where it all began, making the performance, a musical sandwich. Identifying the main melody and following its variations offers insight into the song's development.

Follow the harmonies of the song

Jazz seems very free-form, but each song has a consistent structure of harmony, accompanying the melody as a secondary layer.

The harmony will often take the structure of “blues form,” essentially a 12-bar structure built around three chords.
 The first of these is a a tonic or “home” chord, the second is a “subdominant chord” (think of the next-to-the-last chord in a hymn ending with “Amen”), and the third is the “dominant chord,” a moment of tension in the song that seeks resolution by returning to the first “home” chord at the song’s end.

The “home” chord is the base pattern of notes the song will start with, the “subdominant chord” serves as a more subdued background and the “dominant chord,” is more dynamic and unexpected. The "dominant" chord will ultimately shift back to the first “home” chord to close out a selection.

Similar to the melodic structure, harmonies start and end at “home,” although significant variation could take place in between.

Get to know the different forms of improvisation being used

Improvisation is the cornerstone of jazz. Musicians train extensively to craft intricate on-the-fly soloes. The practice comes in three main forms: paraphrase, motivic and formulaic.

In paraphrase improvisation, musicians reference the main melody heavily and “comment upon, vary and take off” on the themes.

Motivic improvisation involves repeating a short motif, but changing its pitches.

The most often-practiced technique is formulaic improvisation, which requires significant understanding by the musician of how different note combinations sound.  Jazz musicians call these note combinations or formulae “licks,” memorized phrases that musicians insert instantly and seamlessly into a fast-moving solo.

Licks are made up of "conjunct" and "disjunct" pitch sequences. "Conjunct" sequences use notes that are close to each other, while "disjunct" sequences leap to notes farther away on the scale. The former sounds like a natural progression, while the latter delivers a spirited and unexpected vibe.

Musicians get to know these various combinations so well, that they almost instinctively know what is best to go with in a live solo.

Duke Ellington - It don't mean a thing (1943)

Keep an eye out for secret signals and teamwork

“When Duke Ellington was leading his band from the piano, he might give the nod of a head, a knowing look, or an “Ahhhhh!” to cue the band. Another leader might tilt the head or raise an eyebrow,” says Hasse, “Sometimes a cue is audible, but entirely non-verbal: a thunderous chord in the lower end of the piano, a rat-tat-tat on the drums, a sustained low note by the bass, or an upward rip by the trumpeter. And sometimes it might seem to the audience that it’s by telepathy.”

Jazz embodies an incredible “balance” of musicians operating independently, as soloists, and collaborating, as band members. “Musicians contribute to the collective whole,” with each person helping build the sound, but also knowing when it’s their turn to stand out. Hasse cites a basketball team as the closest sports counterpart to a jazz band—in this case instead of a ball that’s always in motion, it’s the song that’s being passed around and also given its own flair by every person who touches it.

“During a typical jazz performance," he says, "one soloist will follow another. Often it’s not the leader who decides how long a solo will go, but rather the soloist: a player will decide how many choruses to play, and approaching the end of the soloing, he will lower the excitement level, arcing down to a good stopping point. When the next soloist notices that denouement, she realizes it’s her turn next.”

Soloists will often find characteristic ways to develop their own voice including using “vibrato,” the wavering nature of a note that’s being held, as well as hitting certain notes harder or softer and slurring transitions. Creating a signature style with various techniques enables different musicians to establish their trademark.

Watching for signals can provide a glimpse into the flow of a jazz song, while observing the technique of individual performers can illustrate how they infuse songs with their unique identity.


Jazz is all about action. “West African percussion and polyrhythm—multiple rhythms of different meters occurring simultaneously” have significantly influenced the beat of jazz. Given the genre’s origin as dance music, it has long centered on movement.

As a result, it only makes sense that “swing” is a defining rhythmic characteristic of the genre. Difficult to formally categorize, “swing” is a feeling of forward motion and energy, what Duke Ellington called, “that part of rhythm that causes a bouncing, buoyant, terpsichorean urge.”

Jazz, unlike classical music, thrives on the active reaction of the audience. The swing and syncopation of its rhythm refuses to sit still or ask its listeners to do so. With a strong connection to the “call-and-response culture” of religious groups, jazz, at the end is driven by an active conversation. Listening to it is as much about paying attention as it is about viscerally responding.

“In the 1920s, when young people rebelled against convention, jazz was their dance music,” says Hasse. “During the Civil Rights movement, jazz musicians Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, and Max Roach respectively composed such pieces as, Fables of Faubus, The Freedom Rider, Freedom Suite, and Freedom Now Suite."

“If jazz means anything,” wrote Duke Ellington, “it is freedom of expression.” 

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, now in its 14th year, a celebration established to pay tribute to the heritage and history of jazz. Founded at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2002 by John Edward Hasse, the month-long commemoration includes special events and performances, and a nationwide focus on enjoying, listening to and learning about jazz through concerts and recordings. Get more details and check out events to look out for here.

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Discover Jazz

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