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How to Listen to Jazz

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A "radiantly accomplished" music scholar presents an accessible introduction to the art of listening to jazz (Wall Street Journal)

In How to Listen to Jazz, award-winning music scholar Ted Gioia presents a lively introduction to one of America's premier art forms. He tells us what to listen for in a performance and includes a guide to today's leading jazz musicians. From Louis Armstrong's innovative sounds to the jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis, Gioia covers the music's history and reveals the building blocks of improvisation. A true love letter to jazz by a foremost expert, How to Listen to Jazz is a must-read for anyone who's ever wanted to understand and better appreciate America's greatest contribution to music.

"Mr. Gioia could not have done a better job. Through him, jazz might even find new devotees." -- Economist

272 pages, Hardcover

First published May 17, 2016

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About the author

Ted Gioia

18 books167 followers
Ted Gioia (1957) is an American jazz critic and music historian.

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5 stars
525 (32%)
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755 (46%)
3 stars
283 (17%)
2 stars
48 (2%)
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7 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 196 reviews
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
551 reviews1,857 followers
January 23, 2023
This has been ONE FUKING INCREDIBLE experience.

I feel like I just finished a cultural/personal/spiritual odyssey.

It has taken me a while to finish this.

There is a Spotify playlist that goes with the book.

There is about 50-100 hours of music on it.

I listened to it as a went.

That’s what took so long.


What a life changer.

I FUCKIN SAYvored it!

I have been a jazz fan since the 80’s.

But I haven’t really listened to jazz for years.

Decades even.

I think I just hit a brick wall with it.

I stopped being curious.

I lost touch with just how transgressive/transformative jazz is.

This book is part intro to jazz criticism.

And part jazz history primer.

In sum.

I loved it.
Profile Image for Martin.
438 reviews21 followers
February 7, 2016
Hands down, one of the best books on jazz I have ever read. And easily the best book on trying to explain jazz. If you are just dipping a toe in the great ocean that is jazz, or if you have been enjoying this music for decades, this is a book that will increase your understanding and enjoyment of this music. It's already altered the way I listen to music, and I've been listening to jazz since the early eighties. I think it helps that Ted Gioia is a musician himself. How to listen to jazz is also very refreshingly free of ideology. Ted Gioia simply wants you to listen to and enjoy the music for its own sake. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Profile Image for Iris Nuțu.
10 reviews61 followers
October 21, 2017
4.5 stars, actually. I only give ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ to books that I feel I could start reading again the moment I have read the last word on the last page, which is obviously not the case right now - but still. This was amazing.

I've just finished reading this book (and when I say reading I mean reading & listening to Gioia's recommendations) and I've been sitting here for the last couple of minutes, listening to random jazz on Spotify, having coffee and a cigarette and simply being grateful that such a book exists.

Because I believe that, given the way in which jazz is commonly perceived nowadays - especially by my generation - we are in great need of such writings. I imagine that the cases in which this book miraculously lands in the hands of a person who does not know anything about or has no appreciation whatsoever for jazz are very rare and that most of Ted Gioia's readers are already genuinely interested in the subject. But I still think that the mere existence of this book might influence someone to reconsider their feelings towards this genre - and that's honestly enough for me. Because, although indeed sophisticated and complex, jazz has never been and should never be considered an unfathomable kind of music. Jazz is for everyone. And that's precisely what Ted Gioia wanted us to remember, when he wrote How to Listen to Jazz.
Profile Image for Kusaimamekirai.
642 reviews214 followers
December 11, 2021
So much to like about this book.
Giola offers some helpful tips on what to listen for and even offers several specific recordings as examples. Of course, if you are like me and can’t read music, talk of notes, bars, and phrasing is still a bit difficult to unravel. I will say however that while I can’t claim to fully have a handle on what to listen for (does anyone really?) I’m closer than I was before reading this book.
Furthermore, the book is a wonderful overview on the last century of jazz and some of its styles, personalities, and innovations. I found myself scrambling to YouTube to listen to King Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues”, Miles Davis “Someday my prince will come” (basically on endless repeat in my ears since I found it), among others.
While too short to be comprehensive, the writing is engaging, conversational, and doesn’t assume that the reader attended a jazz conservatory for a large portion of their life.
Accessible and informative are two things hard to come by in a book about jazz but Giola is both of these and more. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to have a greater appreciation of jazz
Profile Image for John.
343 reviews12 followers
September 19, 2019
Ted Gioia is a solid writer and has a terrific grasp of jazz music. But I came away somewhat disappointed in this work. It is more of a personal journey into jazz. And when he starts getting into chord progressions and music theory and that sort of thing, it becomes a challenge in my opinion for the average reader. I'm going to read his book on jazz standards, which I think might be a better way to understand and appreciate jazz -- a look at individual songs rather than a very wide look at the musical style. It may be better to go piece by piece.
Profile Image for Popebrak.
90 reviews10 followers
February 22, 2018
I'm a recovering death-metal DJ. . . this was very helpful.
Profile Image for Michelle Curie.
699 reviews343 followers
February 9, 2022
A joyous excursion into the exciting and wondrous world of the music where everything is possible!

How to Listen to Jazz is a book I picked up as part of my wish to learn more about the origins and the cultural evolution of jazz, while looking at it from a musical standpoint more than a historical. Ted Gioia was definitely the right man to turn to for this!

The music scholar talks with such passion and knowledge about the subject that it's hard not to get swept away by his enthusiasm. Briefly covering structural things like rhythm, phrasing and pitch, he explains how to understand structures of songs by guiding the reader through a couple of examples. There are then short passages on the different eras jazz has moved through, followed by a look at a couple of grand jazz innovators and a list of contemporary jazz artists worth listening to.

I enjoyed how he didn't tell you what to think, but instead helps to think for yourself. There's a passage in which he talks about how the best music critics make themselves superfluous, as they allow you to grasp the music for yourself. It's a wise statement and one that I support. This isn't an "ultimate guide" to jazz nor does it claim to be one – it's more of a door opening. Once you've stepped through it, you can independently go and explore a whole world of music.
Profile Image for Bob O'Bannon.
205 reviews14 followers
February 20, 2017
There are so many people who love jazz, and who speak of it with such passion and devotion, that I have always concluded that my own indifference to the genre must be the fault of me, not the music. So what could be more fitting than a book titled "How to Listen to Jazz"?

It is clear that Ted Gioia not only loves jazz, but wants you to love it too. In clear and understandable language, he explains essential musical concepts as dynamics, phrasing, pitch, and personality. He gives helpful summaries of the major sub genres of jazz – swing, bebop, cool jazz, fusion, etc., while also explaining the significance of jazz giants like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And he does it all without a hint of elitism or condescension.

Probably most helpful to me as a fan primarily of pop, rock and folk is the realization that jazz is not focused on replication. Every other musical genre seeks to repeat what was originally written and recorded, but with jazz, the distinctive element is spontaneity. Jazz is never the same, which explains why you'll see so many jazz artists doing their own versions of the same classic songs. Jazz's goal is not to repeat the song, but to explore it, reinvent it, and even deconstruct it. In contrast to the "realm of perfect replication," jazz is for those "who want to be in attendance when the miracle happens." (49).

I doubt my love for jazz will ever match Gioia's, but as a result of reading this helpful book, I am at least motivated to open my ears and listen.

Profile Image for Sonja.
209 reviews
September 11, 2018
This could have been a 5 star book, very easily. I chose to get this as an audio book because I have listened to many music related books on audio format.
The reader is great and it is well written. It is missing music samples! How can I learn what to listen for if there is no music.
Audio books are also often listened to in the car. I can't even write notes on what he is telling to listen to or watch on YouTube.
I know there are probably issues with copyrights but still. :(
Profile Image for Joe Richards.
36 reviews3 followers
October 1, 2022
This book establishes itself as a catch-all guide to listening to jazz, but I'm not entirely convinced that it delivers, or who the target audience might be.

On the one hand, it equips you with some fundamentals - probably too simplified for established jazz listeners. On the other, it stylises itself as a critique on the art of listening and of music reviewing, yet doesn't quite dig deep enough for someone such as myself - a musician and jazz fan - to learn much beyond the author's own personal opinions on listening to and interpreting music.

As such, I think perhaps that the book would adequately suit two readership models; firstly the complete novice, who isn't aware of jazz (or perhaps has a passing interest) or isn't aware of deep / active listening, for whom the information provided here will be useful and indeed eye-opening. The exceedingly brief introductions on a handful of individual jazz greats will doubtless serve as tantalising aperitifs, but the author doesn't delve into any of their works in a particularly detailed manner - each simply ends with a selection of recommended listening, laying the work out for you to do.

Secondly, this book may appeal to the established jazz listener who possesses basic or no existing knowledge on music theory or construction, and who wants to learn more. It introduces the reader to musical fundamentals such as rhythm, tone, timbre and expression, and to basic jazz idioms such as heads, solos and vamps. Although it describes the evolution of jazz in a more than adequate manner, it doesn't go much deeper than this musically, which I found a little shallow considering the lofty ambitions laid out in the opening gambit.

I may be being a little harsh here, as realistically the book does cover exactly what the title would suggest. It's a little bit more basic than I would have hoped for, but as an introduction for a novice it's a decent academic way into a genre of music that should command your attention and respect.
Profile Image for Declan Melia.
193 reviews21 followers
August 23, 2022
Sax Ed!

This is as good as a book like this can get. Ted Gioia (a writer and academic after my own heart with his obsession with tracking continuity through music history and obsessive list writing) tells us what he loves about Jazz and why we should love it too.

Mr Gioia’s overarching thesis is that you don’t need to be an expert in music theory to dig jazz, you just need to listen to it with an appreciative ear. He starts with a few key listening techniques (how to appreciate structure, improvisation, and that most elusive of musical qualities: Swing), takes us through a brief history of the art form, and discusses a few of the major innovators.

It's a truth self-evident that jazz is an intimidating style. Louis Armsotrong (Gioia’s absolute hero) famously, said if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know. Indeed, in the circles I run in, the title of this book alone is loaded with pretence. But Gioia walks a tightrope between passion and pretention and never lapses into the holier than thou gatekeeping that seems so prevalent in all music genres.

He is able to pull this off because he never strays across the line from guide to professor. The whole thing reads like an enthusiastic fan pointing you un the right direction. He is quick to point out that analysis of musical structure and form are available to you if you want to go down that path, but this music is for anyone who listens with an open mind.

For me, the best sections were the historical ones. Hearing (and this is a book where the writer’s voice is heard rather than read) Gioia rap about his musical heroes in their historical context encourages you to hear them with a receptive ear. Further, he provides handy lists to introduce a novice to key tracks and then goes on to tell you what makes them so special. Listening along as you read makes for a truly joyous reading experience.

For the avoidance of doubt, if you want to get into Jazz: Read this book. You won’t be disappointed.
Profile Image for Malum.
2,179 reviews130 followers
August 31, 2022
2.5 stars.
More "history of jazz" than "how to listen to jazz". Gioia says to appreciate jazz you just have to listen to it and be receptive to it, and that's about the extent of the "how to" part of the book. The bulk of the book is small biographical snippets of jazz musicians with recommended tracks to listen to for each one. These were interesting enough to keep my attention.

I don't normally consider audiobook production values in my ratings but not including any music samples in this is almost criminal. I know that it would be too expensive to buy Coltrane or Davis tracks, but even public domain jazz samples would have been preferable to an audiobook about how to appreciate a form of music with no examples of that music.
Profile Image for Luca.
9 reviews
April 3, 2020
Feel like I’m finally ready to be that white-guy-in-his-20s at cocktail parties.

Really good introduction for complete newcomers that I feel I will keep going back to. Includes chapters on basic terms, history of trends, and key artist profiles. Definitely recommend listening to the Spotify playlist in between sections.
Profile Image for Guy.
668 reviews31 followers
July 4, 2017
Well written, but foremost aimed at (and useful for) newcomers to jazz.
Profile Image for Marc.
738 reviews101 followers
October 1, 2017
Picked this up while randomly perusing the shelves at the library. It turned out to be a delight. Gioia is as big a fan of jazz as he is a learned critic. He starts out by talking about really using your ears to listen to the music, gives a little background on rhythm and structure, then moves from the origins of jazz through each type of style/era (complete with recommended songs/artists for each period of innovation), and then closes with some of his favorite innovators (Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman).

I was going to try list and link to all the recommendations, but there are just too many. Instead, I'll simply link to a few of my favorite jazz songs below this review.
A few of my favorites...
- "Watermelon Song" (William Parker)
- "Blue Pepper" (Duke Ellington)
- "C Jam Blues" (Louis Armstrong)
- "Turnaround" (Joshua Redman)
- "Bird's Lament" (Moondog)
- "My Funny Valentine" (Sarah Vaughan)
- "Blue Moon" (Billie Holiday)
- "Paranoid Android" (Brad Mehldau)
- "Mad World" (Postmodern Jukebox)
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
497 reviews225 followers
July 2, 2022
This book may be useful to complete beginners, but I feel somewhat misled. I got it because of the name, and because the first chapter or two really did orient me toward aspects of listening and appreciation that were helpful. But by page 75 I looked up and said "What happened? This has just become another history of jazz, and a pretty cursory one."

So that's the majority of the book - a survey of jazz history for a general audience with no interest in theory. Anyone who is not scared by words like "dominant chord" would probably do better to check out something like the history of jazz by Ted Deveaux and Gary Giddins.

There are a couple minor things about this book that I don't care for. When he provides song recommendations, he references them by recording date, not by album. That makes sense until about 1950, and then it forces the reader to figure out which recording he's talking about. Similarly, in the end he provides a list of 150 working jazz musicians he thinks are worth paying attention to - 100 albums would have been more useful. I'm not going to go through a list of 150 musicians and google what albums Billy Blade or Christian Scott have appeared on.
Profile Image for Will Clemmons.
45 reviews2 followers
November 28, 2019
If you’re looking to dive deeper into jazz, read this book. Very informative and helps in finding your own jazz journey, not someone else’s.
Profile Image for James.
462 reviews11 followers
September 1, 2021
I can't really blame Ted Gioia for my disappointment with How to Listen to Jazz. I knew how it was gonna go. I've been listening to jazz with pleasure my entire adult life. Recently, though, I've been approaching my keen music fandom with the idea that putting in more work will yield more pleasure. Specifically, I want to know the elements from which music is made, so that I can afford the craft involved an adult appreciation,much as I know an elegant paragraph or a delicate pie crust in a way that's informed by experience. I've fallen down a rabbit hole of music-nerd YouTube and this title was enthusiastically recommended by uber-nerd, crush-magnet, Adam Neely, so I assumed it was somewhat rigorous, not having merited his gentle enough but not-infrequent scorn.

The problem with this book is that listening to music is a real-world skill and you can't really learn real-world skills from reading a book. Two of the chapters in How to Listen to Jazz specifically address the skill of conscious listening and attempt to do on the page what Gioia does in a classroom setting. To the uninitiated, Gioia says, jazz seems like tv wrestling, an anarchic free-for-all, when if fact it is more like a chess game "in which creative freedom is bound by rules and imagination must operate within carefully defined constraints." I already understood the theme/variation idea in music, but the most useful thing that I learned from the "Structure of Jazz" chapter is that in order to readily distinguish the structure of a piece of music, I will have to train myself to reflexively count, which means physically listening to records, tapping my foot along and keeping track of the measures. "If you can count to thirty-two," Gioia exhorts, and keep the numbers in time with the beats of the music, you are ready to roll." Geez. When I said I was willing to work more for my pleasure, I didn't mean actual work. Gioia then patiently walks us through several pieces of music. When reading, what would have been a seamless process in the classroom - make a statement, play a clip, show a slide, make another statement, play another clip -involved putting the book down, looking up the piece on YouTube and skipping the ads before I even began the process of counting the measures. Lazybones that I am, I found myself reading on through and telling myself I would do the counting later.

The bulk of the book is taken up with what felt like filler - a thumbnail history of jazz and a chapter in which Gioia enthuses about seminal artists. If I knew nothing at all about this music (a reasonable enough assumption for the presumed reader of this volume), these chapters might be useful, but, like I said, I've been listening for a long time. I just wanted to understand what I'm hearing. To give Ted Gioia his due, he pointed me in the right direction. He can't walk the path for me, though. Per Gioia's suggestion, I have begun listening to Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology while reading the book-length liner notes and, when I remember, counting.
Profile Image for Manuel.
Author 1 book1 follower
February 11, 2021
Gioia no podría haber hecho mejor trabajo. Gracias a él, es posible que el jazz encuentre nuevos devotos” — The Economist

Uno se acerca al jazz como a un club cerrado: sin saber dónde está la puerta ni cuáles son las reglas. ¿Qué grabaciones o qué discos son los básicos para el principiante? ¿Y qué estilos o qué épocas? ¿Qué distingue el jazz de Nueva Orleans del de Chicago? ¿Y es mejor empezar por Duke Ellington o por Miles Davis?

Ted Gioia, uno de los expertos más reconocidos del mundo del jazz, se ha puesto en el lugar de un recién llegado y responde a todas esas preguntas en este libro útil y divertido. Recorre las grabaciones, los temas, los estilos y los grandes hitos del jazz clásico... atreviéndose al final a recomendar a los jóvenes talentos del futuro. Un libro que le abrirá las puertas a los mejores clubes de jazz del mundo.

Ted Gioia
Compositor, crítico, historiador, profesor, pianista y productor musical. Comenzó a impartir clases de jazz en la Universidad de Stanford antes incluso de licenciarse. Su primer libro, The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture (1988), fue recibido con entusiasmo por la crítica y los lectores. Además de Historia del jazz, el título de referencia para los amantes del género, es autor de Blues. La música del Delta del Mississippi (2010), El canon del jazz. Los 250 temas imprescindibles (2013) y Canciones de amor (2016), todos ellos editados por Turner.
Gentileza de razumau Spotify playlists:
4 reviews2 followers
March 13, 2017
How to Listen to Jazz is a worthy tribute to the jazz heroes of the twentieth century. I can't imagine a better introduction to jazz than this book. Gioia succeeds at finding structure in a genre which consists largely of improvisation and feeling, and gives a spot on analysis. For newcomers to jazz, he includes numerous examples of masterpieces to listen to. The more advanced listeners will enjoy the extensive analysis he gives on various jazz styles, after which you will develop even more appreciation for the jazz greats.

Sadly, jazz is disappearing from popular culture. Many artists are discouraged of producing new albums, because they aren't very profitable. We will probably never encounter a new Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker, innovators of the bandstand who had the whole world's attention. Gioia makes an interesting case: he states that this is not the result of a lack of artists, but an abundance of them. The result of an overflow of jazz performers (even if they aren't as high profile as they were before) is that the attention isn't fixed on just one great artist, because there are just too many of them. You just have to seek them out.
Profile Image for Saya.
362 reviews5 followers
September 19, 2019
Empecé este libro con el suficiente tiempo libre como para buscar, una a una, todas las piezas nombradas en él. Por desgracia, la vuelta de las vacaciones implica menos tiempo libre y más estrés, por lo que he leído la parte final del libro (más o menos a partir del final del capítulo 5 sobre la evolución de los estilos de jazz) más rápido, saltándome muchas canciones. En demasiadas ocasiones no encontré las referencias en Youtube (cuyo sistema de búsqueda cada día deja más que desear) y eso resulta bastante frustrante.

De todos modos, este libro ofrece precisamente lo que yo estaba buscando: una introducción sencilla y directa al mundo del jazz. Y cumple su cometido con creces, repasando distintos estilos y destacando solo un puñado de artistas, información más que suficiente para irse familiarizando con algunos nombres propios y estilos. Ya tengo algunos álbums añadidos a mi biblioteca de música (estoy escribiendo esto mientras escucho Body & Soul, de Thelonious Monk) y más que seguiré añadiendo, seguramente. Mi lista de reproducción para el trabajo ha crecido considerablemente.

Pero ¿entiendo algo sobre jazz? La respuesta es un rotundo no. Me he leído un libro sobre el tema, he tomado contacto con distintos estilos y artistas, pero soy incapaz de encontrar esos pequeños detalles que diferencian un estilo u autor de otros. El jazz es como el vino (no lo digo yo, lo dice el propio Ted Gioia en el libro): puedo notar ciertas diferencias entre un vino u otro, pero no soy capaz de disinguir el tipo de uva ni un sabor afrutado de uno ácido (no de momento). Pero al menos tengo un "mapa" con el que moverme, un libro de referencia al que acudir en caso de querer repasar conceptos, un punto de partida de un mundo fascinante a la vez que, desde mi punto de vista, complejo. Quizá un día me lea el libro The History of Jazz, del mismo autor, pero creo que de momento dejaré reposar la información que he leído y disfrutaré un poquito de las obras que acabo de conocer.

En resumen: este libro me ha proporcionado la toma de contacto con el jazz que yo quería, y por ello lo recomiendo a cualquiera que quiera adentrarse también en este mundo.
Profile Image for Rachel.
34 reviews
May 30, 2021
No doubt this is an excellent book for beginners to understand jazz. I love how the author did not linger on music theory - he focused on listening instead of understanding or playing. As a musician and researcher, the author's extensive knowledge and passion fly off the page, basically drowning me with jazz music recommendations(in a good way) that cover all the way from New Orleans, Bebop, Jazz-funk etc. Still, he is humble and open to new genres and provided pointers to navigate the vibrant jazz scene nowadays. This is a great book that honours the legacy of jazz giants, and opens up your mind and ears to new sounds pouring in.

This book and I go way back... First started on my kindle around 2015, I picked up and dropped it countless times but can never wrap my head around why. Until earlier this year I realised I need a hardcover for this book - to flip through the pages and find the recommended listenings from different periods. Strongly recommend anyone to get their hands on one, it's much easier to trace the references listed, and makes a great collection to your shelf. Re-discovering this book together with my reignited passion for music is a beautiful experience. Eternally grateful for Mr. Gioia selflessly sharing his knowledge of this art form and getting me back into jazz.
Profile Image for Carol.
1,110 reviews
October 18, 2018
I confess that despite having a lot of respect for and a fair amount of interest in jazz, I have often found it hard to get into as a listener and concert-goer. Luckily, Gioia wrote this book, which is pretty ideal for tackling just this problem. He lays out the main features common to all (or at least most) jazz regardless of style so that the listener can orient themselves to the music, goes briefly through jazz history and the development of different styles, gives guidance for listening to a small selection of significant artists, and wraps it all up by looking forward to future trends and developments. All of it is clearly and enjoyably oriented towards the listening experience, with an emphasis on enjoyment and exploration. I especially liked Gioia's emphasis on how the music sounds rather than technical features or theory. He can be a little on the stuffy side when it comes to some of the more recent developments, especially the role of technology. But that doesn't detract from the usefulness of How to Listen to Jazz.
Profile Image for Jonny Parshall.
192 reviews13 followers
December 18, 2020
I had previously read Gioia's "History of Jazz," and this book makes for an obvious sequel. Gioia moves beyond the interesting lives and careers of the jazz great and instructs us how to listen to the music itself. He approaches every major genre from the earliest New Orleans jazz to the modern day jazz spectrum, highlighting their winningest traits from the subtleties and nuances of rhythm to the expanses of and raw potential in free improvisation.

And he gives lists: required listening for every genre, as well as 150 of the greatest (younger) jazz masters working in the 21st century.

Every jazz lover needs to read this book, whether they're just now discovering this hidden world, or have been spending lifetimes cultivating their jazz repertoire.
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