Foreground, not background

Sam Lewin

When my cousin called and asked me to make her a jazz mix, I was thrilled. I love introducing people to jazz and it’s not something I get to do very often. However, I became slightly less excited when she explained that she wanted to listen to the mix while studying, because she can “zone out” to jazz. I first tried to convince her that she may appreciate jazz while “zoning in,” but gave up after I finally realized that people often associate jazz with background music.
This association makes sense. Jazz is the background music of choice in many fancy restaurants and elevators nationwide, and it is often good background music. It can be relaxing and may not be as attention grabbing as a pulsating hip-hop beat. However, actually listening to jazz can be extremely rewarding and exciting.
Improvisation is one of the main facets that set jazz apart from other forms of music. These musicians compose in the moment and their improvising reflects a host of factors such as personality, emotion, humor, experience and possibly even something as simple as the lighting in a room.
All of these factors make jazz unpredictable, personal and emotional — at least when it is played well. When jazz musicians improvise in the context of a grooving and swinging band and interact with the other musicians in that band through improvisation, they create an overwhelming feeling.
For example, listen to the first 10 seconds of a John Coltrane or Charles Mingus tune. Coltrane often sounds as though he is yelling through his saxophone, while Mingus and his ensembles have the energy of a freight train.
For a more recent example, check out any recording with the drummer Brian Blade. Blade may play almost inaudibly in one moment, but will then play epic fills on the toms and compliment them with overpowering cymbal crashes. Indeed, Blade’s playing is so emotional that he can often be heard yelling during climactic sections. It is impossible to appreciate this raw emotion if jazz is relegated to background music.
Jazz is also exciting because it is constantly evolving. Contemporary jazz incorporates numerous non-jazz elements and blurs the lines between jazz and other genres. Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave play with the rapper Mos Def.
The hip-hop producer J Dilla has influenced numerous jazz drummers, and many hip-hop producers sample jazz tunes. And perhaps most impressively, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s album of Joni Mitchell songs, “River: The Joni Letters,” won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2008.
Jazz’s inclusiveness shows that it is not an archaic art form best suited for cocktail parties and malls. Instead, it is dynamic, incorporates a wide range of influences and constantly pushes boundaries.
While it is perfectly okay to listen to jazz as background music, jazz is exciting and it is worth actually listening to. It may be easier to start with something funky, like Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters” or Medeski Martin and Wood’s “End Of The World Party (Just In Case).”
But try to challenge yourself sometimes by listening to something more out there, like Eric Dolphy’s “Out To Lunch” or the Wayne Shorter Quartet’s “Beyond the Sound Barrier.” Rather than “zoning out,” simply open your ears and enjoy jazz’s emotion, improvised interaction, beauty and excitement. It can be a pretty rewarding experience.