How To Like Jazz: Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie Want to start the new year with some new music? Weekend Edition has you covered with a new genre every week this month.
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How To Like Jazz, For The Uninitiated

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How To Like Jazz, For The Uninitiated

How To Like Jazz, For The Uninitiated

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This new year, how about some new music?

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ANDREA BOCELLI: (Singing in non-English language).

TRAVIS SCOTT: (Rapping) Made this here with all the ice on in the booth.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL SONG MONTAGE)

MCCAMMON: Music that maybe you've told yourself you really don't like, like opera, hip-hop or country. So this month, we're bringing in some people to help you mix up your playlists. And today we're going talk about jazz with NPR's senior arts editor Tom Cole. Hi, Tom.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Hi.

MCCAMMON: OK. If someone asked you why they should check out jazz, what would you say?

COLE: I'd ask them to give it a listen. I think listening is really important. Jazz is emotionally engaging music. For me, jazz is especially expressive because it's based on improvisation. A lot of the tunes will start out with a theme or a melody. And then the musicians will improvise over it. So maybe, let's start with one of the most famous jazz saxophonists - Charlie Parker.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "SCRAPPLE FROM THE APPLE")

COLE: Now let's listen to what Parker does with it in his solo. He'll be playing off the notes and scales and chords in the theme and letting his imagination just go wherever he's feeling at that moment, just let him carry himself away. Listen to his sound, too. For me, it sounds like a human voice speaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "SCRAPPLE FROM THE APPLE")

MCCAMMON: OK. So that's music that was recorded back in the 1940s. And, Tom, one thing you might hear people say is that jazz is music that their parents or grandparents listened to. How do you respond to that?

COLE: Well, there's been a lot recorded since then. And sure, jazz might seem old-fashioned to some people. But keep in mind, too, that jazz was America's popular music at one point in the big-band era of the '30s and '40s. You know, people like Benny Goodman were stars. Everybody listened to the music, not just parents. They listened to it. And they danced to it. That's another thing about jazz - it's active music. It sort of demands your participation. You've got to give yourself a little bit to it to get something out of it.

MCCAMMON: Not just background music.

COLE: Exactly - not sonic wallpaper. Absolutely. And it was popular again in the 1960s when top 40 radio used to play instrumental tunes. That was a long time ago. Back then, the Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond hit "Take Five" was even in the jukebox in my favorite neighborhood bar a decade after it was released, perhaps in spite of or because of its unusual rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK AND PAUL DESMOND'S "TAKE FIVE")

MCCAMMON: A familiar tune there.

COLE: Oh, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK AND PAUL DESMOND'S "TAKE FIVE")

COLE: Let's listen to Paul Desmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK AND PAUL DESMOND'S "TAKE FIVE")

COLE: Desmond wrote the tune - beautiful saxophone player. It was music that you could both listen to and sway to out on the college dance floor. And college audiences - young audiences - were a big part of Brubeck's success.

MCCAMMON: Tom, you talk about how long ago, jazz was sort of the popular music. What is happening in jazz right now?

COLE: There are a lot of young people playing jazz and playing very interesting music. I'd like to wrap up with two recordings. The first is by a jazz cellist named Tomeka Reid and her quartet. In this particular group, everybody kind of talks together. It's like a conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMEKA REID QUARTET'S "NIKI'S BOP")

COLE: One last group. And this one, too, is very much an ensemble project. The group is called Parlour Game. It's led by drummer Allison Miller and violinist Jenny Scheinman. And pianist Carmen Staaf is also in the group. And she really caught my ear.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLOUR GAME'S "BEANS AND RICE")

MCCAMMON: So, Tom, if you're just getting started and if you're, you know - if you're somebody who doesn't think of yourself as a jazz aficionado, maybe aren't that into it, where would you tell somebody to start?

COLE: Back in the olden days when I was young and was listening to rock 'n' roll, there was a record store that I always used to go to. And, you know, I knew all the buyers - the rock buyer and the blues buyer. And I knew the jazz buyer, too.

And one day, I just went up to him and said, listen, I want to get into jazz. What should I listen to? And he picked five records for me - Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the Thelonious Monk Quartet, Charles Mingus, the Art Ensemble of Chicago "Les Stances a Sophie" - and wonderful trumpet player, who's not as well-remembered as he should be, named Booker Little and an equally outstanding tenor saxophonist, who's also not as well known as he should be, named Booker Ervin.

So that would be a great start. And that sort of keeps you in the past. But if you ground yourself in the past, then there's lots to explore.

MCCAMMON: Build from there.

COLE: Yes.

MCCAMMON: Thanks so much. NPR's Tom Cole.

COLE: You're most welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE, SONNY ROLLINS AND SONNY STITT'S "ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET")

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