How to listen to jazz: Listening webs

If someone wants to excel at any activity, it is necessary for them to observe the greatest practitioners of the craft. This is especially true of jazz. By immersing themselves in the language of the music, young players can greatly expand their vocabulary and understanding of the style.

Published on Aug 3rd, 2020

Updated on Jun 16th, 2022

If someone wants to excel at any activity, it is necessary for them to observe the greatest practitioners of the craft. This is especially true of jazz. By immersing themselves in the language of the music, young players can greatly expand their vocabulary and understanding of the style. The jazz canon is so vast that it may be difficult for students to know where to start, and this concept of a listening web makes it very easy and tangible for students to become familiar with the greatest musicians of the past and present.

This example uses “Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”, a 1960 album by Miles Davis as an example. You will see each of the players on the album listed: John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Miles as the leader.

Branching off from each sideman, you will notice a different album on which they were the leader. For example, John Coltrane was the leader on the cornerstone album “A Love Supreme”. Under the title, every sideman on that recording is listed. If there were enough space, you could continue the web by including an album led by every contributor to the four secondary albums. By repeating this process over and over again, the visualization of the jazz canon transforms into a visual medium outlining the almost infinite network of connections and recordings.

Making the connections yourself

By using this process to create your own listening webs, you’ll be surprised at the connections that arise between players and albums and can serve as a concrete listening plan. If you’re anything like me, the amount of material that you could possibly listen to at any given time is overwhelming. This narrows all of those possibilities down into a few options at a time. Take your time and dig into each album. Transcribe material from each one and work it into your playing. Study the origin story of each recording and the backgrounds of each player. The more you know about the music, the more valuable you become as a player.

Taking it a step further

This process can be used for genres other than jazz as well. You could organize a web of a rock band’s albums in chronological order and add branches for recordings by other groups that share similarities. Likewise, you could create a web organized by producer or songwriter. If you come up with any other ideas for organizing your listening, we’d love to hear about it!

As we head into the unknown this summer and fall, the power of listening may become more important than ever. Regardless of the landscape in which we find ourselves, it will be vital for students to remain connected to their craft and for educators to constantly adapt. For more thoughts on engaging through listening, check out my previous post.