Listening Up

Classic Arts Features   Listening Up
Tom Piazza offers his expertise and insight into the true American art form with his new book, Understanding Jazz, which has been produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Writer Tom Piazza was born on Long Island but now calls New Orleans home. "New Orleans has a personality unlike any other city," Piazza explains. "It has its own architecture, its own vegetation, its own smells and cuisine, and, obviously, its own music‹many types of its own music. It is relaxed, and a high percentage of the population knows the value of a good meal, a good laugh, some cold beer and crawfish, and a good band. These are highly conducive to the production of good fiction, too."

Piazza had just published a novel called My Cold War in late 2003 when Jazz at Lincoln Center approached him about doing a nonfiction book on jazz. The idea intrigued him and he set about focusing on the right angle. "It occurred to me," he says, "that there are lots of books out there about jazz history, about jazz recordings, histories of various jazz styles, biographies of great musicians. But there was nothing that explained clearly to lay readers, in terms they could understand, just what jazz musicians are doing when they play‹how an improvised performance can have a form, how several musicians can improvise at once and make musical sense together. So Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen [which is being published by Random House] is a guide to hearing what's going on in a jazz performance‹learning how to understand what the musicians are doing. There's a CD with examples that the text refers to constantly for illustration."

The CD, which comes with the book, includes "Weather Bird Rag" by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, "Boogie Woogie" by Count Basie and played by a small contingent from the Count Basie Orchestra with singer Jimmy Rushing, "U.M.M.G." (which stands for Upper Manhattan Medical Group) by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, "Moritat" by Sonny Rollins Quartet, "I Can't Get Started" from Stan Getz, "Footprints" courtesy of Miles Davis Quintet, and "The Eternal Triangle" with Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt on tenor saxophones.

These accompanying tracks truly help the reader become a listener and thus opens up a whole new stream of senses. Piazza tells you exactly what phrase in the song he's describing, down to the second (e.g.: "6:21: Rollins leads off / 6:24: Stitt answers"). "The CD," he says, "contains seven tracks, all of which are used in the text to illustrate the aspects of the music I deal with‹the relations between soloists and accompanists, the short repeated forms that are the most common vehicles for jazz improvisation, the ways that musicians use scales to shape their improvisations, and so on. The earliest performance is from 1923, by King Oliver, and the most recent one is Miles Davis's great recording from his album Miles Smiles." Along the way readers will hear not only Basie, Ellington, and the others mentioned above, but Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, and lots of other legendary players as well. If the readers have no curiosity or enthusiasm about jazz after listening to that lineup, says the author, "they never will!"

Does Piazza feel jazz is an acquired taste? "If by 'acquired taste' you mean that jazz resists immediate enjoyment, I'm not sure I agree," Piazza responds. "But an active understanding of the ways in which the musicians make sense together, as opposed to a more passive way of enjoying the music, does take time to acquire, and I hope Understanding Jazz will give its readers insights that will make the music come alive for them in all its depth and excitement, which is intellectual as well as sensual, reflective as well as driving and exciting."

In a foreword for the book, Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center's artistic director, writes, "I hope that Understanding Jazz uncovers the many wondrous personalities of jazz and reveals the process of making first-rate jazz music. This music can provide energy, affirmation, and enlightenment. Most of all, though, I hope that Understanding Jazz helps you tap into your inner ear, the sense that illuminates the music of everyday details that so often go unheard. It, after all, is all around us."

Piazza and Marsalis, as it turns out, have known each other for decades. "I met Wynton in the late 1980s," says the novelist, "and have always had tremendous respect not just for his musicianship, which is prodigious, but for his mind and his integrity. We don't agree on everything, but who does? His achievement has been towering."

Piazza is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the author of seven books, including My Cold War, which won the Faulkner Society Award and was named a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and the short-story collection Blues and Trouble, which won the James Michener Award. Bob Dylan has said, "Tom Piazza's writing pulsates with nervous electrical tension‹reveals the emotions that we can't define."

Also well known as a music writer, Piazza won a 2004 Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey, and he is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Writing. In addition, he has been a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Oxford American, and many other publications.

"I want readers to come away from the new book with an appreciation both for how complex jazz is, and yet how clear its structures are," says Piazza. "And I want them to come away knocked out by the brilliance and soul and wit and profundity of the performances on the CD, able to appreciate more of what went into them, and hungry to hear more, to explore this fantastic music."

Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director-Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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