An Open Door for Willing Ears
I had a brief conversation with someone recently who said that they didn't like jazz. They weren't uncaring or dismissive about it in any way, they seemed implicitly to want to get into it, they just essentially said that they hadn't really come across anything that excited them and made them want to seek out more. Until a few years ago, I was one of these people, so I was extremely sympathetic to the point. My reply was this: saying you don't like jazz is like saying you don't like food - you may not have liked the types of foods you've had up to now, but there is a whole wide world of food out there and something is bound to float your boat. And while it could conceivably be true that someone didn't like food, it' would make it pretty difficult to live - or to restate it without the rhetorical framework of the food example, a complete lack of appreciation for everything on the jazz spectrum would make it pretty hard to truly appreciate most other forms of Euro-American music.
I am acutely aware that there is a trapdoor here that I am going to have to dance around with the utmost caution. In every record store, at every show, even on every street corner, is some elitist music-snob jerk who is eager to explain that people who don't like jazz are simply "wrong" and/or "ignorant". These people are typically disdainful of other points of view while making their case, and the problem is that their points are sometimes pretty solid, so it can be hard for someone who is merely stating a preference to not reinforce them by being unable to effectively argue them down. My experience with this type of mindset tells me that it tends to be made up of regurgitated ideas as much as, if not more than, it is made of any attempt at original thought on the part of the speaker, and this makes it at best suspect and at worst mean-spirited. Bearing all that in mind, my goal here isn't to "educate" or to "enlighten", merely to show a way into the appreciation of jazz as a methodology, in case that's what someone is looking for. With that in mind, I won't be venturing into the borderline-absurd territory of " you have to listen to the notes they don't play" - rather, I am going to argue for a focus that is paradoxically less on the music as a way to enjoy the form for what it is.
There are as many different emotions in music as there are ways to evoke them in a listener. What has helped me personally get into jazz is the realization that keying into what you take away from the listening experience is more important than knowing that the time signature for a given song was 5/4 or that a bass was bowed instead of plucked during its solo section, i.e. the details don't really matter in and of themselves until you get to that point organically on your own. Some jazz is created for cerebral indulgence, meant for people who are inclined toward music theory and/or analytical by nature. Some jazz is played improvisationally as a way to capture the intangible magic of a specific performance or the indisputable chemistry between certain performers. Some is simply easy-listening that mostly plays it straight and creates a nice background soundtrack for other activities. A couple of records I have gotten into lately will help to illustrate this concept, so let's get into the meat of this thing.
Miles Davis' 1960 classic Sketches of Spain is a masterwork in its own right, but even more incredibly it catches the artist in the immediate aftermath of the essential album Kind of Blue. Along with Gil Evans' orchestration, Miles' trumpet channels long walks through the Spanish countryside and the vitality and excitement of a Barcelona street fair. Taking inspiration from Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, the LP found its new life as a travelogue of sorts during the run-up to the planned recording of the concerto's second movement. The research that Evans and Davis did in order to capture that piece led to the other compositions and to the Spanish flare that permeates the recording.
Sketches is considered a vital and foundational piece of what some term Third Stream, and this is a fancy way to say that it incorporates enough elements of both classical music and jazz that it is neither-of-these-and-yet-both when placing it on the musical continuum, its a midpoint between the two disparate genres. The thing is, you don't need to know or care about any of that to enjoy the record. You don't need to know that Davis played the flugelhorn as well as his signature trumpet, or that the term "alborada" refers to a style of folk music specific to the Galicia region.
This is where you relax your eyes (er, ears) and just think about what the music is evoking: the arid heat of the Spanish highlands terrain, the march of military cadets into a small village, the monarchial pomp of a country whose royalty is gone but will never be forgotten. Sketches brings on the desire to travel to Spain, or the memory of having done so, or the imagination of what it must be like: it calls up feelings that we are all familiar with in some form or another, whether they are nostalgic or wondering or simply curious. You can get as far down the rabbit hole as you want to go with the music theory that is on display here or with the ensemble playing, but in order to really appreciate it all you need do is let it wash over you in a warm haze of sound and feeling.
The same is true of Blue Note's legendary Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2, but for much different reasons. Rollins' outing is less of a classical-leaning one and more along the lines of what is thought of as hard bop, a style that brings in influences from gospel, R&B, and other genres to create something that is brazen, freewheeling, and beholden only to the ideas and talents of those performing it. This particular record is also notable because of its murderer's row of players: Thelonius Monk, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, J.J. Johnson, and Paul Chambers all play on the LP (Silver and Monk even play piano together on "Misterioso" - which is kinda like if Michelangelo and Leonardo had painted on the same canvas at the same time).
Here again, it is not remotely necessary to know what hard bop is or how it relates to bebop or how both relate to other forms of jazz - you can dig into that if you want to, of course, but you don't need it to get enjoyment here. It isn't necessary to know who any of these players are either - the notability of having them all in one ensemble is pretty impressive, but if you don't know or care about that, it's fine. What Rollins creates on this record is, again, a feeling, but where Miles Davis creates a feeling (or feelings) that you are familiar with, Rollins and co. here work with seemingly no blueprint, allowing for flourishes and surprises galore. The exact sensation that this sparks will vary across all listeners, but one way of thinking about it is that the motivation is less about inspiring a feeling you're familiar with and more about inspiring one that may be hitting you for the first time - something with a base of joy and admiration, but with pinches of awe and bewilderment thrown in before the whole thing is iced in a sticky-sweet layer of fulfillment. These are things you've felt before, yes, but you haven't felt them exactly in the way you're feeling them now.
The bottom line is that jazz can be intimidating. I am still apprehensive about lots of jazz music, unsure if I will be able to understand it in the way it should be, or simply uninterested in trying at times. But the reality is that any music can be intimidating if you are intent upon seeing it in terms of its past, its fundamental elements, its context in the present, its performance, the theory behind it, and who happens to be playing it. The difference is that the casual listener may start from the assumption that they need to know things that they don't in order to appreciate jazz, and we don't have that criterion for most other types of music.
Your mileage may vary with everything laid out here. As I said at the outset, this is not about educating anyone or pushing a jazz-heavy listening agenda - the level of presumption it would take to do either frankly makes me a little nauseous just thinking about it. The only goal here is to make sure you know that the door is always open for jazz. There isn't a padlock on it that you need a combination for or a secret word you need to get past the doorman. The bass is thrumming, the room is palpable with darkness and movement, the ladies are dolled up and the fellas are tapping their feet while they enjoy a single-malt beverage. Should you want to, all you need to do is walk right in. I think you'll like it in here.