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What Listening to Jazz Has Taught Me: Context is Everything

Have you ever considered the idea that the way we interact with music is very similar to the way we interact with one another? Jazz, specifically, evokes creative expression in a way that I would say is unique and unlike many other genres. If you hear a jazz tune for the first time and listen to the improvised solo section, it might sound chaotic, messy and startling. There’s a chance you could appreciate it even if you don’t know all the technique or theory that goes into making the horn players’ sound what it is. But most likely, you’ll only have an appreciation for the dissonance and runs if you understand the context. If you can dissect the chord progression, if you understand what era of jazz the piece you’re listening to is from or if you know anything about the musician and their preferred style to play in, the music takes on a deeper quality. Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker have extremely distinct ways that they express themselves through their horns. And yet, we recognize both of them as extraordinary saxophonists. Yes, there’s a chance you could appreciate both of their playing styles with little knowledge of musical theory or jazz itself. But, there’s no denying that with a deeper understanding of chords and improvisation, you gain a much clearer idea of why they make the musical decisions they do.

The first thing I do when I hear a new song is ask myself a few questions. Who am I listening to? What is their background? What other music have they made? Then, I start googling. While I’m listening to the song, I’m contextualizing. I’m discovering more about the artist and the things that may have influenced their music, and before the song is even over, I’ve given myself a greater understanding of how the piece of music came about.

The problem is, sometimes someone will hear a new song that sounds unfamiliar and doesn’t initially catch their ear, and turn it off. I know you all know what I’m talking about. Have you ever tried to share a song you really love with a friend, and three seconds in they’re already begging you to turn it off? Or maybe your favorite song comes on the radio in the car, and just before you start dancing in your seat your mom clicks to the next station and you’re like, “Seriously?”

Most of us are self-proclaimed music snobs. There’s no shame in it. I’m right there with you. You might know that some of your music taste is questionable, but it doesn’t even matter because your pride refuses to allow you to stop trying to show everyone this one song you love that’s a little “out there,” and then proceeding to get super offended when you get that you have three seconds to turn that off look.

So, with all that being said, why is it that when we meet a person for the first time who doesn’t look like us, we have trouble remembering to contextualize what we are seeing? Let me explain what I’m saying here. If you walk up to a person who looks like you on the street, you probably are pretty curious about who they are. What’s their name? What do they do for a living? Who’s their favorite jazz musician? The essential get-to know-you questions.

But if you come face to face with someone who looks nothing like you, I have a feeling you might have fewer questions for them and more assumptions instead. You’re not curious about their name because you’re not expecting it to be something you’ve heard before. You’re not wondering what job they have, because you probably have it narrowed down to three possibilities. And you don’t even think to ask who their favorite jazz musician is because there’s no way they could like jazz just like you!

Now maybe you think I’m crazy and you’re thinking, “I don’t make those kinds of assumptions about people.” And while you might not actively go through that set of questions in your mind, I guarantee that what you think, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, is different depending on whether you’re passing someone on the street that looks like you or not.

We all do this, myself included. It’s nothing to go home and punish ourselves for but we need to recognize our biases and do better. The one thing I always loved about growing up playing music is that it always allowed me to be in a diverse environment. There was no trepidation about walking up to that random kid at band camp that looked nothing like me because I knew they were a music geek too, and that makes for the world’s best friendship. But I can’t say for certain that I would’ve walked up to that same person in the street the same way I did at band camp. And why is that? It’s because other than being on the street with that person, what makes it clear to me in that moment that I could have something in common with this random person? The answer is nothing. But you do have something in common with that person. You just aren’t taking the time to discover what it is. I challenge you to go out in the world and start contextualizing your surroundings. You might look different from me and our cultures might be vastly different; but I bet that we could find common ground, and maybe even teach each other a few things thanks to our diverse experiences. It’s great to recognize our differences, but it means nothing if you’re not recognizing that difference as a strength, as a tool to add to your kit or as a fresh set of glasses you can put on every morning. Start getting curious about the people you see on the street and the kind of person they are. This is going to sound unrealistic. But I want you to act like everyone you pass is the world’s biggest jazz fan. Or alternative fan. Or whatever genre of music you stan. If you see someone who looks differently than you and immediately start considering the similarities you two might share, compassion, empathy and a willingness to understand come a lot more naturally.

I love jazz. But the first time I heard Dizzy Gillespie play his trumpet, I was scratching my head wondering if the honking was the song or two cars outside. The more I listen to Gillespie, however, the more I recognize his signature licks and his style, and I enjoy it more. Now, I spend some of my free time listening to Gillespie because I’ve learned to really appreciate his music and artistic choices. This is exactly what we need to take the time to do with one another.


Hi, I'm Olivia! I'm a senior at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a major in Neuroscience, minors in Spanish, Africana Studies, and Chemistry, and a certificate in Global Health! In my free time you can find me at the gym, listening to a podcast, or hanging out with my friends!
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