How to listen to Jazz, with Sammy Miller

By Dan Cava

Repeat after me: “Jazz is fun.” Go ahead and say it. Out loud.

Jazz has always, always, always been about people having a good time. But a hundred years after its hip-shaking, foot-stomping, hard-partying beginnings in New Orleans, jazz music is now too often seen as music for the elite, music for old people, or worst of all, boring background music.

Yes, it can be sophisticated. Yes, it goes back over a century. And yes, it can be smooth enough to make a trip to the grocery store a little less stressful. But it is also America’s original party music, and if you’ve never had the time of your life at a jazz concert, keep reading.

Sammy Miller. Photo by Lauren Desberg

Sammy Miller and the Congregation are making their second appearance in two years at this weekend’s Charlotte Jazz Festival. Fresh off the release of their new self-titled mixtape, and with an ambitious jazz-themed theater show in the works, they’ve spent years on the road celebrating an infectious brand of get-up-and-go joyful jazz.

To help you dive into the swinging Queen City jazz scene, I spoke with acclaimed bandleader and jazz drummer Sammy Miller to come up with four easy steps to enjoying music’s most American artform.

1) Understand how jazz songs work.
Jazz songs are different from the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure that’s been programmed into us by the rinse-and-repeat of Top 40 radio. Jazz is rooted in improvisation, in the act of bringing something different to the song every time, so jazz songs are built to first get all the instruments on the same page so that they can later fly off into some place new.

“It’s the same ritual as a great story,” Miller explained. “They start somewhere, they cross into unknown territory, and then it’s their job to go make it back to the known territory.” Jazz goes first to the main melody, then to improvised solos, then back to the main melody to finish things off. Listeners have a chance to pick up the groove before the musicians go to town. The solos can be as long or as short, as simple or as experimental as the musicians want to make them. It’s always a musical adventure.

“It’s the hero’s journey,” said Miller, just in song format.

Sammy Miller and The Congregation

2) It’s different every time. That’s the point.
How many times have you been to a concert that was basically like listening to the album, just with lights and smoke added? Jazz is the opposite, Miller explained: “In other music forms, they’re always trying to sound as good as they did in studio. In jazz you are always trying to get a visceral encounter,” to something both familiar and brand new. Knowing the song is just the beginning of a brand new discovery for both the musicians and the audience.

3) Listen for each player’s unique style and approach.
Jazz musicians express themselves in the way they create their solos and in the way they interact with the musicians on stage. Listening to each player’s distinct sound is part of journey,

“Jazz musicians all deal with the same vocabulary,” said Miller, but it’s all about how they use that vocabulary. It’s a lot like hip-hop in that way, where an artist’s approach is tied to their skills and personality. Miller used two master trumpeters as examples. “Dizzy Gillespie would typically be fast, high, and virtuosic, while Miles Davis’ personality comes through in a much different way: understanded, lower pitched, and sensual.”

Some musicians have a huge bag of tricks and some don’t, but that’s all part of it. “In jazz there’s this cool thing,” said Miller. “Your style is defined as much by your limitation as your talent.” What can you do with what you can’t do? How do you make what you have right now into something expressive and memorable? That’s jazz.

Sammy Miller and The Congregation

4) Go see it in person.
Because jazz is basically created as you listen it, there’s nothing like being in the room where the magic is happening. To really feel it, you gotta be there. “It’s a music born out of a live experience. To get to the core thing, you need to see it live,” said Miller. Unlike pop, rock, or hip-hop, jazz is about what’s happening right now. It’s about the unique relationship between these musicians and this crowd in this moment.

Even jazz albums work this way. Classic jazz recordings are not the carefully polished products of months of studio tinkering we hear on the radio. Jazz albums are, in a way, a record of something that occurred between a set of musicians all playing in the same room. It’s a one-time musical event captured on tape.

As a travelling jazz musician, Sammy Miller deals in that excitement for a living: “The core sentiment is instant combustion.” That’s why you have to experience jazz in person to really experience it.

There’s never been a better time to be a jazz fan in Charlotte, with incredible ongoing jazz series at both the Bechtler Museum in uptown and Blumenthal’s Jazz Room at the Stage Door. Last month, CLTure helped host a killer “We’ve Got The Jazz” one-day festival, and the amazing annual Charlotte Jazz Festival is just around the corner, with Sammy Miller and the Congregation are playing a full set in Romare Bearden Park on April 22nd.

Learn more about Sammy Miller and the Congregation and Charlotte Jazz Festival.

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