The Professor’s Guide: How to Listen to Jazz

Whether you’re listening to a live band in a club, or kicking back at home with friends listening to a record, it’s very important to know how to listen to jazz.

Perhaps you’re thinking “I’ll just close my eyes and let the music wash over me.”
Wrong wrong WRONG!!

Hot Jazz Jubile

There are some very important rules for listening to jazz. Jazz isn’t easy to play—so it damn well shouldn’t be easy to listen to. But before we start, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: musicians don’t actually listen to jazz unless we have to. Let’s be honest—it pretty much all sounds the same, and it goes on…and…on…and… on. We just tell you that we love it so you’ll buy our CDs (now on sale at

OK, so here we go with the Professor’s guide to how to listen to jazz:

Are you at home alone on your comfy sofa, listening to some swinging tunes? Waste of time, my friend. The whole point of listening to jazz is that it enables you to look down on your friends who don’t like/understand it. Don’t waste your time listening to it by yourself. There’s tons of good shows on Netflix.


So invite your friends over for a listening party. A good listening environment is important. It’s necessary to set the right mood. Turn the lights down, close the doors and windows to keep it quiet, or, in essence: remove all major distractions—because people get easily bored listening to jazz.

Nipper sunglassesAre you out listening at a jazz club? Clothes are important. Make sure you wear a cool hat. And sunglasses are a useful coverup in case you fall asleep.

Facial expressions are very important when listening to jazz. Whatever you do—do not smile. Jazz is cool music, man. The best facial expression representing enjoyment is to scrunch up your face—like you’re smelling a bad smell. A good way to learn this face is to walk around the streets of NYC during garbage collection day in summer. (The more modern the jazz, the worse the garbage you’re smelling.)

Jazz drinks. What you’re drinking should compliment what you’re listening to.

Some good jazz drinks are:
Red Wine
Single Malt Scotch


Drinks to Avoid:
Yoghurt drinks
Herbal tea
Drinks with umbrellas

Bass solos. You’re probably thinking: Ugh. I hate bass solos. You’re right! Everybody does. Bass players are given solos because it’s a chance for the rest of the band to go to the bar, or to catch up on the day’s events. I urge you to do the same.

Drum solos tend to sound like someone throwing furniture down a flight of stairs—and that’s accurate. But we all need to pretend that we like them, because drummers have cars and can give the other guys a lift to the gig.


If you want to clap your hands—and this is an important one—clap on two and four. (If you have no idea what the last sentence meant, then best not to clap at all.)

Another good tip: if you’re listening to a record with friends check out the album liner notes and pick out an obscure musician, then excuse yourself to the bathroom. Google that guy, then come back into the room and say something like “That sounds like Blind Lemon McGee!” Your friends will check the liner notes and be amazed!

You can achieve even further superiority by condescendingly asking “You’ve never heard of Blind Lemon McGee?” Then spout a few facts you just read on Wikipedia. You’ll be the hit of the party.


So if you follow these rules, you can be the hippest cat in the room. Your friends may not invite you out again due to your pretentiousness, but hey…it’s lonely at the top.

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Reedman extraordinaire Adrian Cunningham is the leader of Professor Cunningham and his Old School Jazz Band, based in New York City. Adrian Cunningham was voted in a 2017 Hot House Jazz Magazine readers’ poll the Best Alto Sax Player in New York. His most recent album is Duologue, issued on the Arbors Jazz label. Visit him on the world wide web:

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