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Jazz, Play it Loud!



Guitarist Tim Mirth explains why to listen to jazz loudly and proudly.

I love listening to music very loud. Is there really anything better? The way the bass feels in your body, the way the room or car thuds, the excitement permeating through the speakers, and the tingling in your ears. As I drive down the quiet streets of my neighborhood, there is no knowing what kind of loud manifestations will be coming out of my stereo. Certainly, normal people behave better than this, but as a musician, I think it’s a part of life.

I recall as a fearless 17-year-old driving to my girlfriend’s house in my dad’s blue Geo Storm. A tiny little car he bought which was modded by the previous owner with a few extra speakers in the trunk. I, of course, took full advantage of the extra “power” cranking my tunes for all to hear. My girlfriend’s dad heard me approach, certainly annoyed, and was like, “What does he need to be listening to so loudly?” She said, “Knowing Tim it sounds like Coltrane”.  I don’t think her dad knew how to take that. No one expects a teenager to blast jazz.

That’s right, I love listening to jazz loud. In my opinion, it’s meant to be loud. Well, at least a lot of it, and in particular the stuff I love.

This music grew out of groove and dance, with energy and soul for days. To play Mingus quietly, in my opinion, should be a punishable offense. Perhaps, it’s so many days of playing restaurant gigs and the like, that give the impression (no pun intended) that jazz is some kind of background music; it’s not. Jazz is great because it can be everything from subtle to stirring, from pretty to anger, showing a full array of human emotions. That is part of the experience. 

Dynamics are part of it too you know. With all this compressed mumbo jumbo we get on a daily basis, we really miss out on one of the greatest aspects of music, changes in volume. Recently, I was listening to Herbert von Karajan’s live recording of Mahler’s 9th Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic (this is a recommendation), and to say the dynamics will jar you, is an understatement. I was moved into emotions not achievable any other way. Yes, classical music should also be listened to loud, and jazz musicians should be listening to classical music, but we’ll talk about that more in the future. 

This all circles back to a critical part of being a jazz musician and my advice to all budding jazz students, which is, if you want to play jazz, you have to listen to jazz, a lot of jazz. You have to listen deeply and find that music you want to turn up loudly. Feel the driving bass sounds, drummer ghost notes, and distortion on a loud clean guitar amp they will inspire you. Don’t let it be background music for you or anyone. 

Guitarist Tim Mirth

Upon reflection, perhaps the best music lesson of my life was from one of my friends growing up. He was a musician, a few years my elder, but we shared common musical tastes. He’d have me come over to his house, and we’d just listen to music for hours loudly on his large stereo system, you know the ones with a receiver and cabinets the size of a shopping cart, 12-inch speakers rattling the room. This is where I learned the joy of listening deeply. He’d say, ” Wait for it, this drum fill is nuts” Sure enough, a few seconds later he’d perfectly mime a ridiculous drum fill. He’d then say, “Check out this piano part in the background, notice how it develops the motif from the first time through the verse, but see how it’s evolving each pass-through”, and I did.  We listened like this for years and years, and to this day, this is how I hear music. 

As a musician, it’s not enough for jazz to be in the background, it’s not enough for it to be quietly humming along as a soundtrack to your life, you need to make it part of your daily life to listen deeply and loudly. In my experience listening this way is so much more enjoyable, I’m not sure my wife (always) agrees. When we started dating, I gave her the gift my friend gave me and had her hearing drums deeply for the first time. She got excited because it opened a whole new world, but a few days later she called me and said, “I hate you, you ruined all these songs I have always liked, the drums are so boring”.  There are perhaps a few consequences to listening this way.

But yeah, I know, life is challenging and gets in the way with all of its nonsense interjecting all kinds of noise throughout the day, and it is sometimes hard to find the time to really listen. However, most of us have places to go from time to time, use that time, if nothing else, to be that person cranking your headphones, car, or desktop speakers (don’t tell my audiologist) and get the most out of it. 

Sure, we know there are societal rules of etiquette, but you’re a musician, you are already an odd duck, take all the annoyed glances and if someone confronts you about it, tell them, “I’m just doing my job, I’m a musician.”. 

Listen to jazz loudly and proudly. 

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