The term jazz can elicit many responses — reservation, confusion, curiosity. But have no fear, say three community experts. Jazz isn’t a secret club. Anyone can enjoy the music without previous knowledge. Below they weigh in on how to best experience jazz in Seattle.

Jazz is social music

“Jazz includes a big tent of styles. It’s constantly evolving and adapting,” says Abe Beeson, New Cool & jazz host at KNKX radio. “Jazz is a social music, meant to bring people together.”

Earshot Jazz, Seattle’s jazz-presenting nonprofit taps this social aspect. For more than 30 years, it has been encouraging exploration by pushing the boundaries of the genre. Its annual festival, this year with over 50 events in 15 venues, is a monthlong marathon that offers something for everyone, from jazz novice to jazz aficionado.

Top-flight musicians have come from around the world for the Earshot meeting, from Seattle, but also Cuba, Israel, New Zealand, and many other countries. Welcoming some stars of the burgeoning Japanese jazz scene, Seattle’s own Jay Thomas, this year’s Earshot Festival Resident Artist, presents his East West Alliance on Oct. 23 at Town Hall Seattle.

Come with an open mind.

“The most important thing you need — if you’re a beginner or experienced jazz listener — is an open attitude,” says Marina Albero, a Barcelona and Havana-trained musician and music educator based in Seattle. “There are going to be moments when you are enjoying the music and those when you are uncomfortable. It’s all about figuring out your preferences, and also pushing your own boundaries.”

Cécile McLorin Salvant (Mark Fitton photo)
Cécile McLorin Salvant (Mark Fitton photo)

Jazz is storytelling.

For jazz beginners, Albero recommends starting with vocalists, where there are lyrics and a story to connect with as well as instrumentals. Beeson agrees, and recommends Cécile McLorin Salvant, who performs on Friday October 18 at Town Hall Seattle. A young singer with deep knowledge of the Great American Songbook material of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, and others, she is the hottest vocalist in jazz, at the moment. “A three-time Grammy winner, Salvant’s incredibly flexible voice caresses time-tested melodies that will have you whistling your way out the door,” Beeson says.

Listen to the conversation.

Salvant and her band exemplify a key strength of jazz, he says: It is creativity in conversation. “Notice how the musicians are listening to each other, getting direction and inspiration for where to take the song next,” Beeson says. “When a song’s not familiar or even catchy to you, attentive listeners can see, hear, and feel how the players match their technical skills to the artistic spirit. That’s where the magic is happening.”

Sometimes, to be sure, even seasoned listeners will find the listening as challenging as it can be rewarding. Displaying an enormous range of technique and emotion is saxophonist Briggan Krauss, who performs solo at the Chapel Performance Space on October 21. “He has explored the alto saxophone like no one else in his generation,” says Wayne Horvitz, a celebrated keyboardist, composer, and one of the owners and music programmer at the Royal Room.

Among other jazz outsiders sure to reward attendance, Horvitz says, is improvisatory pianist and composer Marilyn Crispell. He says her appearance on October 26 at the Chapel Performance Space is a special event since she rarely performs.

He also recommends Parlour Game on October 24 at Town Hall. It features Tony Scherr, one of Horvitz’s all-time favorite bass players of any era, along with the enormous talents of drummer Allison Miller and violinist Jenny Scheinman. “The real joyful surprise here is Seattle’s own Carmen Staaf,” Horvitz says. “She’s been a talented pianist since her Garfield High days, and she just keeps on getting better.”

Parlour Game (Shervin Lainez photo)
Parlour Game (Shervin Lainez photo)

Try something new.

“Don’t just stick with the artists you are familiar with,” Albero says. “Maybe you’re a Chick Corea fan, but try the electronic or Latin jazz,” like Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, performing October 17 at Town Hall Seattle. “Challenge yourself to try understanding it, like you might do with a new language while visiting a foreign country.”

Chucho Valdés (Alejandro Perez photo)
Chucho Valdés (Alejandro Perez photo)

“Jazz can be beautiful, uplifting, aggressive, soothing, strange and confusing,” Beeson says. “It impacts each listener differently, because we’re all different people. Let the music affect you and notice how it makes you feel. You don’t need a music degree to be a jazz fan, you just need to be human.”

Formed in 1984, Earshot Jazz supports the growing community of jazz artists and audiences in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.