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A Beginner's Guide to Jazz

A famous trumpeter shares tips for discovering the groove

spinner image louis armstrong performing on the kraft music hall t v show at nbc studios in june nineteen sixty seven
Louis Armstrong
David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images

Decades ago, jazz was one of the most popular styles of music. But over time it has fallen out of the mainstream. That's too bad because the music can be a wild ride, encompassing a huge variety of grooves, moods and sounds. If travel broadens the mind, then jazz broadens the soul.

As a television producer, I have been working on a documentary about the life of New Orleans trumpet legend Wendell Brunious, and I thought this 66-year-old could provide some perspective on the genre for those who have never given it a try. Here is his five-step plan.

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1. Start at the top

By the top, Brunious means Louis Armstrong. He is the greatest of all time. He overcame so much hardship in his life and shared that humanity and vulnerability in every note he played and every lyric he sang.

Songs: “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)"; “West End Blues"

spinner image erion williams julian gosin and troy trombone shorty andrews in a conga line with cuban band cimafunk in havana cuba
Erion Williams, Julian Gosin and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews participate in a New Orleans second line conga with members of Cuban band Cimafunk.
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

2. Embrace tradition

New Orleans jazz is deeply connected to the area's culture and the past. Ground yourself in tradition; it will provide a foundation for moving forward.

Songs: “Bourbon Street Parade” by Paul Barbarin & His New Orleans Jazz Band; “St. James Infirmary” by Louis Armstrong

spinner image american jazz musicians clifford brown and lou donaldson performing on stage with a trumpet and an alto saxophone
American jazz musicians Clifford Brown (left) and Lou Donaldson performing on stage with a trumpet and an alto saxophone, respectively, during a show.
Metronome/Getty Images

3. Follow the leaders

Brunious was influenced by Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown and Clark Terry. If you like a certain jazz musician's style, research who influenced that player, and soon you'll start recognizing names.

Songs: “Embraceable You” by Clifford Brown; “All the Way” by Lee Morgan

spinner image composer duke ellington performing at a piano
Duke Ellington
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

4. Befriend ballads

Heartbreak can take months or even years to get over. A tender tune can guide you through those emotions and gently settle your heart.

Songs: “Careless Love” by Preservation Hall Jazz Band; “Creole Love Call” by Wendell Brunious and the New Orleans Roof Jazzmen

spinner image jazz saxophonist john coltrane nineteen sixty three
John Coltrane
CBS via Getty Images

5. Challenge yourself

Brunious knows over 2,000 songs but never stops exploring. Jazz compels you to seek new territory. Start with accessible tunes, but keep your ears open.

Songs: “My One and Only Love” by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman; “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis

Listen to Wendell Brunious’ Listening to Jazz playlist on AARP's Spotify account.

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