Some people say jazz is “intellectual” music or “head” music but actually its the opposite. Most jazz is total gut driven, instinctive music, its primarily about the heart not the head – which is one reason its so related to the blues. If you don’t hear this when you listen to jazz, you need to look to yourself for the reason, not the music. The emotion is there for all to hear. In fact you could say that a lot of jazz is just that: pure emotion translated into sound in as pure a way as the players are capable of (that varies from player to player and performance to performance). If you are not hearing this, then you are not listening in the right way. But what ever you do, don’t misunderstand what jazz is about.
To learn how to play jazz you have to learn a lot about how music works and that takes serious study and you have to get very good on your instrument. To be able to really play jazz though – you have to learn all this so well that you don’t think about it when you play. Its just like learning a language. Say your native language is English and you want to learn to speak French. You have to learn all the vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar etc… But to be able to really speak it well – you have to learn all this so well that you don’t think about it. When you are talking to someone you aren’t thinking about sentence structure and when you play jazz its exactly the same.
Every good jazz player knows: if you are thinking you are not playing. You are basically playing what you hear, what comes into your head and the musical sounds that form in your head are based on how the music makes you feel. Of course to be able to do this does take years of study and practice and I think this is why people sometimes think jazz is intellectual music. But to say that is to misunderstand what is actually happening for most jazz musicians when they play.
Yes of course a jazz player has a fleeting thought here and there about which scale to use or what chord is coming next, but primarily they are immersed in the feeling of the music, and reacting to that on an emotional level from moment to moment, this is the essence of what good improvising is all about. So its primarily not an intellectual activity, but an emotional one.