Help me to discover jazz!
June 2, 2008 6:17 PM   Subscribe

OK, I guess I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I have just been introduced to jazz, a genre of music I have never been interested in or listened to before. It was like an explosion of pleasure went off in my head and I discovered that I love it and want to right the wrongs that I have done to myself.

I really had no idea how much I could enjoy something that I had not only never heard before, but generally ridiculed (along with anyone that did listen to it). Consequently, my ignorance is overwhelming and I don't want to just run out and start buying stuff that I am not familiar with and maybe won't appreciate right off the bat.

I had my rebirth from listening to some Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker but I can't just keep on buying CDs and downloads of these guys as I want to expand my knowledge and fascination with this music but my enjoyment of listening to them seems to be a good starting point.

So where do I go from here? What else would I probably like? What suggestions might you have for other artists that I can sample (maybe by buying some single tracks from iTunes or Amazon) to see if I like them? Any pointers or advice anyone can give me as I start down this new and exciting road? The choice is overwhelming and I just don't know where to start looking in the jazz section of my local Barnes and Noble or online music store.
posted by 543DoublePlay to Media & Arts (59 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not so up to speed on the older stuff, but you may want to check out Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Soulive or DJ Logic for a newer take on jazz. Allmusic is a great place for finding similar artists and culling out the good albums from the bad.
posted by sophist at 6:30 PM on June 2, 2008

You need Miles Davis - Kind of Blue. Run, don't walk, to your local jazz outlet.
posted by Jimbob at 6:32 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do you have Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album? I was one told that if you have one jazz album, make it that one.

Also, when I lived in the area, Jae Sinnett was a great education in jazz, and you can listen to him online.
posted by 4ster at 6:32 PM on June 2, 2008


Also, Jae was the guy who I heard say that Kind of Blue was the one with which to begin.
posted by 4ster at 6:33 PM on June 2, 2008

Thirding Kind of Blue. This is an pretty good collection (from a pretty good box set).
posted by Martin E. at 6:50 PM on June 2, 2008

Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is generally considered one of the greatest albums ever made. You might start there.

On preview, what everybody else said.

Also, if you like saxophone, you need to explore the work of John Coltrane. Blue Trane and Love Supreme are two of my personal touchstones.

Also, look into Sonny Rollins. Saxophone Colossus is wonderful.

For a more meditative exploration, check out the work of pianist Bill Evans.

Here are a few more names (in no particular order) of some of the greats whose work you should check (most any decent library with a media section should have CDs by these artists):

Charles Mingus (Bass Player)
Tito Puente (Latin Jaz)
Thelonius Monk (Pianist)
Stan Getz (Saxophonist, did much to popularize the Bossa Nova in the US)
Lester Young (Saxophonist, one of Jazz's foundational figures)
Art Blakey (Drummer)
Max Roach (Drummer)
Count Basie (Orchestra Leader and composer. One of the Icons of 20th Century Music)
Lee Morgan (Trumpeter)
Art Tatum (Pianist, considered by many to be the greatest jazz pianist of all time)
Oscar Peterson (Pianist, A genius on par with Tatum)
posted by Chrischris at 6:55 PM on June 2, 2008

Yes, Kind Of Blue is essential listening, in the way that oxygen is essential to humans. Make sure you get the remaster - there's a noticeable increase in quality. (There's also apparently a CD/DVD version that features a 5.1 surround mix - sounds intriguing, but I haven't heard it.)

Your best bet might be to watch Ken Burns' Jazz (download it or locate it in the library if you don't want to pay $160 for the DVDs). That will give you an excellent overview of the history of jazz, touching on all the major styles and most influential players. There's a CD box set that accompanies the film, as well as individual discs from all the big names. Neither are for the purist, but the individual discs serve as good overviews for artists with enormous discographies and would allow you to sample a range of eras and styles to determine what you really like.

Of course, if you really, really like jazz, you basically cannot go wrong listening to anything that pre-dates the '80s by any of the heavy hitters.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 6:59 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get a hold of some Louis Armstrong. There's a box set out there of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings. That lays the a lot of the foundations of jazz for you all in one purchase.
If you enjoy that era, another fellow worth checking out is Sidney Bechet.

"Kind of Blue" as mentioned above, is essential. But if you like Dizzy and Bird, then you're probably want to work backwards in Miles Davis' catalog from there. check out albums like "The Birth of the Cool" and "Bag's Groove" and "Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet. Mid-50s Miles will probably be right up your alley.

If when you listen to "Kind of Blue" you find yourself grooving to the tenor sax solos, then you'll want to explore John Coltrane (you'll have to anyway). For him I'd recommend three albums for a start: "A Love Supreme", "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things".

Another album I'd highly recommend is Coltrane's collaboration with Duke Ellington, which is just called "Duke Ellington and John Coltrane" I think. From there you'll want to explore a whole lot more of Duke Ellington. Try "Ellington at Newport".

Well that's a start anyway.
posted by wabbittwax at 7:01 PM on June 2, 2008

Jazz Samba - Charlie Byrd + Stan Getz. Mmmmmmm.
posted by brain cloud at 7:10 PM on June 2, 2008

Seconding Stan Getz and adding Dave Brubeck, who is definitely jazz, but unlike anything else out here, in a good way.
posted by odragul at 7:10 PM on June 2, 2008

Seconding Dave Brubeck. His Take Five is one of the most commercially popular jazz recordings ever.
posted by donajo at 7:17 PM on June 2, 2008

Chicago's venerable Jazz Record Mart has a great selection of must-haves on their killers rack. (They don't have the best web site. Note that the vocal section isn't labeled, so it looks like they're putting Sinatra in with the avant-garde stuff.)

At the risk of being redundant, I recommend:

Dave Brubeck - Time Out
John Coltrane - A Love Supreme
Charles Mingus - Ah Um
John Coltrane - My Favorite Things
Thelonious Monk - Monk's Dream
Stan Getz, João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim - Getz/Gilberto
Ella Fitzgerald - Best of the Song Books
any decent Billie Holiday compilation
posted by hydrophonic at 7:24 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Listen to all of the above. Go to your local library and check out the CDs before buying them.
posted by megatherium at 7:44 PM on June 2, 2008

Best answer: Okay, I just realized I wrote a &$*#ing essay. Sorry about the length. But, I think I've got some good info in here so I'll stand by the length and let you folks skip it or skim it or read the whole thing.

Nthing on Kind of Blue. It's a fantastic album, and a good place to start (continue) no matter what direction you want to go. In my opinion, here's why.

The personnel includes John Coltrane on sax, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb.

It came out in 1959, a point at which one could argue that the "classic" be-bop era was coming to a close. You could also argue that, especially with the presence of Bill Evans and John Coltrane, Kind of Blue was pointing to the strategies that jazz (or whatever you want to call it) would take for the next decade. Many people have pointed to Bill Evans's harmonic techniques--using voicings that deemphasize the tonic center of the key--as a way that Miles Davis was stretching his harmonic chops, and trying to explore different improvisatory strategies, not as tied to quick harmonic changes (contrast any piece on Kind of Blue with some fast-changes Charlie Parker piece, like "Confirmation," and you'll hear better what I mean).

At the same time, John Coltrane was coming into his own as a leader and would shortly record Giant Steps, his seminal work pushing the boundaries of jazz harmony and using dense flurries of sound in his improvisatory technique ("sheets of sound"). Kind of Blue hints at this later direction in many places.

All of this is wonderful and interesting, but the fundamental truth of Kind of Blue (for me) is that it records an absolutely sublime moment in the history of twentieth century American improvisatory music (a.k.a. jazz). Every musician on this album is in their top form, and they come together like few groups I've ever heard. I've probably listened to it hundreds of times and in never fails to amaze me. In fact, many, many musicians list it as one of their most important albums, and not just jazz musicians--it's widely influential.

So, that's Kind of Blue. Definitely get it.

Other avenues of exploration, if you like that: look at the Blue Note label's output in the 60s--I'm a big fan of the Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and etc. group of musicians that seemed to be on every album that each other put out on Blue Note in the sixties. These could be classified as a sort of "post-bop" aesthetic, but have some of the same spacial and harmonic qualities that make me love Kind of Blue. Wayne Shorter's compositions are stunning. That whole crew played with Miles Davis, by the way...

That makes me think of Art Blakey--he had a great team of musicians for his whole career. I love the stuff with Horace Silver, and Bobby Timmons, and Freddie Hubbard, and Wayne Shorter. Art Blakey's another great one to find out who you like: you can follow the careers of many of the musicians who were in the Jazz Messengers to their own success and great albums.

If you want to investigate further the searing intensity of Coltrane's sound, get into Giant Steps, and some of his later stuff--I'm a huge fan of Crescent in particular, I think it represents the pinnacle of his sound before he went seriously "out." Not that I'm dismissing that either--I like the avant-garde stuff too (see later on for more musicians in that "genre"), but I know that I lean more towards the more "concretely song-like" work, rather than the 40-minute extended, modal, ambiguous-rhythmic-centered jams.

You can also go backwards. If you like Charlie Parker and Dizzy, check out some of their influences from the swing era. Get some Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, the great Duke Ellington--a true master musician and composer--get some Count Basie, etc. I'm not as well versed in that stuff but I know what I like. I'm also a big fan of the albums "Miles Davis, Volume 1/2" on Blue Note--I think the two of them are from the early fifties.

Speaking of the early fifties, you could follow the whole so-called "third stream" or "cool jazz" crew and check out Dave Brubeck, Lennie Tristano, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz...ignore the labels though, all these people played with each other.

Oh, and I haven't even cracked the surface of singers, 'cause I lean towards instrumentalists myself. But there's Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, not to mention Nina Simone...many more.

Then there's the later avant-garde folks that came around in the sixties and were influential: Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Anthony Braxton...and let me not forget Sun Ra, who was the precursor to a lot of the sixties avant-garde jazz.

And Charles Mingus...I forgot about Charles Mingus! I love Mingus.

Um, Latin Jazz...Fusion...uh...

I need to stop. But:

If I had to summarize very briefly the history of jazz in the twentieth century, I would argue that you could follow these six musicians and trace the techniques they originated and musicians they influenced and played with: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. But of course someone else will have a different idea; I'm leaving out a tremendous number of incredible and important musicians. You'll get a ton of mileage even just from following Miles Davis career; he's been the catalyst for a ridiculous amount of change and played with almost every important jazz player since the 50s until he died (as well as some important non-jazz musicians). If you wanted to start earlier, check out Duke Ellington.

There's plenty going on now too, some other folks have mentioned some newer people, and this is getting ridiculous, so I'm going to stop. But feel free to drop me a line if you want to talk more about this.

Anyways, good luck. There's a ton for you to discover, and congratulations for finding the path! If I think of anything else I think is amazing that I forgot I'll put another comment in. Or maybe I shouldn't...I've babbled enough as it is...
posted by dubitable at 7:47 PM on June 2, 2008 [12 favorites]

Two more things, I couldn't resist...

Someone mentioned Ken Burns's Jazz. I think that it is problematic, mostly because it leaves out a lot of the very important later work. I would argue that this has a lot to do with Burns's biases as well as using Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis as advisors on the project--they all have very specific opinions on what Jazz is and what it isn't, and I'm not the only one who has a problem with it. So, watch it, get what you can out of it, but remember that it isn't the whole story.

Also, someone mentioned the Ellington/Coltrane album--damn, I love that album. Get it. What a cool thing, that these two players, both innovators and masters, but coming from opposite ends of the history (at the time at least...) put this album together--it's astounding when you think about it. And it sounds great.
posted by dubitable at 7:55 PM on June 2, 2008

Keith Jarrett - The Köln Concert. I'm not a jazz connoisseur, but I find this album to be pretty amazing. It's basically an hour-long piano concert filled with incredibly compelling improvisation.
posted by strangecargo at 7:58 PM on June 2, 2008

Gillespie and Parker are the Bop kings so that's probably where you want to start moving backward and forward. (I don't know too much about Bop beyond Bird and Dizzy so I'll let some one else guide you there.

Before Bop: There's a great book by Ira Gitler called Swing to Bop which documents how the swing era laid the groundwork for the Bop revolution. One player in particular who was instrumental in that transition was Charlie Christian. Tragically, he died before Bop really developed, but he definitely would have been in the pantheon had he lived. (He also completely defined jazz guitar from the thirties through the sixties.) There are some great recordings of him jamming with Gillespie and others at Minton's that give hints of where he could have gone.

After Bop: The most important figure in jazz after Parker was Miles Davis. I suggest just dipping into his catalog randomly and seeing what you like. For years Miles' sidemen tended to go on and have important careers of their own so you could spend a long time just exploring them.

And of course, as Miles said, “You can’t play anything on the horn that Louis hasn’t played … even modern.” You must listen to Louis Armmstrong; he is jazz.
posted by timeistight at 8:05 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Miles, Trane, Monk, and Bud Powell.

when it comes to Miles Davis, his late 40's blue note recordings are my favorites. try to get ahold of a recording of "Tempus Fugit (a Bud Powell tune) from this period. that. (any Miles w/ sidemen jj johnson / jackie mclean = awsome)

can't forget Cannonball Adderly, Clifford Brown (and if theres one wes montgomery album to have, its this one: Smokin at the Half Note ) and pretty much all of the cool stuff folks have written about above.

(oh, and SUN RA ..jeebus don't forget the SUN RA or Cecil Taylor either..)
posted by The_Auditor at 8:09 PM on June 2, 2008

I grew up hating jazz, until one day it clicked. I don't know what you like, but I'd encourage you to start with the beginning and go forward. Personally, I like bebop the most, but there are so many great people in the history of Jazz-- Earl Hines, Blossom Dearie, Billy Holiday, Wood Herman.

The story of jazz is as compelling as the music. A good starting place is Blues People, a truly wonderful book.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:18 PM on June 2, 2008

Charles Mingus is the most creative, fascinating jazz artist I've ever heard. Plus, he wrote a bizarre semifictional autobiography and an excellent guide to toilet training your cat.

Mingus Ah Um is especially excellent, but anything will do.
posted by ecmendenhall at 8:22 PM on June 2, 2008

I only own Kind Of Blue and you should too also.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:34 PM on June 2, 2008

Woebot's write-up of Jazz.
posted by galaksit at 8:37 PM on June 2, 2008

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus
posted by ericost at 8:38 PM on June 2, 2008

Oh, and I haven't even cracked the surface of singers, 'cause I lean towards instrumentalists myself. But there's Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, not to mention Nina Simone...many more.
This is important!! Get Ella's albums with Basie and Satchmo, and her 'songbooks' series, and you'll get a vital grounding in the midcentury standards and pop tunes that formed the common language for innovators like Miles and Trane. It's as important to know the classic tunes as it is to know the important artists in jazz. These female singers are central to the tradition, not least because they preserve the spoken language of jazz. When you're sad, throw on some Billie; Nina Simone when the fog rolls in.

When you're grounded in the old stuff, and you're working your way through Miles's increasingly complex discography, you'll get to his late-60's/early-70's electric stuff. In a Silent Way is his last electric album that fits the popular 'jazz' definition, to my ears, and that's pushing it; Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, the Cellar Door Sessions...these things are extraordinary things, maybe even perfect things, but they draw as much on rock/funk vernacular as on the jazz language of the time. Miles was one of the daddies of 'fusion,' maybe its great practitioner, and while there are great modern electric jazz groups (MMW, Bill Frisell's stuff, some John Zorn projects, etc.), Miles is still ahead of the field. His electric stuff is essential and is moving finally, these last few years, into its place in the canon. But jazz/rock fusion stuff is a sidestep from what you're loving now, god knows.

Just so's you know, Wynton Marsalis is like a weird mix of three parts Ellington to one part Mingus, with lots of Louis Armstrong thrown in, and a flawless hard bop pedigree. His long-form compositions are technically extraordinary and they move; try In This House, On This Morning after hearing Ellington's sacred music and Mingus's congregational improvisations.

The most digestible mid-period Trane is Live at Birdland, by the way, and it's well-paired with Newport '63. A Love Supreme is the waypoint but the 1963 albums make for a much, much easier transition to his later stuff.
posted by waxbanks at 8:46 PM on June 2, 2008

Jimmy Smith is an under-recognized organ player who was one of the few to really take the instrument to its full limits.

Bill Evans, as mentioned above, has a bevy of solo work that's uniquely beautiful: check out the album called Explorations. It's him at his best with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, and as a group they really created a new sound for the piano trio, with both the bass and drums contributing more as equals to the texture than subordinate elements.

Early Sun Ra (he got pretty out as time went on, and though it's some great stuff, you'll probably find his early things more amenable to you at the moment) is some really grooving stuff, and he is one of the jazz musicians who have so much personality as to be able to be considered a genre unto themselves.

I like the phrase 'explosion of pleasure,' by the way! It describes pretty perfectly how I feel about jazz. I'm glad you're enjoying it.
posted by invitapriore at 8:57 PM on June 2, 2008

Glad someone mentioned "Mingus Ah Um".. since I'm a little sick of Miles' Kind of Blue. Kind of PLAYED OUT.

Oh, and don't feel so guilty about taking a while to like jazz. There is so much CRAP out there, you shouldn't feel bad for having avoided it for a little while.

Took me just as long to get into Bach but now I'm obsessed.

Listen to Keith Jarrett as much as humanly possible. At least he didn't wig out like Miles in his later years.
posted by ChickenringNYC at 8:58 PM on June 2, 2008

Glad someone mentioned "Mingus Ah Um".. since I'm a little sick of Miles' Kind of Blue. Kind of PLAYED OUT.
Perhaps...for you. But especially if someone has never heard it before, I think it is a very valuable work to experience, especially considering the place of important it has for so many others (at the very least).
This is important!! Get Ella's albums with Basie and Satchmo, and her 'songbooks' series, and you'll get a vital grounding in the midcentury standards and pop tunes that formed the common language for innovators like Miles and Trane. It's as important to know the classic tunes as it is to know the important artists in jazz. These female singers are central to the tradition, not least because they preserve the spoken language of jazz. When you're sad, throw on some Billie; Nina Simone when the fog rolls in.
Very good point, and further goes to highlight my ignorance of the singers (shame on me). The great tunes are the ones that everyone covered, and once you start listening to musicians throughout the history, you'll start getting a feeling of how jazz changed by tracing a tune from one era to the next, like "All of Me" or "My Funny Valentine," not to mention all the rhythm changes ("I Got Rhythm") and blues variations.

I should also add that Miles once said something to the effect that he learned phrasing from Frank Sinatra (I think I have this right, but I couldn't find any good sources on this quote online--anybody? Was it from his autobiography?). I also remember hearing somewhere that Lester Young didn't feel like he knew a song unless he knew all the lyrics, even though he was a sax player...
posted by dubitable at 9:12 PM on June 2, 2008

I like Django Reinhart.
posted by waitangi at 9:40 PM on June 2, 2008

Everything everyone else here said is great. (With the possible exception of Django, ick.)

What you need to know is that there are many, many different flavors, schools, etc. of jazz. There's bop, hard bop, fusion, avant-garde, jazz-funk, latin jazz, etc. etc. (Those are just my favorite flavors.)

Some general advice:

On Miles: he had two great quintets. The first quintet and the second quintet are very different, but both beautiful in their own way. Classic non-fusioney Miles albums -- well, all of them are great, but my favorite are: Kind of Blue (as everyone else says), Miles Smiles, and Milestones. Many people also swear by Sketches of Spain, though I don't personally find it compelling as jazz.

I'm not sure what category to put Jean-Luc Ponty into, but he's a brilliant jazz violin player (maybe fusion?). Anything of his will be good.

There are some truly great live albums out there. One of the best is John Handy's Monterey Jazz Festival recording -- Spanish Lady is one of the legendary tracks of jazz. Ernest Dawkins also releases transcendent live recordings.

Fusion: Fusion is basically the idea of combining jazz and rock. I'm committing a major heresy by saying this, but while Miles basically invented fusion, you can do better than his stuff when listening to it. In particular, I recommend John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra. Also, Sun Ra made one fusioney album (Lanquidity), and it was brilliant.

Other bopish stuff -- don't neglect Monk -- my favorite album of his is Monk's Dream.

For avant-garde jazz, I have many, many suggestions -- it's my favorite type of jazz. LEt's see...
- Pretty much anything by Ornette Coleman. Also great: James "Blood" Ulmer is a long-time sideman of Coleman's, and he produced some great jazz/blues stuff.
- Sun Ra -- there are many different Sun Ra albums out there. Some of his stuff is WAY OUT THERE and it'll take a while to learn to like it. Newbies should probably avoid, in particular, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, Nothing Is, and Concert for the Comet Kohutek (though that one is possibly my very favorite). I'd start with Jazz in Silhouette and Angels and Demons At Play, move from there to -- perhaps -- Space is the Place. And if you like that, go to Kohutek.
- Art Ensemble of Chicago -- everything. They are absolutely brilliant.
- Sam Rivers
- Cecil Taylor

For the jazz-funk stuff, I second the Medeski, Martin & Wood recommendation. Also, try and lay hands on some Michael Ray & the Cosmic Krewe recordings -- Ray was a sideman for Sun Ra for some years, and it shows. Also, Galactic (though their newer stuff is less jazzy). Though for the best jazz-funk, honestly, you need to hang out at the right bars in New Orleans (the right bars were the Funky Butt, the Dragon's Den and d.b.a., at least last time I was there in 2003ish).

For latin jazz, you can start off, oddly, back with Dizzy again. He did this project with Chico O'Farrill called Machito (well, I'm not sure what project was actually called Machito) -- get the album Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods.

That should give you a good start. :-)
posted by paultopia at 10:30 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just got introduced to the works of Kenny Dorham. I don't know much about him, but his stuff is great.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 10:34 PM on June 2, 2008

OH! Don't forget Pharaoh Sanders in the avant-garde category. Get the album Karma.

Mal Waldron's "Blood and Guts."

For Trane, I recommend A Love Supreme (up there with Kind of Blue on everyone's list), Ascension (where Trane launches into avant-garde), Stardust (a beautiful standards album) and Stellar Regions (almost nobody listens to it, but it's utterly amazing).

If you wanna here a weird piece of genius, get Max Roach's M'boom. It's all percussion.

Yusef Lateef is also great.

Can you tell I listen to a lot of jazz?
posted by paultopia at 10:39 PM on June 2, 2008

The piano, as in classical music, nicely trace the history of jazz.

Duke Ellington is a good place for old stuff (any CD that has familiar sounding song titles would be a good place to start).
Art Tatum is totally dazzling (try Piano Starts Here).
Thelonius Himself is really, really cool. The Monk/Coltrane Carnegie Hall CD they put out a couple years ago is really, really hot.
Anything Lennie Tristano did on Atlantic Records is worth hearing.
Passing Ships from Andrew Hill is a recent revelation.

Would also recommend Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed, and Getatchew Mekurya (Nos. 4, 6-7, and 14 in the Ethiopiques series).

The nice thing about jazz is you can find any number of radio stations online that might suit your tastes, and you can try a lot of good stuff at the library.
posted by minkll at 10:44 PM on June 2, 2008

Oh god. I almost forgot one of my very favorite albums. Carlos Garnett's album Black Love. Trust me. Just get it.
posted by paultopia at 11:05 PM on June 2, 2008

Best answer: One thing that trips up a lot of people new to jazz is that, fortunately or unfortunately, all of great early jazz is pre-high fidelity, pre-stereo. The old recordings by early artists, such as Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Pine Top Smith, Meade "Lux" Lewis, Django Rhinehart, Coleman Hawkins, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman, and Jelly Roll Morton take a little understanding and dedication to get into, these days, for many, and there isn't that much that "modern" digital technology can really do for the quality of the recordings, aside from removing the worst hiss, clicks and pops, which has been done well by 1970's era audio technology, already. But the energy and love for the music really comes through, and pays you back, for any willingness you have to put up with the technology limits of the early recordings, and it's fun to hear some of the early experiments in multi-tracking by guys like Les Paul, when practical tape recorders became possible because of German inventions in the late 1930s. Places like the Red Hot Jazz archive are wonderful for exploring this early music, and much of it can be inexpensively downloaded, legally, now too.

One of the things you learn to pay attention to, especially, from early recordings, is discography. People new to jazz are sometimes a little slow to pick up on the almost obsessive interest many jazz fans have in discography, since there is really nothing like it in other popular or classically recorded music. But early jazz fans used discography as a means of discovery of new artists, and as a way of cataloging the early music, and thanks to early collectors and discographers, you, too, can enjoy letting your ears lead you, as theirs did, from one recording to another, as you learn to "hear" the distinctive styles and sounds of one artist from another, and follow their career. That's how I got to know guys like Teddy Wilson, Billy Eckstine, and Earl "Fatha" Hines.,, the Original Big Bands Database Plus and DownBeat magazine's annual "Bests" are great places to go to to learn more. It's also very worthwhile to think of the history of the world interacting with the history of jazz, as the effects of two world wars, and major new technologies like recording and radio, deeply affected this music to a degree not ever felt previously by other styles of music. There was jazz before records, before radio, and before the modern rethinking of the world in political and social terms occasioned by the great conflicts of the 20th century. Jazz wouldn't be what it is, without the shaping it got in that turbulent century, and maybe, that century wouldn't have been what it was, without jazz.

Finally, jazz is, as much as any music has ever been, a music of place. New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, the West Coast, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro all spawned something, that grew roots in people's ears and minds, through jazz. Yet, something of each formative place that gave jazz musicians homes, stays on, in ways other places, which were lesser hosts, don't. You don't hear Cheyenne in jazz. You have to turn over a lot of rocks to find much of Denver's soul, or Amarillo, or Toledo, in any 32 bars of jazz. But you can't miss New Orleans, or Beale Street, or Harlem, in a hundred melodies, and to hear them, is to be carried where you might still want to go. So, having jazz as a hobby is an invitation to travels, too, and I wish you enjoyment in them.

And on that, I'm also going to suggest you make an effort to get out and listen to live jazz, too. Depending on where you live or travel, there are live festivals, clubs and venues of all descriptions, where jazz musicians continue to do what they and their colleagues have always done, which is to communicate, one human being to another. The effort you make to hear live jazz goes a long, long way to helping people who love this music continue to make it, and, I think, it truly helps you build your ear and your sense memory of the music, too. And there are some amazing people, like McCoy Tyner, who are still out there, touring, long past the time younger people have hung it up, in other genres. There's a mission in their minds, and they're working, not to work, but to bring the music to people like you, just discovering it. Listen to McCoy, and you're hearing, as directly as you ever will, the echoes of John Coltrane, from a man who played, composed and arranged for Coltrane, for Miles Davis, and for many others. Those are experiences you don't want to miss, that won't always be available; good to try to have them, while the people who can make them are still around.
posted by paulsc at 11:08 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow. This thread has enough to keep you going for a decade.

One thing that I've learned along the way is that it's perfectly fine to not like something. I didn't get into Dizzy Gillespie at first, but have softened up a little now. I loved Louis Armstrong from the first song I heard, but don't listen to him all that much any more.

It might help to think about what it is in particular that you like. Is it fast paced big band swing? Is it the slow, mournful ballads? Is it the small ensembles that really let individual instruments shine? Many of the big names in jazz have had careers that vary wildly. I love Coltrane's Blue Train, but just can't stand Ascension. When you know vaguely what you want to hear more of, you should be able to find a good jazz music store (hint: it wont be a brand named store, although they often have large jazz selections) and someone there will be able to let you listen to a range of things before you buy one.
posted by twirlypen at 11:31 PM on June 2, 2008

Best answer: Where to begin, where to begin....

There are many best-of CDs for the legends, etc.

If you like the modern 1950s sound typified by Coltrane's classic record Blue Train, then almost anything on Blue Note from the 1950s will please you: try Art Blakey's Moanin' or Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue or Herbie Nichols or Dexter Gordon or Jackie McLean, etc...etc...and the Fantasy Label Group (especially Riverside) is great...the 1950s is a golden era and a good place to keep returnign to...but you need to go backwards chronologically too...

Off the top of my head, try sampling from these classic records to start with:

Billie Holiday--Verve recordings

Duke Ellington/Max Roach/Charles Mongus--Money Jungle
Duke Ellington--Braggin' In Brass, The Immortal 1938 Year
Duke Ellington--The Blanton/Webster Band (double CD)
Duke Ellington--The Okeh Ellington (double CD)
Duke Ellington--Duke's Men, the Small Groups Vol. 1
Duke Ellington--Duke's Men, the Small Groups Vol.2
Duke Ellington--Ellington Uptown
Duke Ellington--Ellington at Newport (1956)
Duke Ellington--Piano Reflections

Art Tatum--The Complete Capitol Recordings
Art Tatum--Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Best Of
Art Tatum--Pablo Group Masterpieces, Best Of
Art Tatum--Trio Days

Benny Goodman--The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings

Thelonious Monk--Monk's Dream
Thelonious Monk--Underground
Thelonious Monk--Brilliant Corners
Thelonious Monk--Straight No Chaser
Thelonious Monk--Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane
Thelnonious Monk--Thelonious In Action (Live at the Five Spot)

Sonny Rollins--Saxaphone Colossus
Sonny Rollins--Tenor Madness
Sonny Rollins--Way Out West
Sonny Rollins--Freedom Suite
Sonny Rollins--Sonny Rollins w/the MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet)
Sonny Rollins--Sound of Sonny
Sonny Rollins--Alfie

Bill Evans--Portrait in Jazz
Bill Evans--Sunday at the Village Vanguard
Bill Evans--Waltz for Debby
Bill Evans--Explorations
Bill Evans--Everybody Digs Bill Evans
Bill Evans--Undercurrent (w/Jim Hall)

Charlie Parker--Complete Dial Recordings
Charlie Parker--Complete Savoy Recordings

Horace Silver--Song for My Father
Horace Silver--The Jody Grind
Horace Silver--Horace-scope
Horace Silver--Blowin' the Blues Away
Horace Silver--The Tokyo Blues
Horace Silver--The Cape Verdean Blues

Miles Davis--Kind of Blue
Miles Davis--Porgy and Bess
Miles Davis--Sketches of Spain
Miles Davis--Miles Ahead
Miles Davis--Birth of the Cool
Miles Davis--Round About Midnight
Miles Davis--Workin'
Miles Davis--Cookin'
Miles Davis--Relaxin'
Miles Davis--ESP
Miles Davis--Seven Steps to Heaven
Miles Davis--Live at the Plugged Nickel

Wayne Shorter--Night Dreamer
Wayne Shorter--Infant Eyes
Wayne Shorter--Speak No Evil
Wayne Shorter--Schizophrenia
Wayne Shorter--Adam's Apple
Wayne Shorter--JuJu

Lester Young--Kansas City Sessions
Lester Young--Lester Young Trio
Lester Young--Savoy Recordings

Stan Getz--Roost Rcordings
Stan Getz--People Time (w/Kenny Barron)
Stan Getz--Sweet Rain
Stan Getz--w/Cal Tjader
Stan Getz--Stan Getz Plays
Stan Getz--The Peacocks (w/Jimmy Rowles)
Stan Getz--Quartet Live in Paris

Ornette Coleman--Change of the Century
Ornette Coleman--Invisible
Ornette Coleman--Shape of Jazz to Come
Ornette Coleman--This Is Our Music

Gerry Mulligan Quartet w/Chet Baker--Best Of

Oscar Peterson--The Trio
Oscar Peterson--Exclusively for My Friends

Art Pepper--The Trip
Art Pepper--Meets the Rhythm Section
Art Pepper--Aladdin Recordings

I had better stop now. I could go on and on and on and on and on and on and on like this for literally days. Send me a mefi mail if you have any questions about anyone. Good luck and happy listening!
posted by ornate insect at 11:36 PM on June 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

and aprpops of nothing, check this out:

Cannonball Adderley--Work Song
posted by ornate insect at 11:49 PM on June 2, 2008

IANAJA (jazz afficionado), although I do have a number of the classic artists / records mentioned in this thread (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Sun Ra etc) and I've gotta say, I wish this thread could be re-done with some kind of hints as to what flavours of jazz to expect from the artists mentioned.

Personally, I still can't stand most stuff that's too chirpy & upbeat, or too whacked-out freeform or experimental. More minimalistic & moody is my sort of thing, so if that's something you might be interested in, try listening to anything at random from the German label, ECM.

Also, a plug for one of my favourites: contemporary Australian trio The Necks do wonderful hour-long trancelike improvisations, typically starting quiet & slow & building through layers of repetition & interweaving into orgasmic crescendos.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:32 AM on June 3, 2008

Another important focus, for learning about jazz, which I forgot to include in my comment above, is to pay attention to publishers, labels and producers. In a lot of ways, even more than the musicians who wrote it and played it, these behind the scenes guys and their projects/organizations/businesses are the reason jazz exists today, or that you've ever heard of people like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, or even Miles Davis. Norman Granz, for example, not only produced hundreds of memorable jazz recordings, but also organized Verve, as well as put together the memorable Jazz At The Philharmonic series. Alfred Lion's Blue Note was famous for its ability to sell 10,000 copies of anything, just because record buyers all over the East Coast would just grab anything they saw on the Blue Note label, because, really, you never went wrong with Blue Note.

So, the more you know about Granz, Lion, Mills and their behind the scenes brethren like Orrin Keepnews and Teo Macero, the faster you find your way into the music. Their sensibilities, still, can be your "metafilter" for jazz, as they have been for millions of jazz fans before you.
posted by paulsc at 12:33 AM on June 3, 2008

posted by ikkyu2 at 1:02 AM on June 3, 2008

If you're trying to find out which CDs to buy, it can be frustrating because most artists' best work is spread over several compilations, each of which claims to be "the best". This is because different record labels own the rights to different songs. And even if one label owns, say, the best Charlie Parker and the best Dizzy Gillespie, they won't put it all on one CD because it just... isn't in their commercial interest, know what I mean? (If you can get it all on one CD, you won't buy any other CDs. )

There is an exception to this: The Smithsonian Institution. They are nonprofit, and exempt from the commercial obligations. Their compilation "The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz" is the best single overview of jazz, bar none. It's a selection from all the jazz ever recorded, across all labels and eras, no commercial limitations, and it comes with a great book of liner notes and history. I got mine from the public library (recorded it), and I've also seen it in stores second-hand.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 1:27 AM on June 3, 2008

A lot of the stuff I would recommend has already been listed, so I won't bother, but just a note about a good way to explore jazz: take an album or group you like, and see who the guys on there played with and who those people played with and so on. It works better than doing the same thing with something like rock because jazz people tend to play with lots of different groups comparatively speaking.
posted by juv3nal at 1:30 AM on June 3, 2008

Number one recommendation: Breadth of exposure via radio. Do you have a radio station nearby that plays jazz? If not, you can stream one ... I grew up listening to KPLU (an ad bumper will play before the stream, and they play NPR news every few hours, but the rest is jazz). This is the best way to get acquainted with a lot of different jazz and start figuring which parts you like best.

Dubitable's advice about six major figures is well worth heeding, as is the bit about the lady singers. Honestly, jazz is a universe, and you'll find things in it that you do and don't care for.

Hmm. You said you liked Diz and Bird, which to me says you're going for complexity of texture and harmony, lots of improvisation. Ellington is probably the master of pre-bop complexity, especially when he had Blanton and Webster in his band. He does delicious things with layers of timbres. Even earlier than that, there's Dixieland and early swing, which tend to feature overlapping, polyphonic lines; look for earlier Armstrong to begin with.

After bop, there's this huge explosion of styles and subgenres, but you might try: Third stream (anything by Milt Jackson Quartet/Modern Jazz Quartet, which just started playing on the radio as I write this, and man can those dudes cook it!). Cool (Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool) and similar work such as Oliver Nelson, The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Both of these resemble Ellington in their extremely nuanced orchestrations). Latin jazz: Bird went on to hybridize Cuban music with bebop, producing 'cubop', and Brazil began producing incredible jazz when Bossa Nova appeared in the sixties; you might start with Getz/Gilberto or anything by Antonio Carlos 'Tom' Jobim. Latin jazz often features wonderful rhythms deep enough to swim in. West Coast: Chet Baker took a cooler-than-cool approach, but Dave Brubeck (Time Out and other releases) got way, way out there with the rhythmic stuff (less so these days, or since about 1970 I'd guess). Hard bop features a little more groove than bebop had, but great virtuosity in horn solos: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers would be a good introduction there. Piano jazz: Bill Evans's Conversations with Myself is a masterpiece of concentration and multitracking with great depths, and Thelonious Monk is challenging but worthwhile for his true bop attitude expressed at other tempos and with long notes and rests. I've got a disc of him on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums (all justifiably legends) playing tunes by Ellington, and it's astounding. And then we hit free and fusion and soul and funk. Give a listen to "Open Country Joy" by Mahavishnu Orchestra and "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" by Cannonball Adderley, and chase down some other artists they played with.

Also, it's hard to go wrong with anything from 1959.

All of these are more or less jazz of the past, and only certain facets of it at that. There is still very much a creative movement going on, so don't let your jazz get stuck in a museum. Some of my favorite newer artists are Cassandra Wilson, Taylor Eigsti, and Sara Gazarek, but you'll find your own. For the sake of branching out, you'll just have to listen to a good survey. Enjoy that radio station, and you'll be on your way in.
posted by eritain at 1:36 AM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to step in and offer some dissent about Miles Davis. The love of music is heavily steeped in personal love of a particular sound. I don't like Miles. I've played trumpet for more than 30 years and I cannot stand his tone. To me it sounds like he's playing through a pillow or is completely pinching off the sound with his throat. Ecch. There is one chart of his that I care for: Godchild. And that's for the tuba.

I love Clifford Brown. Love, love, love Clifford Brown. His tone is gorgeous and he makes ballads absolutely sing.

For large ensemble work, I like some of the later Basie recordings. His music always sounded right. The album "Corner Pocket" has some nice charts on it that really swing. I also like "Straight Ahead" which is mostly charts by Sammy Nestico. Nestico is a prolific and highly competent composer and arranger.
posted by plinth at 3:30 AM on June 3, 2008

If you're trying to find out which CDs to buy, it can be frustrating because most artists' best work is spread over several compilations, each of which claims to be 'the best'.

The Ken Burns compilation CDs also span multiple record labels.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:14 AM on June 3, 2008

Well, I don't need to say Kind of Blue at this point, but I want to, so there. Go get it. Another one that was a great introduction for me was Branford Marsalis' Crazy People Music which has a wide variety of modern jazz styles on one album, and is a lot of fun to boot.
posted by mattholomew at 8:10 AM on June 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you, thank you, thank you all for these wonderful suggestions. I have already been ignoring work and browsing my local library website to see what they have and reserving a few of your recommendations. What an absolute treasure trove of music I have in front of me and I will be MeFi mailing a few of you to hopefully pick your brains further! Wonderful!
posted by 543DoublePlay at 8:44 AM on June 3, 2008

Grant Green Idle Moments
posted by 4Lnqvv at 9:33 AM on June 3, 2008

Also David Remnick of the New Yorker recently gave his own list of the 100 Most Essential Jazz Records. It's a useful list.
posted by ornate insect at 10:02 AM on June 3, 2008

The specifics above are terrific - but it's hard to know what YOU might like.

My suggestions?

* Go to your library. You can check out entire albums to see what you like, then buy the stuff that you especially dig from your favorite retailer.

* Use Pandora. It recommends stuff you've never heard of based on stuff you like. It's been an amazing resource for me.

For a specific jazz artist recommendation - I really like Vince Guaraldi a lot. You probably know him as the creator of the Charlie Brown theme song. His "Wiillow Weep for Me" and "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" are wonderful. Also: the album "Everybody Knows Johnny" by Johnny Hodges.
posted by kristi at 10:09 AM on June 3, 2008

So many of my favorite jazz albums have been listed here. But I will agree with juv3nal - find an album you like and track the line-up from that album. That's actually how I discovered Clifford Brown. He plays on Live at Birdland Volume 1 by Art Blakey and I went out and bought some of his albums and was blown away.

And I encourage you to buy original albums on CD or record. The liner notes are almost always worth it.

And some contemporary artists include Joshua Redman, Dave Douglas, and Dave Holland (I love Prime Directive).
posted by cachondeo45 at 12:45 PM on June 3, 2008

This thread has a tremendous amount of info on canonical, traditional jazz choices, so I'm not going to bother with more of those (for the most part, canonical trad-jazz bores the hell out of me. Feel free to send me an email when you want to hear skronks and wicked funk jazz).

The couple of things that I will tell you are that you can find a lot more nooks and crannies by going through y2karl and flapjaxatmidnight's posts on the Blue; that Sun Ra (and even Thelonius Monk) are a lot more interesting when you have a better sense of jazz music theory; and that the crux of jazz is live improvisation. William Parker and Keith Vandermark are still alive and are geniuses (Vandermark, a MacArthur grant recipient), and both have deep, deep respect for tradition even as they continue to innovate. Also, see Roscoe Mitchell, formerly (still?) of the Art Ensemble. His later stuff has returned deeply to traditional tones—after a long career of exploding jazz, he's putting it back together, and that can be a really interesting counterpoint when exploring the origins and legacy of mid-century jazz.
posted by klangklangston at 3:22 PM on June 3, 2008

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to jazz by an awesome bay area radio station, kcsm. They have a netcast and do not play smooth jazz (maybe a tiny, tiny bit).
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:09 AM on June 4, 2008

Lotta lotta people around here are going on about jazz music theory.

That's what makes it boring. That's what makes it an exercise in academic onanism.

Sure, it's vital if you want to become a jazz musician, but if you want to listen to music for the fun and beauty of it, you don't need to give a shit about the Dorian mode. In rock music terms, Ywngie Malmsteen may know "all there is to know about musical theory" but I'd rather listen to AC/DC any day of the week. Start with the basics and explore from there. That said, I will second kk's recommendation for Sun Ra as well, for something a bit more dynamic.
posted by Jimbob at 3:16 AM on June 4, 2008

And remember, Youtube is your friend for a first hearing. Thirding the Sun Ra recommendation and throwing Chick Corea out there. You already got Ella, right?
posted by ersatz at 5:27 AM on June 9, 2008

This is a flat-out, shameless copying-and-pasting of a paragraph I just wrote to a friend with the same request. Hope it helps.

Miles Davis was and is the supreme being of the universe, and as such offers a very good starting point. His album Kind of Blue is a one of the highest-regarded jazz recordings ever (the best according to many, though I don't share the sentiment). I'd suggest "Bag's Groove", "'Round About Midnight" or "Birth Of The Cool" as early, accessible, traditional, swing-style Miles, mostly with his quintet. Once you have a feel for those, try "Sorcerer" or "E.S.P." (which is a personal favorite of mine). Once you get those, try "Bitches Brew"; this album is an epic of musicianship and concept, but it's definitely hard to parse (an acquired taste, you might say). Moving on (as you can see, I like Miles Davis quite a bit). You should definitely give Herbie Hancock a listen; he's a great pianist with a lot of variety in his library. Try "Maiden Voyage", which is considered his magnum opus of traditional jazz. "The New Standard" and "River: The Joni Letters" are both relatively new albums (River won a grammy this past year) which are both great (albeit very traditional and accessible). Bill Evans is an incredible pianist -- the guy is just dripping with class. Any of the recordings at the Village Vanguard are incredible, but basically any album you can get of this guy is guaranteed to be gorgeous. On sax, try Coltrane at first: get "Giant Steps", "A Love Supreme" and "My Favorite Things"; all three are essential. You might also check out Sonny Rollins on saxophone -- he's less known but a great player. "Saxophone Colossus" is a good album. "A Night in Tunisia" by the percussionist Art Blakey and his group the Jazz Messengers is also a must-have; very famous. If you'd like something quirky, look into Thelonious Monk; he was a piano player with an unorthodox musical sense -- I like "Straight No Chaser," but you absolutely have to get both of his recordings with John Coltrane (one is at Carnegie Hall, the other is simply titled "Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane"). For some smooth, West-coast style jazz, check out Stan Getz; he's a gorgeous sax player, very mellow and very counter to Coltrane's style. He has a recording with Bill Evans that's just incredible. If you end up liking Getz, grab a Chet Baker album or two -- he's like the trumpet-playing equivalent; very lyrical, melodic, beautiful. For some down-and-dirty roots jazz, grab a Charles Mingus album -- "Mingus Ah Um" is a famous one, as well as "Mingus Dynasty". If you end up liking the traditional bebop-jazz sound, try both Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown -- incredible trumpet players, and faster than hell. Clifford died at a young age; if he hadn't been killed, you'd hear his name rather than Miles'. If you like big band, look into Dizzy Gillespie or Duke Ellington. Lee Morgan's another great bebop player. Chick Corea is essential -- the album "My Spanish Heart" is a masterpiece, and I probably shouldn't have put it so low in the paragraph. Oh, and Oscar Peterson is a wizard on piano -- possibly the best player to have ever lived. Get "Exclusively for my Friends". So I just wrote way too much, but at least you'll have a starting point -- err, a couple starting points. And, of course, these are just the classics; there are a great many contemporaries worthy of note as well, but you should dig your heels in with Miles and the gang before anything else.
posted by evhan at 5:03 PM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also, after an empty ^F, I absolutely have to add Terence Blanchard.
posted by evhan at 5:05 PM on June 9, 2008

you could check this thread. There's a lot to listen to.
posted by nicolin at 2:16 AM on October 16, 2008

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