Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said, “When the music stopped being about dancing, people stopped listening.”
Whether you agree with this statement or not, it’s hard to ignore the fact that jazz can sometimes be considered “high art” by those who are passionate about it, and just as easily be ignored by those who are not. Chances are, if you are reading this article, you may already be familiar with jazz music and its many sub-genres. (In that case, consider this article a refresher.) If, however, you are new to jazz, we’d like to offer this list to you as a starting place.
Rather than put together a list of the best jazz albums of all time, JAZZIZ.com has compiled a list of 10 albums that may serve a good entry point for those who might want to start listening to jazz. We did our best to span the jazz timeline, from early recordings by bebop pioneers to modern albums by today’s biggest names. But there’s no way we could include even a fraction of all the great albums that deserve to be heard. This is only the beginning of a journey, more a stylistic primer than a complete lesson in jazz history.
Still, it’s a worthwhile list for any jazz fan, full of albums that even the most grizzled jazz listener will look forward to revisiting. So whether you’re new to the scene or have been hanging around for years, there’s sure to be something here you’ll enjoy.
(NOTE: The list does not include compilations. This would particularly explain the lack of Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, as well as Duke Ellington, whose inclusion would be more than appropriate for a list such as this one.)
1. MILES DAVIS – Bitches Brew (1970)
When Bitches Brew was first released, some accused Davis of having sold out. True, the trumpeter was attempting to reach a wider audience with Bitches Brew, but he was willing to do very little to compromise his music in the process, as the lack of cheap hooks and riffs clearly show. Today, Bitches Brew is considered the groundbreaking progenitor of jazz-rock fusion.
2. ESPERANZA SPALDING – Esperanza (2008)
At 23, bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding was already a seasoned session musician. In 2008 she arranged, produced and played on her self-titled album Esperanza. The music boasts influences from New Orleans hot jazz to Latin Soul. It is adventurous but never overbearingly so. Allmusic stated in its review of the album that “If radio would get behind this it would be a monster.”
4. CHET BAKER – Chet Baker Sings (1954)
Chet Baker at his peak was a great trumpeter and an even better singer. His delicate, smooth vocal tone was simply one of a kind. Such tone provided many jazz standards with their ultimate interpretation. Many of them, such as “My Funny Valentine” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” are presented in his 1954 album Chet Baker Sings.
4. DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET – Time Out (1959)
The commercial success of Time Out and its most famous track “Take Five” was quite unexpected. The Dave Brubeck is possibly one of the most sophisticated jazz groups of all time and, as the music in their 1959 album shows, they could really swing even in the most exciting and unusual time signatures.
5. CHARLIE PARKER AND DIZZY GILLESPIE – Bird and Diz (1952)
Any newbie curious about bebop should start off with this studio album featuring two of its most important innovators: saxophonist Charlie Parker (a.k.a. “Bird”) and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (a.k.a. “Diz”). At a hair under 30 minutes long, Bird and Diz is the shortest album in the list, but it provides an excellent starting point for those willing to open up to the wild experimentation of what is most likely regarded as the quintessential jazz sub-genre.
6. HERBIE HANCOCK – Head Hunters (1973)
Hancock returned to the “lighter stuff,” as he called it, after producing a number of more experimental works. The first of his Head Hunters albums presents an exciting and complex blend of music of many styles and genres, including jazz, funk, African and Afro-Caribbean music.
7. KAMASI WASHINGTON – The Epic (2015)
As its title implies, The Epic is indeed a colossal album. Saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington’s debut album features a 32-piece orchestra, a 20-person choir and a wide variety of jazz styles. It’s also almost three hours long and took five years to make. Is it too early to call this the jazz album of the 21st century?
8. ELLA FITZGERALD AND LOUIS ARMSTRONG – Ella & Louis (1956)
Producer Norman Granz had the idea of bringing together two of the biggest and most beloved names in jazz music history. He selected a number of wonderful ballads for them to immortalize in a totally unique way. Ella & Louis was the first of three studio albums that would find the two artists collaborating together. The former’s trademark gruff and the latter’s silky vocals complement each other in a most excellent way.
9. JOHN COLTRANE – A Love Supreme (1965)
John Coltrane is one of the most influential musicians of his generation and A Love Supreme is universally recognized as one of the best albums of all time – jazz or otherwise. It is arguably the work of an artist at the peak of his career. If you’ve never listened to it, it’s time to see what the fuss is all about.
10. MILES DAVIS – Kind of Blue (1959)
Drummer Jimmy Cobb once said that Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue “must have been made in heaven.” But it would be more appropriate to see it as having been birthed from the late night sessions of smoky basement bars. And by the way, Kind of Blue is also the album that people who are not particularly into jazz are most likely to already own…