A History of Jazz for Rock Fans

MilesOr how moldy is that fig anyway?

So it was like this: I was sitting around the Ten Cat in Chicago with the Glorious Noise posse when someone asked for a little background on a few jazz figures he had heard about. After several pints, they requested a top ten list of essential jazz albums (rock fans love lists), and I agreed to make one. But in the haze of a hangover I realized it just isn’t that simple.

Jazz is America’s classical music, with more genres and sub-groupings than anyone can ever possibly absorb. At about 100 years old, jazz has transitioned through every aspect of modern American music, with each genre being cast off by the fans of the next, while the musicians themselves never lose sight of the originators and the seminal figures that made it what it is.

Unlike rock where you can pinpoint certain albums as important, jazz predates the LP era, but there are influential sides which constitute the first 50 years of its history. (History lesson: all music used to come as singles with one three-minute song on each side of a 78 RPM record.) There are certainly albums to mention, and even the most unaware rock fan knows at least two albums that are great by any standard: Kind of Blue by the Miles Davis Quintet and A Love Supreme by the John Coltrane Quartet. Both of these albums are must haves. There seems to be little more to say about them, with the first having Miles Davis and John Coltrane together with Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley and the second being one of the great cohesive musical works by one of the great ensembles of all time.

The story of Miles Davis may be familiar to many rock fans, at least the major points: Miles cuts his teeth with Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, helps reinvent post-war jazz with the “Birth of the Cool” sessions, begins a run of sensational groups that include nearly every important figure of the post-war period, experiments with electronic music and rock, continues to employ the cream of the new generation which elicits derision from his older jazz fans and gains rock fans by the concert hall. Miles was among the most controversial figures in jazz. Stanley Crouch’s essay called “On the Corner: The Sellout of Miles Davis” is well worth a read. But if Miles employed many of the greatest players of all time, the most famous was the last great figure in jazz, John Coltrane.

“Trane” didn’t intentionally live the rock creed of “live fast and die,” but it worked out that way anyway. He grew up in Philadelphia’s hot bed of jazz, played in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, made his early living in jump blues combos, gigged and recorded with many of his contemporaries, got hired by Miles Davis twice (getting thrown out once for his heroin use) and went on to become an artist of world renown on his own with the classic quartet of Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and McCoy Tyner on piano. His series of albums with this group on Impulse, which includes A Love Supreme, are all worth checking out. Later in his career he explored “free jazz” both in small and large ensembles. Just as rock was hitting its artistic stride in 1967, Trane succumbed to liver problems (he had stopped both heroin and drinking and became deeply religious) and passed away, leaving a recorded legacy unparalleled by any other modern jazz figure. Of particular note are his albums on Atlantic, of which Giant Steps and My Favorite Things certainly rank up there with his material on Impulse.

The song “My Favorite Things” is typical of how jazz musicians work, often taking a “standard” and playing the bejesus out of it for their entire life so that it is closely identified with them. Trane made several recordings of this tune. His last recording includes a monumentally long version of this song (the Olatunji Concert), but by then the actual tune and “changes” of the song are submerged in a stew of free blowing that masks any elements remaining from “The Sound of Music”. My personal favorite version of “My Favorite Things” is on a concert recording released by Impulse called Selflessness. It is the classic Coltrane Quartet with each member of the group taking a solo (a jazz format that is rarely strayed from), with particular mastery by McCoy Tyner on an extended piano solo and Trane himself playing multiple notes at the same time on soprano sax.

I suppose no one signed on to this article to hear only about Coltrane, but considering people have started a church based on their admiration for him, and also considering he is perhaps the most revered figure in “modern” or “progressive” jazz, knowing about him is essential to anyone’s understanding of what it means to be a jazz musician. Coltrane practiced constantly his entire life, learning every change and every scale and chord progression until it was second nature, and then continued finding the limits of what his instruments could do. Although he is famous for playing the tenor sax, he started out on alto as a youth and reinvented the soprano. His dedication to his art and the hundreds of recordings are a testament to his hard work and vision.

Moving off Trane and onto another figure with great a nickname, we go all the way back to the dawn of jazz and talk for a moment about the single greatest figure in jazz history, Louis (often though not always pronounced Louie) Armstrong. Known as “Satchmo”, “Satch”, “Pops” and a variety of other nicknames, Armstrong didn’t invent jazz (he wasn’t there when it was invented, but he was close), yet he is the central figure in the same way that Elvis is the central figure in rock and roll. We don’t have time for everything interesting about him but w should point out that while Louis grew up in New Orleans, he made his first important recordings and gained prominence here in Chicago. There are two sets of Armstrong recordings that must be discussed in relationship to the development of jazz: the 1923 recordings with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and the 1925-29 recordings of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.

King Oliver was a New Orleans musician who was one of jazz’s first great stars and an idol of the young Louis Armstrong. Oliver came to Chicago to seek greater fame and fortune and in the early 20s asked Armstrong to join him as second cornet (not trumpet) in his band, which resulted in the cinematic event of a young and green Louis taking the train from New Orleans to the big city of Chicago, getting off at Union Station and joining him in his band. The acoustic recordings of the Creole Jazz Band group are amazing, even for the primitive recording techniques of the time.

The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens were groups that existed in the recording studio only. Enlisting his friends from the King Oliver band (“King” held the title long before Elvis), Armstrong did what every musician wants to do; he wanted to record under his own name, and in the process made musical history. Louis steps out just enough to play solos on these recordings, something apparently no one had thought about before. Listening to them now, it is difficult to gage the impact they had, since the long winding solos most of us are used to don’t exist (after all you only got about three minutes to play an entire song), but these recordings sent shock waves through the nascent jazz world. Just like Elvis singing “black music,” the Beatles playing “American music,” or Dylan plugging in for “electric music,” these recordings changed the face of jazz forever. Whether or not these are Armstrong’s finest moments will always be debated, but he went on to international fame playing swing with big bands, traveling the world with his “All Stars” and finally lodging in the public memory by singing “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World.” As a teen I remember Louis as the older show biz singer and celebrity; I learned about his true stature as a musical innovator after getting interested in jazz in my 20s (not the 20s — I am not that old.)

The other great early jazz figure is the fascinating “Jelly Roll” Morton. Jelly Roll, a pianist, composer and arranger, claimed to have invented jazz, a claim he vociferously promoted until his death. (Jelly Roll is a great nickname isn’t it? We ain’t talking pastry here either!) Morton was a Creole from New Orleans whose seminal group, the Red Hot Peppers, also got started in Chicago. The Red Hot Peppers recordings sound as fresh today as they did in the 1920s. Morton was a perfectionist and certainly one of jazz’s first great arrangers. He recorded his reminiscences for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress and those recordings are a fascinating if self-aggrandizing listen. Morton died broke and unappreciated, but his recordings stand as his final testament.

To say that things get complex from here is an understatement. The first great flowering and popularization of jazz in the 1920s, which coincided with the advent of electric recording, created a jazz culture that everyone wanted to be a part of, and scandalized proper society (remember, it was the “jazz age”). As jazz changed, the new generation of musicians and fans were berated by the older generation as “selling out” or corrupting the purity of the music, while the new wave looked back with disgust at the older generation as “has beens” or old fashioned. There is never a shortage of purists when it comes to defending older forms of music. The first great era of jazz (and blues and country for that matter) came to an end with the advent of the Depression and the contraction of the record industry. The myriad of fascinating figures of early or traditional jazz is well worth exploring. Some made the transition into the “swing era.” But it also spawned the first spat between fans. No “moldy figs” yet (one has to wait until the 1940s for that expression), but the argument was clear. Old was good, new was bad vs. old was out, new was better.

As the Depression deepened, jazz became more complex and sophisticated. Bands became bigger and arrangements more urbane. Duke Ellington, already a force in the 1920s, continued a career that never abated. Count Basie began with the Bernie Moten Band and started his own band with the nucleus of this band when Moten gave up control. In all the major urban centers, bands filled ballrooms for dancing and territory bands barnstormed the countryside allowing people the opportunity to forget their troubles. As war approached on the horizon, the bands battled, and both black and white youth began to identify with big band jazz as the music of the young even as rock was identified the same way in the 1950s.

Cross pollination of white and black bands fueled the competition between bands. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw competed against each other as well as against Chick Webb and other black bands. In fact Goodman owed some of his success to Fletcher Henderson after gaining the rights to his “book” or arrangements. There were good times in the midst of oncoming war and economic hardship.

To me, big band jazz was a relic of the past, my parent’s generation and only as I have grown older do I appreciate the skill and imagination this music embodied. The swing dance movement of the 90s re-introduced this music to some younger rock fans, but there has been little interest in this sort of music among most people. A few figures stood out in front of these bands: Billy Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Charlie Christian, Fats Waller, Art Tatum and many, many more. In some cases American musicians found fans in Europe, moving there to great acclaim and significantly less racial tension.

Big band and swing music continued into the early 1940s until the war and other economic pressures made it impossible to finance such large ensembles, and then two interesting things began to happen. First, a small group of black musicians, located at Minton’s Playhouse in New York and other small clubs, began to develop an inbred type of music that could only be played by the most skilled of players. It was called “bebop” after the type of rhythm used to play it. It was played fast, with complex changes (often based on standard chord changes transposed into other keys.) The chief architects of this music were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Thelonious Monk.

The second result of the demise of the big bands was that many other musicians organized small combos and began playing “jump blues,” the precursor to rock and roll, most famously practiced by Louis Jordan. The end of World War II brought young Americans home, more money into the economy, and a burgeoning music scene. At the same time that jazz was changing, the post war era saw major developments in blues, country, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, gospel and many other types of music. Jazz was no longer the popular music of the day, but that didn’t stop it. Independent labels signed new jazz musicians, as did the majors. Blue Note, Prestige, Savoy, King, Dial, Clef (later Verve), Capitol, Riverside, and Atlantic all released bebop, hard bop, and cool jazz. Even now the reissues of these labels fill the bins of those record stores that still sell jazz.

There is a startling array of material that would take a lifetime to listen to at Amoeba Records on the west coast and the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago as well as ambitions reissue programs by all sorts of labels both in the US and abroad. Newer jazz figures such as Wes Montgomery, Errol Garner, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon and others gained new fans, stretching styles and techniques. Nearly everyone has their favorite from this period. Cataloging the jazz musicians of the post-war era is a monumental task. With the advent of the LP, music could be sold in larger amounts: roughly 23 minutes per side. Fans had more money and although jazz was no longer the popular music it once was, jazz LPs sold well.

The new jazz being played in the wake of the war created the greatest period of tension between those fans believing only swing and traditional jazz were real jazz and those who promoted the new genres. Modern jazz proponents found the old jazz dated. So began the argument over who was ruining jazz and who was playing the real thing. The supporters of modern jazz called the old fans “moldy figs” and waged war in the music press. It seems ridiculous now, but it was not that different from the conflict that developed between the punks and the dinosaur rockers such as Rod Stewart in the 1970s.

And what fun it was. The conflict was on and the new waves of music just kept on coming. But the mid-50s and the explosion of rock and roll and other types of popular music eclipsed jazz further. Veterans such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington still found work, but times were tough. Some of the older musicians, even such swing figures as Coleman Hawkins, embraced the new music and had successful careers into their old ages. No longer burdened with having to make records to fulfill fan expectations or the hit parade, jazz exploded into a million little pieces. Jazz became art music, eschewing vocals for the most part and stretching out in long improvisations. The LP gave jazz artists the ability to record improvisations in any form they wished.

Moldy figs indeed! If the disagreements between the traditional and swing fans, or the mainstream and be-bop weren’t crazy enough, the advent of the avant-guard broke things wide open. Ornette Coleman discovered playing just off key on a plastic alto sax brought unlimited derision from both critics and fans, while Cecil Taylor clawed off huge hunks of keys in tone clusters, and Sun Ra imagined he was born on Saturn and refigured the big band with electronic keyboards and free blowing horn sections. By the 1960s, a whole generation of jazz musicians followed their muses to the very outer realms.

Many musicians found a home on Coltrane’s label, Impulse, a subsidiary of ABC-Paramount Records. Groups of musicians such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) looked to each other for support. Forty years on, the records on Impulse, and those made by the AACM and their associates, still sound revolutionary. Newer collectives such as the white musicians of the Chicago Improvisers group have taken up the ideas and methods of the AACM and in recent even cooperated with the AACM musicians in joint projects.

The 1970s brought other directions; the moody and atmospheric sounds of the ECM artists, particularly the very popular improviser Keith Jarrett, and the fusion artists (taking their cue from Miles’ rock and electronic experimentation) such as Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Moving into the 80s, traditional jazz wasn’t lurking too far away, with Wynton Marsalis leading the charge backwards. A new generation got to argue about who were the moldy figs this time. One hundred years on, sales of jazz recordings have fallen off badly. Massive reissue projects in the 70s and 80s renewed interest in the recordings of earlier times and occasional box sets of CDs still light up the shelves occasionally. There is still a healthy jazz scene, and now musicians can learn in prestigious music schools what they used to learn in the brothels, speakeasies, and night clubs of earlier generations. But clearly the myriad of jazz styles and artists will never be the cultural force it once was. Other types of music feed freely from the carcass of jazz, breeding innovations to other genres of music that have become a bit moldy and stale.

No matter what the future is for jazz and its various nooks and crannies, one thing is for sure: music fans tiring of the flash and limitations of rock can always turn to jazz for some new ideas and more sophisticated sounds, eventually coming to the same conclusion that most of the rest of the world came to a long time ago; jazz is one of the most important art forms to have come from the United States.

And while the major figures of jazz are now mostly long gone, their legacies loom large over all forms of music made now and in the future. So while critics and fans will continually argue about what real jazz is, the names and work of those artists will live long into the future. Pick one and go deep into their catalogues. Just the albums released by Miles Davis or John Coltrane will set you back plenty, but pile on Mingus, Monk, Rollins, and Hancock, or Ellington, Basie, Evans and Parker and it is a nearly an impossible task. Check out a few and go from there.

And now, as promised, a list of I think are important for all starting jazz fans to hear…

1. The aforementioned 1923 King Oliver Creole Jazz Band sides have recently been reissued as a whole by Archeophone Records, but they also have come out in various configurations over the years. This is the first important body of work in jazz. You have to use your imagination when listening to these records, but you will be rewarded many times over by filling in the blanks. The Archeophone folks working with Of the Record have produced the definitive and best sounding version as well as the complete sessions from several record companies.

2. Louis Armstrong – The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. These are packaged in several different ways one by Columbia itself and the other by JSP, Apparently the JSP version sounds better and is cheaper. These sets include both to the earlier Hot Fives and the later Hot Sevens with Earl Hines (“West End Blues” and “Weather Bird” are essential early jazz sides), which can be bought separately. Truly the corner stone of modern American music.

3. Selections of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers are not only fun, but extraordinarily fresh. A version of the Chicago sessions seems to be a good place to start. But JSP has put out a more comprehensive five disk set. Check out the Library of Congress recordings from your local library for Morton’s incredible stories and piano playing.

4. Another precursor to the live fast and die rock philosophy was Bix Biederbecke, the first important white jazz musician. Some imagination is needed for his work as well, but his charismatic and somewhat self destructive personality comes through. Bix recorded with several groups, making it hard to pick one album, but again JSP has packaged the sessions with Frankie Trumbauer in an inexpensive set. (The first actual jazz records were put out by the white group The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, but I don’t necessarily recommend them.) There are many compilations of Bix’s work, from early loose local outfits to Paul Whiteman’s overly arranged orchestra.

5. If you dislike the idea of big bands, check out Fletcher Henderson, Bennie Moten, Chick Webb (with the young Ella Fitzgerald), or Artie Shaw’s Bluebird (RCA Victor) sides. Billie Holiday’s recordings on Columbia include members of the Basie Band such as Lester Young and many important sidemen of the 30s and 40s.

6. No one can be said to be informed about 20th century popular music without some familiarity with the work of Duke Ellington. From the early “jungle music” to the smoother swing music of the 30s or the sophisticated and longer forms of the 40s through 60s, drink deeply of Duke. Of particular interest is the Webster/Blanton band of the late 30s and early 40s, which are often packaged together. The duets with Duke and Jimmy Blanton on bass are particularly important. Over nearly 50 years Duke was the man.

7. Count Basie’s Decca sides are not to me missed. They are packaged together on LP or CD and are a highlight of 20th century music. Listening to them is a joy at any time (and you can dance to them also.) Using mostly “head arrangements” these sides swing like mad. A product of the open Kansas City music scene, much of this music is a precursor in feel if not structure to rock and roll. (As are Lionel Hampton’s early bands.) There is just something about the way these records sound that is irresistible, organic, and just plain hip. (And led Lenny Bruce to call Basie “Jewish” in his famous bit.)

8. If nothing up to this point seems interesting, a must have are either the Savoy or Dial sides or both from Charlie Parker. A few years ago these recordings were reissued together along with some other material in a large and expensive (but cheesy) boxed set. The Dial material was released on Warner Brothers about 25 years ago on LP, but it is also available on CD as well. These recordings are some of the most important in music history, with all sorts of important musicians of the 40s and 50s playing with Bird. The Verve sides are not as important, but have their partisans. Dizzy Gillespie’s early work, particularly on RCA are good as well but are not as important as his work with Bird on the aforementioned material. The bonus on some of the Bird sessions is a teenage Miles trying to keep up and doing so much of the time (although not all of the time.). To say that there are a lot of recordings of Bird is an understatement. Parker was venerated and performed was just at the beginning of the era when tape was used so there are all sorts of live recordings available in addition to the studio work. Some are exciting beyond belief (I am partial to the Royal Roost recordings), but others are difficult to listen to, due to the limitations of technology at the time.

9. Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard sessions are sublime. They have been issued as individually collated albums (such as Waltz for Debby), but have recently been collected as a whole. Evans was perhaps the most important pianist of the post war era. I am partial to his material on Riverside, but there is some excellent material on Verve as well and probably other labels. His album with Tony Bennett is pretty cool if you like that type of stuff. Corner any jazz pianist some evening and ask them about Bill Evans and you may not be able to get away.

10. Thelonious Monk’s early sides on Blue Note. These have also been issued many times over the years, but have recently been reissued in their entirety. Getting hooked on Monk can be fatal. Monk’s voluminous output on both Riverside and later Columbia is definitely worth delving into. Monk had a very long recording history before going into semi-retirement. By contrast to Bill Evans, Monk may be the most important composer of the post-war era. Jazz musicians rarely miss an opportunity to play one of his compositions. The documentary on him called “Straight, No Chaser” is excellent and disturbing. (If you think Roky Ericson and Daniel Johnston are strange, they have nothing on Monk.)

11. Clifford Brown could have been the most important trumpet player of the hard-bop movement, but was killed in an auto accident in his twenties. His sides with the quintet that included Max Roach and Richie Powell are particularly good. Despite his short life, he put out great recordings, both as a leader and a sideman.

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13. Both Charles Mingus’ and Ornette Coleman’s material on Atlantic are important and both are reissued in their entirety as fancy box sets and both are worth the money (although try and find them used.) Both broke new ground in composition and technique. Both Mingus and Ornette (one’s nickname is his last name and the other is his first.) are fairly well known by rock fans also. Much of both of their music is not for the faint of heart. For smaller doses of Mingus’ check out Blues and Roots on Atlantic or Mingus Ah Um on Columbia. For smaller doses of Ornette try The Shape of Jazz to Come on Atlantic or Science Fiction on Columbia.

14. The Art Ensemble of Chicago released tons of albums, but Nice Guys on ECM, though late in their career, is a good place to start. The Art Ensemble had to go to Paris to find some kind of recognition and recorded dozens of albums on small labels for years, before ending up on the relatively well know ECM. Unfortunately some of their recordings are out of print. Sadly the passing of Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors put an end to the original line-up of his ground breaking avant-guard collective, but founding member Roscoe Mitchell will always be remembered as one of the true innovators and avant fan favorite. His solo Sound was the first AACM recording released, but not for the faint of heart.

15. Good god y’all, I forgot a ton of important people and someone will undoubtedly point it out, so let’s start naming people everyone you should know a thing about. I may or may not have yet mentioned Sonny Rollins, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Dave Brubeck, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Lennie Tristano, Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron, Sarah Vaughn, Django Reinhart, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Stan Getz, Errol Garner, Roy Eldridge, Oliver Nelson, Bud Powell, and everyone who ever recorded on Blue Note (this includes the recently rediscovered and recently deceased Andrew Hill.).

16. The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz is a great compilation; which I know is a total cop-out, but I own three copies. It is the best collection of recorded jazz history going. There are two versions on LP and one contained on five CDs; all three have slightly different configurations, but basically it is the same material. The liner notes and associated music suggestions are very useful. Much of what is discussed in this article and list are included in it. I was given it when I first started learning about jazz and the one over-riding suggestion is if you don’t like something, try something else, but come back to the old stuff on occasion. Unaccountably this set is out of print on CD (and going for big bucks used), but used copies of the LP versions seem readily and cheaply available at the auction sites. (And the three copies? One was given to me by my parents, one by my brother-in-law who got an extra somehow, and the third was a 50th birthday present from some friends.)

Every fig can get a bit moldy on occasion, and despite somewhat hard times, jazz continues to inspire and interest music listeners of all sorts. It isn’t necessary to like jazz or even listen to it all that often, but no true music fan can dismiss it without giving it a fair listen. So that’s it. Let the discussion begin. Any questions from the assembled?

Editor’s note: Mr. Berkman initially refused to even succumb to the idea of the above, 16-point extended “list.” We had to prod and threaten to get him to provide us with that. Unfortunately, the original list does not meet our editorial definition of essentiality. Can any newcomer really be expected to purchase a couple dozen comprehensive box sets — half of them out of print! — just to get a taste of a new genre? So we leaned back in on Mr. Berkman. Arms were twisted, threats were made, boards were watered. Jazz fans are stubborn motherfuckers, I can tell you that. Eventually, against his will and against his better judgment, he narrowed it down to focus on a list of twenty essential recordings that are (mostly) currently in print so readers can actually purchase them. And even now, you’ll notice a lot of titles with the word “Complete” in them. Apparently, there’s only so much you can ask of a jazz man…

20 Essential Jazz Albums for Rock Fans

Unlike the extended list, this one boils things down to mostly single CDs or small compilations. In some cases the material is also available in other configurations. Also this list is predicated on the thought that most people already own Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. If you don’t have those two, buy them right now. Both men’s careers are studded with classic and interesting music, which includes for Miles Complete Birth of the Cool, the Prestige Recordings, numerous LPs on Columbia including Sketches of Spain, Files De Kilimanjaro, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and many others. Likewise there are several directions to go with Coltrane, including his recordings on Prestige (many as a sideman), the wonderful Atlantic recordings including Giant Steps and My Favorite Things, nearly all the Impulse studio recordings and a good portion of the live ones including the many done at the Village Vanguard, and finally the later Impulse recordings that are more avant-guard including Ascension . All fans have their favorites among what are hundreds of albums available by both these giants. -L.B.

1. King Oliver – Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Archeophone, $30.49, 2CD)

2. Louis Armstrong – 25 Greatest Hot Fives & Sevens ($11.98)

3. Jelly Roll Morton – Birth of the Hot: The Classic Chicago “Red Hot Peppers” Sessions 1926-27 (RCA, $11.98)

4. Bix Biederbecke – Volume 1: Singin’ the Blues (Columbia, $6.97)

5. Artie Shaw – Personal Best: The Bluebird / Victor Years (1938-45) (out of print, available used from $9.12)

6. Billie Holiday – Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday (Columbia, $15.97, 2CD)

7. Duke Ellington – The Best Of The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition (RCA, $11.98)

8. Count Basie – The Complete Decca Recordings ($18.99, 3CD)

9. Charlie Parker – Best of The Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings ($11.97)

10. Bill Evans – The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 ($14.99, 3CD)

11. Thelonious Monk – The Complete Blue Note Recordings ($55.98, 4CD)

12. Clifford Brown & Max Roach ($14.99)

13. Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, $8.97)

14. Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, $8.97)

15. Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch (Blue Note, $7.97)

16. Charlie Christian – Genius of the Electric Guitar (import, $15.99)

17. Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus ($10.99)

18. Andrew Hill – Point of Departure (Blue Note, $7.97)

19. Django Reinhart – Hot Club of France ($16.98)

20. Albert Ayler – Live In Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings ($19.98, 2CD)

24 thoughts on “A History of Jazz for Rock Fans”

  1. I can’t believe you didn’t recommend Benny Goodman or Harry James on your top ten! That hurts.

    Really great article. You were so thorough and all the info is helpful. Nice work!

  2. Nice list, good recommendations.

    Be careful, tho – jazz can suck you in. If you think there’s too much essential rock to ever listen to, that’s only about a third of the essential jazz…

  3. Benny Goodman? Harry James? This is only my opinion so there you go. I figure that Artie Shaw is a pretty good (the best) representative of white swing music for those that don’t know much.

    Benny Goodman’s title of the King of Swing earned him a bit of derision over the years. There is nothing wrong with him (I have many of his records, particuarly the Carnegie Hall concert material of 1938 could qualify for essential status, but then again look who else is on it – Count Basie and his band, which swings the hell out of just about everything anyway.

    I still stand with the Basie Decca recordings being some of the greatest records ever made and far better than anything Goodman ever thought about.


  4. I agree with you about Basie. I was messing with you about Goodman. I have an affinity for Goodman because he was my very first introduction to swing. I hold him responsible for taking me down that path. I liked Harry James because he went off on his own (after working with Goodman)to tackle creating an orchestra. He had a similar sound to Goodman I had become familiar with. A mixed disc with those two on it just always did it for me. Basie was fast. Soooo good. Like Holy Shit fast!

  5. Yea I sort of figured!! The long term rap on Goodman, both as a band leader and the his claim to fame (considering it was Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements that helped bring him said fame) has been called into question. What is not in question is his promostion of inter-racial bands, particulary his hiring of Charlie Christian and Teddy Wilson for the small group stuff.

    As I have said in the article, guys like Goodman were too much a part of my parent’s generation for me to appreciate him back in my youth. He was still an active musician at that point (unlike Artie Shaw) and I just didn’t dig him. But now I know he came up through Jane Addams Hull House and the near west side of Chicago and for that alone he certainly deserves some props.

  6. Basie may have had the better rhythm section, but anyone who listens to Goodman’s trio and quartet recordings with Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Gene Krupa and remains unmoved does so for ideological reasons, not musical reasons. Check out “Avalon: The Small Bands, Volume 2 (1937-39)” for 22 tracks of masterful, sinewy improvisation that swings as hard as anything this side of Count and Duke.

    Word, LD

  7. “Check out “Avalon: The Small Bands, Volume 2 (1937-39)” for 22 tracks of masterful, sinewy improvisation that swings as hard as anything this side of Count and Duke.”

    Is that your original quote? I haven’t heard/checked out that volume but, regardless, you should really be in print media advertising.

    Seriously, that description got me a little excited.

  8. Heh heh. Thanks. Yep, all my original brainwavery. It really is a great disc, though. If you like the swing era, it’s a must-own.

  9. I totally agree about the Goodman small group recordings. But mostly they are great because Goodman’s sidemen are so terrific.

    I think I mention in the article the big band recordings of Lionel Hampton are certainly worth exporing as well and are the spiritual precursors to rock and roll.

  10. Hamp’s 1940s recordings swing hard and heavy and point right to rock ‘n’ roll for sure. Great stuff. Hearing a young Dinah Washington with the Hampton Orchestra is as good as it gets.

    Good article. Even the most challenging recommendations … i.e. Art Ensemble … are still pretty accessible. Mingus and Bill Evans are sometimes overlooked, so it was good to see them. Blanton-Webster Band is spot-on, that should be required listening for all Americans. I swear it has healing properties.

  11. Thanks Lou & LD. I’m going to dig out my old swing CD’s. It’s been a few years since I paid them some attention.

    I’m also going to look into Artie Shaw (never heard of him) and Goodman’s “Avalon” disc.

  12. Nicely done. I learned from this. I have a few jazz albums, but it’s a genre that I’m too scared to dive headlong into. I struggle keeping up with rock and I don’t think I’d be able to support another genre at the moment. With that being said, I was drawn to A Love Supreme after hearing The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” was based off of Coltrane’s work. Another album that I’ve contemplated is Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. Any thoughts on that one?

  13. Regarding Ornette’s Free Jazz, I would say if you haven’t heard him before start with the recordings with Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden, such as The Shape of Jazz to Come and some of the other albums by the quartet. Free Jazz is a double quartet (each playing on one channel) and they are blowing quite free. This album is a tour de force for sure, but a force to be reckoned with only after you understand where Ornette is coming from, otherwise it will sound like noise. If you like noise however, it doesn’t get much better than this…

    Assention by John Coltrane is also one of the great ensemble free jazz albums.

  14. Very interesting article, very well-written! I learned a lot. It truly got me excited about jazz, and made me want to expand my collection.

    Looking forward to seeing more of your writing on this site!

  15. All appropriate choices. A great list given parameters of 20. Would’ve liked to see a nod to Oliver Nelson, Freddie Hubbard, Lester Young, Stan Getz…the list goes on and on, but again, parameters. FWIW – I still prefer “In A Silent Way” to BB…but that’s me.

  16. The original request was for a Top Ten! Ha ha.

    Also, I just read that Folkways is currently “working on a newly revised edition of the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz to be available in 2008.” So it looks like Lou’s going to need a fourth copy next year!

  17. I perfer both In A Silent Way and Jack Johnson to Bitches Brew, but Brew is certainly more famous, not only for who is on it, but for being thre “first” fusion album. I was listening to WNUR yesterday and I swore they played in a Silent Way, but it was someone doing their best inmpression of it from this year, so it is a pretty influential peice of work.

    One more version…yikes…I somehow don’t think I need another revision, but I was shocked that the CD version was already out of print and getting big bucks used.

  18. Fantastic job on the list!

    There are also some very nice collections out there, such as The Ultimate Jazz Archive and the Franklin Mint series (which I don’t think is on CD but is online). However, I would go with this list for rock fan starters.

    Jazz fusion may be my least favorite genre of music (that, or light contemporary jazz) with the massive exception being Bitches Brew, or its even more rocked-out, crazy counterpart, Agharta, both of which make you crazy to wonder what might have happened had Miles and Jimi wound up doing projects together.

  19. The Franklin Mint sets (I only have a couple of them on LP, red vinyl at that) are pretty cool too. I had no idea they were online.

    I like fusion well enough, particularly compared to light jazz (not ECM which I do like), but it has certainly fallen into disrepute in recent years, but there is still plenty to recommend it.

    Agharta was (I believe) a deal breaker for Miles on Columbia; he went into another self imposed retirement after that and then re-emerged on Warner Brothers, where he apparently couldn’t record his own compositions. I find much of the Warner catelogue less than exciting myself (at least after Tutu), but I did see him shortly before he died and his groups were interesting, but very rock oriented at that point.

    I mention the Stanley Crouch article in my article and despite his savaging of Miles later career (which one one level is pretty entertaining anyway) it does a nice job of summing Miles up.

    I have to admit I have not really figured out what got changed in my article, but as the publisher Jake has the right to change stuff I suppose. The original title however was “A short opinionated history of jazz for rock fans”.

  20. You can’t go wrong with this short list:

    Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue

    Charles Mingus – Ah Um

    John Coltrane – Blue Train

    Thelonious Monk – Straight No Chaser

    Ellington, Mingus, Roach – Money Jungle

    And of course, anything by Duke Ellington.

  21. I may be the only person in the world that thinks Money Jungle is over-rated. It isn’t that the personnel isn’t great, it is just that none of them sounds very inspired much of the time and Ellington and Mingus never did get along. All three of them have more to offer on other disks and not necessarily together.

  22. My very astute brother in law Jack (who gave me one of the copies of the Smithsonian collection) noticed that I misspelled Bennie Moten’s name (it isn’t Bernie.)

    Gee no one going to jump on me about Money Jungle? I plan to listen to it today.

  23. Johnny “Little Giant” Griffith, one of the last great Chicago tenormen died this weekend. Sadly one more of the great jazz musicians and a link to the legendary Captain Walter Dyett of DuSable High School as joined so many in jazz heaven. See these guys while you still can, there aren’t many left.


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