It's really difficult to be a casual fan of Jazz. It's such a complex world, such a long deep and endearing history, that for those who don't play the music or who don't listen to it exclusively it's easy to feel uneducated and intimidated by the neverending wellspring of it. It's a daunting task to go about discovering the music and how it might fit into your personal taste and listening habits. Most don't even try. But believe me, it's well worth incorporating jazz into your musical vocabulary, and not just so that you can seem more cultured. Its influence and presence cannot be understated in the western world. Its history as a major recognizable genre in western music is predated only by blues and classical, and arguably ragtime which I would qualify as more of a niche than a genre. It's been around for about as long as recorded music itself, and from the 1930s through the 1960s the market for this music and the pioneers responsible for its evolution were as big as any style of music. Of course as the 20th century rolled along the landscape of jazz changed dramatically, in tandem with dramatic changes in culture, public demand, and the way music was listened to and appreciated on a broad scale. For simplicity and dignity's sake, this writeup will mostly concern itself with the era of jazz known as be-bop. If big band has a bigger appeal to you, well there's a slightly more shallow pool of music to pull from and you likely don't need my help in finding it. If you're more interested in "smooth jazz" well frankly I can't help you. But for those open-minded music lovers who've always wanted to make a sincere commitment to finding jazz music they can enjoy and appreciate, I've put together a nice starter pack of 10 common yet essential albums that might serve as a gateway towards a newfound love. In alphabetical order by artist, let's get to it:


John Coltrane - Blue Train (1958)

One of the undeniable gods of Jazz and one of the most revolutionary minds in all of music history, the rabbit hole of John Coltrane's discography runs very very deep. For as many "important" records as Coltrane produced in terms of music theory and jazz theory, "Blue Train" stands as one of his most successful and accessible records. It can also be considered one of his more traditional records relative to the era of hard bop and the virtuosos he was constantly surounded by, but that does not make it a simple record by any means. Aside from the Jazz standard "I'm Old Fashioned" all the tracks on the record are original compositions of Coltrane's. Structurally it almost takes on the concept of a blues record, but just performed by a bunch of dressed up no-nonsense jazz nerds. The album has genuine swing to it compared to Coltrane's more complex records, it's cooler than a polar bear's toenails, and it's memorable beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable.

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (1959)

Drummer Jimmy Cobb famously said this album "must have been made in heaven" and damned if it wasn't. Its legacy as one of the most recognizable and iconic albums of all time from any genre is undeniable. The pre-existing literature on this album is practically endless, and for its reputation I hardly think it needs much of a ringing endorsement from me. But suffice it to say: if you're wanting to get into jazz, this record is absolutely unskippable. These 5 compositions have gone down in history as some of the most globally celebrated pieces of music ever made, and for a record that is about to turn 63 years old it still feels like an utter revelation, a throwing back of the curtain to give us a glimpse of Jazz at its highest potential. And it might not even be Miles' greatest work. But regardless, this is where you start.

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra - At Newport 1956 (1956/1999)

One of the only men who achieved a high level of commercial success throughout several different eras of jazz, the universally respected bandleader Duke Ellington loved to tell people that he was born at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. And this performance stands as one of the most perfect, multi-faceted, beautiful jazz concerts ever recorded. His band was firing on all cylinders this night, to say the least. The vibe and energy of the crowd was palpable, creating a positive feedback loop with the musicians that just kept snowballing as the show went on. The piece at the end of the first set "Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue" stands as one of the most exciting rip roaring barn burning songs I've ever heard. I mean they really tore the house down, and they were outside. The aforementioned track was the final track on the abbreviated original 1956 release. In 1999 the concert was remastered and released in its entirety, including so many excellent performances that weren't included on the original release. The complete concert has a playtime of over 2 hours, making it seem a bit daunting, and I won't pretend like every track is worth equal admiration. But if you're patient enough you'll find a lot of excellent performances covering many different ideas and traditions within jazz, headed by one of its true masters in Duke.

Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz - Diz and Getz (1954)

A classic that doesn't always get the attention it deserves. Some collaborations within jazz work better than others, and the chemistry between Gillespie and Getz is immediately apparent here. This is not a short record by any means but it really moves along at a pretty blistering pace, particularly the first 2 Ellington tracks. No expense was spared to make this record, which included an all star rhythm section of Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and the great Max Roach. I can't say I've always been the biggest Gillespie fan but I've always had a deep respect for him, and if you're more the type to want to listen to something "hot" rather than something "cool" then this record might be for you. Strap yourself in because this record positively flies.

Dexter Gordon - Our Man In Paris (1963)

It'd be easy enough to point you in the direction of the 1991 compilation album "Ballads" as an introduction to the great Dexter Gordon. But while that collection shows how excellent his tender and beautiful work could be, I see Gordon as a real purist of the genre. He might not have the same name value as many other artists on this list, but believe me - every jazz head respects Dexter Gordon. Perhaps most famous for portraying the archetypal tortured jazz artist in the wonderful film "Round Midnight" he was as legitimate of a leader as you'll find. The story behind "Our Man in Paris" is that the original intention was to record original compositions for this record. But when the amazing musician and difficult human Bud Powell was brought in to play piano for the record, he was not interested in playing original music. So they put together a collection of 5 jazz standards and somewhat accidentally created a masterpiece. This album represents a true understanding of the basics, the playing on this record is so meticulous and solid. For all the hundreds of thousands of renditions of "A Night in Tunisia" that exist in the world, this recording of it has to stand as my all time favorite.

Charles Mingus - Blues & Roots (1960)

My personal favorite jazz musician of all time, there is only one Mingus. He is such a curious blend of intellectualism and soul, a temperamental figure and a perfectionist, and a genius. Blues & Roots as the title would suggest is one of his most down to earth records. It's momentous, kinetic, basic, fun. But that's not to say that he takes shortcuts or dumbs things down, no no never. There is no fluff in Mingus' discography. But it makes sense to start with the record that very well represents his spiritual upbringing and his devotion to the vernacular music of the U.S. while also being immenently groovable. The record also gives listeners the opportunity to learn and understand the difference in how to listen to a record mixed with mono audio, if they wish. There's nothing wrong with the studio mix either. This record has so much life it'll make you want to grab your dancing shoes run to Harlem and find a church.

Thelonious Monk - Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (1955)

I could've spun a wheel to pick a Monk album to include here, because they're all great and they're all mind benders in their own way. But I figure before I lead someone to a record like "Underground" or even "Brilliant Corners" that it'd be sensible to start with one of his more tame records which gives tribute to a legend. "Solo Monk" is also a fine starting point, though it tends to be a bit more angular and I feel like its bareness works against it to some extent. Thelonious Plays Duke is a reverent and loving collection of interpretations of the Duke, although it is also kind of angular and progressive in its own way, it doesn't stray too far and it lacks the abrasion that makes so much of Monk's music more difficult and celebrated by jazz heads. I'd say overall this is a great way to ease your way into the life of this mad scientist of a man, which I say with all affection.

The Quintet - Jazz At Massey Hall (1953)

Oh my god this lineup. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the last time the two would work together. Backed by Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. The only time these 5 would record together as a collective. Wow. A musical dream and a psychological nightmare. The making of this concert/record is filled with anecdotes: Bird played on a borrowed plastic saxophone and could not be credited on the album by his given name. The group barely rehearsed as a quintet, and played to a half-filled house despite the fact that it was truly a once in a lifetime alignment of talent because one of the biggest best and most famous heavyweight boxing title fights of all time happened to occur in the same city on the same night. Because of this, the Toronto New Jazz Society were unable to pay the musicians their fees. The relatively empty venue might have served us well some 70 years later, as the recording quality is exceptionally high by the standards of 1953 considering it was taped from a live concert. Mingus was unsatisfied with some of his lines and solos and would re-record them later ahead of the album being released on his label, but the original recording is still mostly intact. The setlist is legendary. The playing is uncompromising despite the fact that the group and its personalities were so unstable. This record is truly a fucking anomaly, and one of the strangest intersection of coincidences in the genre's history. And it happens to be a thrill of a ride.

Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus (1956)

Sonny Rollins is the man. One of the most electric saxophonists ever, he can set a blistering pace then turn right around and hit you with a ballad. While his thoroughly satisfying "A Night at the Village Vanguard" record might be the most complete portrait of the man's brilliance, Saxophone Collosus is his most instantly recognizable and most universally appreciated. 3 of the album's 5 tracks are compositionally credited to Rollins, and famously much of this music was improvised and spontaneous. It really does swing, but the way these songs and particularly the solos develop also come full of formula-breaking unexpected moments, giving the album a freshness and maturity uncharacteristic of an artist who was really just breaking through into the mainstream.

Lester Young - Lester Young With the Oscar Peterson Trio (1954)

I couldn't leave out Pres. Lester Young is one of the most admired forerunners of the tenor saxophone and of jazz in general, one of the leaders who transitioned the entire world of jazz towards the atonality and weird chords that would make up the wonderful world of bop. His recordings with the Oscar Peterson Trio (released under a few different titles and monikers) will forever be recognized as one of the most romantic and gorgeous jazz records of all time. This thing is absolutely dripping with sentimentality, but not to the extent that it would undermine Young's penchant for thinking outside the box. This record came at a time when Young's legacy and place in the world of music was well-established. The titans of bop had already taken notice, and they would take his baton and run with it in the coming years. He had nothing to prove here, just wanted to play in front of a strong trio of musicians to craft a beautiful record, and that he did.


There you have it. One detail alluded in the title but not the introduction is that I am by no stretch of the imagination an authority on Jazz music. I suffer from many of the same struggles which I'm trying to address - I'm intimidated by the culture of jazz and by how much there is to know. But I'm also passionate and I want to learn and I want to share, so I hope this can lead some music listeners into a positive direction, and I'll try to answer any followup questions or give further recommendations to the best of my ability. But my conclusion is this: Jazz is a wonderful world. It's not so bad. It's not so confusing. It's not so over your head, even if you can't appreciate every compositional nuance, most people can't do so with The Beatles either. So it's best to just allow it to enhance and improve your life in the ways that it can, just like any art form. I've chosen to open my mind to it and I hope you can try to do the same.

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