Jazz up Your Collection | Music Matters, June 1, 2015

Jazz is tied with classical as the least popular genres consumed by adults in the United States, accounting for just 1.4 percent of total consumption in all formats, according to Nielsen’s 2014 year-end report.

Here’s the thing, though: jazz is one of the only quintessentially American art forms, and it’s important. Every music collection in American libraries should contain a solid representation of the genre, and those working with these collections should be familiar enough with the music’s various forms to make informed recommendations. Below is a list of some of the best jazz albums out there—the list isn’t meant to encompass all of jazz or even to include the best jazz albums ever, but it’s a good place to start.ellingtonatnewport6515

Miles Davis. Kind of Blue. Columbia Records.

Begin here. Not only because it’s arguably the most important American record of any genre, or because trumpeter Davis’s band consists of some of the biggest names in jazz (John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb), but because it’s so enjoyable. Kind of Blue is the perfect introduction to jazz; it also happens to be a masterpiece.

Dave Brubeck Quartet. Time Out. Columbia Records.

If all your copies of Kind of Blue are checked out, this is another great place to start. The iconic cut “Take Five” (you’ll recognize it) is just about the most joyful music there is. Brubeck also pushed rhythmic boundaries on this album; the title of “Take Five” refers to the song’s unusual 5/4 time signature.

John Coltrane. Live at Birdland. MCA Records.

Most jazz aficionados cite Giant Steps, Blue Trane, or A Love Supreme as the definitive ’Trane album, but I have a soft spot for this one. It was the first jazz record I fell in love with as a teenager. His extended tenor saxophone solo at the end of “I Want To Talk About You” is the stuff of legend. The album is wild and unpredictable at times but also deeply melodic, serving as a powerful introduction to one of the form’s boldest innovators.

Louis Armstrong. The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings. Columbia Records.

Sure jazz existed before him, but it was Satchmo’s joyful trumpet playing and distinctive voice that elevated it to a sophisticated art form. This four-disc box set is essential for every library.

Duke Ellington. At Newport 1956 (Complete). Columbia Legacy.

As a composer, bandleader, performer, arranger, and all-around entertainer, Ellington is it. At Newport 1956 is a wonderful introduction to his music, including a swelling rendition of his orchestra’s signature tune, Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Billie Holiday. Lady In Satin. Columbia Records.

Just listen to “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and you’ll get a sense of the tragic beauty Holiday channeled through her singing.

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong. Ella & Louis. Verve Records.

The standard by which all duet vocal albums are measured.

Hank Mobley. Soul Station. Blue Note Records.

You won’t see this one on many lists of jazz essentials, but it’s one of my favorites. ­Mobley may not have been an innovator on the saxophone, but he had a wonderful tone and a good sense of melody.

Charles Mingus. Ah Um. Columbia Records.

As a composer, Mingus picked up where Ellington left off, reconciling jazz with modern classical music. As a performer and improviser he brought the double bass out from the rhythm section and demonstrated that it could be a lead instrument. Although Black Saint and the Lady Sinner is his masterpiece, Ah Um is his most accessible, with memorable cuts such as the sorrowful “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”

Sun Ra. Space Is the Place. Blue Thumb Records.

If you don’t know about Sun Ra, do yourself a favor and look him up on YouTube. He routinely donned futuristic Egyptian-inspired garb, spoke in rambling esoteric monologs, and claimed to have come from Saturn. His music, likewise, was out of this world.

Miles Davis. Bitches Brew. Columbia Records.

Davis had a habit of utterly transforming music. He did it with Kind of Blue in 1959 and again in 1970 with this album. Instead of the cool vibe listeners had come to expect, this mind-expanding assault defined what later came to be called “fusion” for its mixture of jazz and rock. Almost half a century later it still sounds like it came from another planet.

Herbie Hancock. Head Hunters. Columbia Records.

One of the grooviest, funkiest, and best-selling jazz albums of all time. Hancock’s synthesizer riffs were immediately iconic and have been sampled by dozens of artists, including 2Pac and Beck.

Keith Jarrett. The Köln Concert. ECM Records.

A prolonged burst of solo improvised piano on stage in Germany in 1975. Just sit back and let it wash over you.

Robert Glasper Experiment. Black Radio 1 and 2. Blue Note Records.

Blurring lines between jazz, R & B, and hip-hop, pianist Glasper collaborates with artists such as Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, and Jill Scott for a thoroughly contemporary take on what jazz is or can be. For listeners coming from a background of rap or R & B, this is a solid entry point.


Steve Kemple is a Music Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

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  1. Vitaliy says:

    Though I live 10 000 miles away in Ukraine, I’ve been collecting jazz stuff for 30+ years now. Whenever I find a decent record, CD or a book, I buy it. I fully agree with the Author. Jazz is America, with all those bitter and sad stories in the music and lives of great performers Steve mentioned.

    One point while listening to them is understanding the context, not only musical, but cultural. I still haven’t found any book or source of info to tell me the whole story: jazz impact on society and vice versa.

    Any advice?