Everybody loves jazz. It's just that nobody listens to it.
For months—okay, years—I've been threatening to write an "Introduction to Jazz" post. This is a little worse than quixotic: I'm not a musician, not a music critic, certainly not any kind of an expert on any kind of music. I'm a member of "Generation Jones" (Google it—post or very late Baby Boom generation) who grew up with what's now called "Classic Rock" in the air. My brother Scott turned me on to jazz in the late '80s—dragged me along rather unwillingly at first—and I've been getting more and more into it ever since—especially over the last four or five years, during which time I've been on a "jazz kick" that doesn't seem to want to end.
But I'm just a Listener. Capital "L," though. When I was a teenager, courtesy of my father, I took a fascinating three-day battery of aptitude tests at the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation in Washington, D.C. I scored in the 90–95 percentile range on all the musical aptitudes*, which by their reckoning was very high—but, critically, not as high as musicians score. According to them, people who score in the 95–100 percentile range for the musical aptitudes literally must be musicans, or they won't be happy—that is, they have so much musical ability they won't be satisfied in life if they're not putting their musical abilities to use in some way. I was told that I don't quite have the aptitude to succeed in a music-related career, but that I have enough aptitude for music that it would always be a very important part of my life. But I was advised to be an appreciator of music—part of the audience, an active listener. And so I have always been. It was great advice, because they were right. Being a committed listener is just the right situation for me, and I'm happy with where I stand. I don't regret not being a musician. Neither could I imagine my life without music.
This is written for people who don't listen to jazz, but are curious about it, or who would like to try it. And it's just one guy's suggestions, nothing more. There might, however, be a sort of hidden benefit in my lack of expertise: being just an average person makes it easy for me to know what other average people go through when trying to expand their musical horizons. That's my story, anyway, and I think I'll stick with it.
So let's get going here. Deep breath and....
Shallow end first
...No, no need to jump. The only real insight I have for you is my conviction that people who try to get started with jazz tend to start in all the wrong places. When people start getting curious about jazz, they read up on it a little bit, find a list of the "hundred best jazz albums" or something like that, buy a handful of them, attempt to listen to them—and get turned off.
Let's trot out the standard metaphor: when you want to learn how to swim, you don't jump into the deep end with no idea what you're doing. You start at the shallow end.
With jazz, it's a big mistake to start with the great masterpieces. I had a cabbie in New York City once who had been an Olympic cyclist (Bulgaria, 1960), and I've never forgotten one thing he said to me: "You've got to earn the big gears." Every spring, he said, as he got into shape for another summer, he'd spend a month spinning in the little gears before "rewarding" himself with the big ones. Beginners don't get advanced jazz. In jazz terminology, your ears aren't big enough. And you can hardly appreciate how people are breaking the rules and boundaries if you don't know what the rules and boundaries are. Don't start with Ornette Coleman. Don't start with John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." For god's sake, don't start with "Bitches Brew." Don't begin with late Billie Holiday or early Louis Armstrong—the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides were hugely influential, yes, but they were too early to make good listening for the uninitiated. (Conversely, don't think you're listening to a great seminal master of jazz if you're hearing Louis sing "Hello Dolly" or "What a Wonderful World." He spent the second half of his life as a pop singer. Which made his virtual canonization in the Ken Burns' series rather strange to many of us.) And you're unlikely to be able to jump right from Smif-n-Wessun, Lady Gaga, and Nas** to Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and Lester Bowie. You've got to earn Mingus.
'Nuff of that. You get the point. Suffice it to say that you've got to get the jazz feeling first. And it takes a while. (I thought jazz was wrong, at first, and its wrongness almost offended me.) Here are a few recommendations for a serviceable jazz starter kit, some things to get you going and start to get your ears on. These are all excellent records, but they're mainstream, listenable, and—I think—make a much better introduction to the art form than the esoteric masterpieces that the hipsters and savants go apeshit*** over.
1. Harry Edison, The Swinger and Mr. Swing. 1958, on the Verve label. Music to be an adult to. There's nothing extraordinary about this small-group swing record, led by the trumpeter from Count Basie's band. It's sophisticated, assured music, yet it's relaxed and undemonstrative, easy to "get," easy to listen to (yes, I know I'm flirting perilously close to a very loaded term there), and likeable. This is the kind of thing grownups socialized to (and perhaps seduced each other to) before Jack Kennedy was president. Practice listening to the individual lines in these cuts—jazz is all about playing together and also apart, and listening to musicians listen to each other will eventually be one of the pleasures of jazz for you.
A tip: It can be fun to listen once concentrating on the pianist, say, then follow along with the bassist next, then, on the next listen-through, the sax. Take your time getting through any recording—what, you got a trane to catch?
This was a limited-edition Verve reissue, packaged as both records for the price of one with a few extras added on. It's already sold out in CD form, but you can get it on iTunes or eMusic or from Amazon as MP3 downloads.
Coleman Hawkins. I don't know who took the picture.
2. Coleman Hawkins, Prestige Profiles Vol. 4 (compilation). The Hawk is a personal touchstone. He had an enormously long period in the limelight, from Fletcher Henderson's big band in the '20s to his last records which were contemporaneous with The Mothers of Invention. In a sense he "tenorized" jazz, in Joachim Berendt's phrase, because he was not only the first major tenor player, back when the sax was a marching band instrument, but he continued to be a top player until well into the rock and roll era, and he influenced countless musicians and indeed the music itself. His influence was so all-encompassing it's not even traceable any more. He played on what is considered the first bebop record, and he played with everybody, Ellington, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Monk, on and on. He's really the Rembrandt of jazz, in my opinion.
Hawkins' sophisticated way with chords is almost invisible (or un-hearable) to rock listeners at first (what, you need more than three?), which will increase his interest later on. He's curious in that he's easy to listen to superficially but also rewarding to listen to deeply. There are easily two dozen records on which Hawkins appears which are must-haves for any jazz collection, but this best-of is a great introduction. It doesn't hurt that it's a great value, too. The second disc features him playing with various other musicians. Note that the physical CD is cheaper than the iTunes download.
3. Kenny Burrell, Midnight Blue. Blue Note, 1963. If you're anywhere near my generation and/or you listen mostly to rock, this might ease your transition to jazz, because rock is blues-based, and most of these songs are blues; and rock is guitar-based, and Burrell is a guitarist.
I don't know if you'll bite on that. Different vibe. It sounds a little like film music to me (music for Robert Wagner to steal diamonds to? Or Sean Connery to shake martinis to?), and the title track sounds a bit like a J.J. Cale tune that Eric Clapton might have appropriated. Purists might say this choice is cheating, (and it might backfire, because it's not rock) but if you're into the vibe it sure is easy on the ears, smooth like the fur of a pussycat (I actually knew a jazz fan who referred to people as "cats," as in, "that cat can really stroke the hollow-body and make it sing"). Hey, if it helps the cause....
A tip: Jazz is a little disorienting before you get into its idiom. It was for me, way back when. If you find any of this wearing or unamenable at first, try listening to only two or three cuts at a time. Listen to those few cuts several times over several days or a week before moving on to the next two or three .
4. Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Side Up (with Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt). 1957, then and now on Verve. Much of jazz has something that's completely missing in a lot of public art these days—the sense of a few friends just getting together to show off and have fun. A lot of jazz sessions were pretty casual—these were guys who blew all night every weekend in cabarets, and the virtuosos could blow the tunes in their sleep. This fun-from-the-start record (Dizzy sings, just a little, at the end of the first cut, and you'll hear the bebop in his phrases) takes the form of a virtuoso battle or "cutting session," where two or more musicians take turns trying to outdo each other. This isn't Serious music with a capital S (Dizzy—frustratingly at times—seemed almost incapable of being Serious), so some jazz fans turn up their noses at it. But just imagine playing a sax this fast or a trumpet this high up. A fast, exciting and invigorating record that will have you returning to it as a guilty pleasure. Stitt, by the way, was consistently underrated, pegged early on as a Charlie Parker clone, in the same way that Eric Dolphy was underrated in the shadow of John Coltrane.
The newest remastering is (mostly) in stereo, and that's worth seeking out, because it will help you sort out which Sonny is playing when (as soon as you key into it you'll be able to here it in their tone and attacks).
These same guys cut a quite different record called Duets a week earlier.
A side note: I'm resisting the temptation to name all the rest of personnel on these records, but that's part of the fun of jazz—lots of guys played on lots of other guys' records—sometimes the very same groupings from the very same sessions appear under different names, according to who was the "leader"—and it's interesting to follow the people you like as leaders and sidemen from record to record. But that's for later.
5. Kenny Dorham, Quiet Kenny. 1957, originally released on the New Jazz label. Inevitable that these suggestions will follow my own particular taste, which you might not end up sharing. (You can tell my own interest in jazz centers on the second half of the 1950s.) No harm there. I have great affection for this record, here a subdued, introverted bookend for the loud, extroverted Sonny Side Up. When jazz was king, people got a lot of points for being loud and fast and on to the new; but...well, I don't know if you've noticed, but jazz is no longer the prevailing style of popular music. So we can go back and appreciate some of the quiet masterpieces, the things that didn't call attention to themselves at the time, or things by people whose careers or lives were cut short. I'm a big Tina Brooks fan, and I like Wardell Gray. Kenny Dorham was mainly known as a sideman (even though he led several great groups and even composed), but here he led an all-star case on a perfect ballad record, one I'll no doubt be listening to for the rest of my life. As an admired recording this has quietly percolated upward as the years have gone by, and is available in a wide variety of formats: CD, XRCD, standard vinyl, 45-rpm vinyl (the current craze amongst crazy audiophiles), and MP3 and MP4 downloads. The Concord K2 "20-bit mastering" CD at this link sounds great, and is so cheap as to be almost free, but take your pick.
6. Count Basie, E=MC2, a.k.a The Atomic Basie (due to its famous cover, shades of "The White Album"). 1957, originally on Roulette Records. Big band is an important part of jazz history, and I confess that, beyond a dutiful acquaintanceship with Ellington, I don't listen to it much. (And I'm a bit allergic to records of jazz vocalists with string-band backing, like Billie's "Lady in Satin" or Louis' "World on a String.") Most big band fans are a generation older than I am, and the real fans are people who remember dancing to them in dancehalls. Nowadays it's become a bit of an acquired taste even within jazz. And much of the historically significant stuff is too early to sound good, as it predates adequate recording technology.
Aficionados prefer the great Basie bands of the '30s, and jazz historians definitely do, but Atomic Basie is one of those evergreen masterpieces that makes most critics' "top jazz recordings of all time" list, and it's a great way to sample and enjoy the form. And it's late enough that the sound quality has a bit of muscularity to it, even if it's a trifle over-spotlighted. It has spirit and spunk and great variety in the compositions and arrangements. As one Amazon reviewer very aptly put it, it's "the sound of sixteen very happy great musicians at the top of their form."
Strangely, perhaps, I have more records with the Count as a pianist than as a bandleader. (He makes his presence on piano felt on several cuts on this record too.) But this is fun to listen to even if it's far outside your chosen musical idioms—whether your "home" is reggae or romantic piano concertos or Barry Manilow or the Beastie Boys, you'll still be able to appreciate this. Classic.
7. Roy Haynes, When It Haynes It Roars. 1994, on the Dreyfuss label. Jazz these days has atomized. It not just a big tent, but a lot of little tents. And some guys standing here and there under umbrellas. (And, if I may stretch this particular metaphor well past the breaking point, two or three of them standing on their heads in the rain.) When rock and roll and the Beatles and the British Invasion exploded in the 1960s, jazz was what got pushed aside, and it hasn't ever really recovered. (I once saw Branford Marsalis on TV complaining bitterly, "Of course I don't have any money, I'm a jazz musician," which is in one sense odd, since he was once handed a cash cow on a platter—he was the original bandleader for Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." He stepped down for reasons of artistic integrity, turning the baton over to his then-guitarist, Kevin Eubanks.) There are now all kinds of schools, from atonal "outside" noisemaking and various flavors of avant-guard—one of my favorites features a band that hauled a digeridoo to the bottom of an giant, empty underground water cistern with a 45-second decay time—to the anodyne "smooth jazz," which I know very little about. This one's an example of traditional or retro or straight jazz, of the sort notoriously endorsed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center crowd, although you shouldn't hold that against it. I also tend to like records led by drummers, for some reason. Probably the most famous of those is Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, although there are many others.
One is drummer Roy Haynes, who has been making records for my entire lifetime. David R. Adler at allmusic.com called this title "undoubtedly one of the best straightahead jazz records of the 1990s." One of the big advantages of scouting for more recent records is sound quality, and the sound on this one is stellar (modern recording technology is a treat when you listen to 50- and 60- and 70-year-old albums a lot). The program is well chosen and the playing excellent. Not groundbreaking or envelope-pushing by any remote stretch, but satisfying all the same. It swings.
8. Ginger Baker and the DJQ2O ("Denver Jazz Quintet-to-Octet") (with James Carter), Coward of the County. Next up, another fine ear-friendly record led by a drummer—in this case Ginger Baker, who "pioneered" the use of two bass drums in his days with the supergroups Cream and Blind Faith in the '60s. (He actually got the idea from the jazz bandleader Louis Bellson, so what comes around goes around.) Charlie Watts is a working jazz drummer too, although, as he says, he still tours with a nostalgia act called the Rolling Stones.
In today's music market, records like this one are like trout—if you watch the waters closely you might see a silvery flash every now and then, but they seldom break the surface. It points out how remarkable the late '50s were, because it was a time when a very sophisticated and essentially esoteric music reached its peak while it was also still a mainstream popular form. The musicianship on Coward of the County is assured, the personnel very accomplished, the program expertly chosen, the recording outstanding—like any of literally hundreds of CDs from other, equally expert musicmakers, dozens of which I could name. They tend to quickly sink beneath the waves. When you can snag one on the way past, however, the rewards can be great.
9. The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, VooDoo. 1999, Atlantic UK. Finally, a record that represents a recent trend, and a good one. Collecting jazz recordings was for many years a consuming fire for many—records were often rare, produced in small runs, and titles were numerous and proliferated quickly, and it could take real dedication to find and afford older, out-of-print recordings you wanted. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's house burned down, his greatest loss was his many thousands of jazz albums—and jazz collectors from all over the globe were so horrified that they sent him records, some of them rare and expensive, to help him begin again. The digitizing of music has made it feasible to bring things back that were once rare. I just bought a once-very-rare Sonny Stitt reissue from Spain, and one of the comments at the site where I bought it was from a fan who recounted the Herculean efforts to which he had gone to find the originals. He then noted that it's wonderful that it's so readily available now, and also that he's a little disappointed that it has gotten so easy to find.
But I digress. This last title on my list is a once-rare disk you can now get as easily as clicking the buy button on iTunes. It's a sidewise introduction to two artists: Sonny Clark, and John Zorn. And through Zorn, just a glimpse of one facet of the avant-guard. The record is a tribute album to Sonny Clark, a hard bop pianist, exquisite as both a sideman and a leader, who died young. This might be better as a "get to later" choice, as it's a lot of fun encountering this after you already know Sonny Clark pretty well. Here's hoping it's also a good introduction to Clark, and to Zorn. If you get into jazz, you will surely meet both again.
Sonny Clark, who died of a heroin overdose at 31, in first grade. Courtesy of Betty Smith Dopkowski, who is standing to Sonny Clark's right. This is from this recent article by Sam Stephenson at the Paris Review site.
• • •
In conclusion, I should say again that this is in no wise a "greatest" list in any way, although I think any of these records would deserve to stay in any burgeoning jazz collection, and few of them would ever wear out that welcome—unless they're just too far from your own taste. I could, and might, concoct any number of other lists—jazz piano records, singers, live records (rats, I meant to put a live record on this list), the most famous records, crossovers, experiemental and acid jazz. The list of possible lists could be long.
That's not meant to be a threat.
These are suggestions, only—suggestions for beginners who've tried to dip a toe in these waters and haven't found it inviting yet. It would be easy—no, trivial—for any jazz fan to compile just as good a list for this same purpose but with eight different records—and then do it again, and again, and again. If it is nothing else, the world of jazz, even just on record, is incredibly deep.
As for all the great names, the great masterpieces, don't worry whether you get to them soon or late, yesterday or ten years from now. Nobody who listens to jazz doesn't eventually get to Miles and Sonny Rollins and Monk and Mingus and all the greats, or the younger fusion stars of the '70s and '80s, or the latest records from labels like Bop City, Cryptogramophone, ECM, and Tzadik. (Following labels can be almost as much fun as following musicians.) I'd say, be willing to follow the threads of the tapestry however your interest leads you and at whatever pace feels comfortable and natural. It is a world of vast riches. I hope I never have to leave it, until I have to leave here.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts that appear mostly on Sundays.
*Things like pitch discrimination, rhythm memory, and tests to measure skills in melody, harmony, phrasing, and tempo.
**I'm talking out of my butt—I have no idea who any of these people are.
***The term "gaga" is now ruined, I'm assuming.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by John: "Thanks Mike, although I'm definitely in the Jazz fan camp, I haven't heard everything...thanks to Spotify I've got your suggestions queued up. When I was a wee lad I found the Best of Blue Note sampler to be a good intro for me, it did what the best sampler albums should, made me look for more by almost everyone on it."
Mike replies: I actually like samplers a lot. Two old ones I like are Angels in the Architecture, an sampler of ambient that I think came from EG Records, and a 4AD sampler called Lonely is an Eyesore, which I remember being a great record. In jazz, recently I downloaded a free sampler from a label called Porter Records that I've enjoyed, and I recently bought, from Audiogon, an old sampler from Verve's Clef Series called Tenor Saxes. It has cuts by Lester Young, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Flip Phillips, Charlie Ventura, Illinois Jacquet, and Ben Webster. It's all scratchy, and I love it.
Featured Comment by Clint Weathers: "I went from playing blues (or as close to it as a white kid from the suburbs could) to a college known for its jazz program. Head first into the deep end of jazz I went. I couldn't stand it. It didn't make sense, it was dissonant, it was just notes flying around, it was the kind of musical wankery I hated from Yngwie and other 'guitar heroes,' only with horns.
"After expressing my utter frustration, one of my profs threw me a life preserver: a stack of three LPs:
- Kind of Blue—Miles Davis
- Take Five—Dave Brubeck
- Song for my Father—Horace Silver
"He told me to listen to them each at least three times all the way through. To find something familiar and go from there.
"Another prof sat me down with a copy of the Real Book and a stack of LPs and for eight hours we played and sang through songs until I found some that I really liked. Chestnuts, really all of them. But great songs, all of them.
"By the end of the semester I'd asked my parents for a copy of the SCCJ (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz) and hardly listened to a straight 12-bar blues artist until Cadillac Records was in the theatre.
"To this day, there's no music I love as viscerally as jazz. Yeah, I also grew up with classic rock on the air. And I still love me some swamp rock. But all of my desert island LPs? Every single one is jazz.
"Thank you, Drs. Jim Gai and David Aaberg of Central Missouri State University. You made me into a life-long fan of jazz, a better musician, and most importantly expanded my horizons beyond anything I'd have found on my own."
Featured Comment by JOHN MCMILLIN: "Okay, Mike, you've laid out a path for a gentlemen's entry into classic jazz, straight, no chaser. Wynton likely would approve. But let me postulate a different approach, made up of tangents and flanking maneuvers that infiltrate the citadel of Jazz by the side doors and open windows. Suppose you have a friend who prefers Country Music (hey, it could happen)? Have your friend in to spin 'Way out West,' by Sonny Rollins. Then, for a contemporary approach, try 'Nashville' with Bill Frisell and some of Nashville's finest stringbenders, reinterpreting country classics with a jazzman's inventiveness and wit. Or is your buddy a fan of Dylan, or Sinatra? With his vivid lyrics and smooth, smoky delivery, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling will have him thinking of both. Jam-band fanciers have shown a taste for the likes of Medeski, Martin and Wood, and The Bad Plus. Like pop? Bruce Hornsby's not just the way he was—he's a jazz cat with a recent trio record backed by Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride. Or does high-tech light up your circuit board? Pat Metheny just completed a world tour backed by a bevy of hard-grooving musical robots, playing actual instruments in real time. The point is, jazz is not just a neat, historical period drama of natty black horn players in skinny ties and suits on a smoky evening in 1959. It's a wide-open musical laboratory in which we must, as Metheny has said, 'continue the research.' It should to other realms of music, rather than be isolated from them. If jazz becomes a captive of the past, like most classical music, it's as good as dead."