Lots of folks know almost nothing about jazz, but condensing the hundred some odd years of the genre into ten albums is not easy, something akin to asking someone to describe the history of baseball in ten games. It also depends on where you're from. A guy in San Francisco is going to have a different opinion from someone in Cincinnati, but either way they'll both agree that the guy in the Yankees hat is full of shit. So here are ten jazz albums that will help to give you an idea of why people dig this stuff. This isn't even close to a definitive history of jazz, but rather the list we would use to convince someone the music is worthwhile.
10) Sarah Vaughan
Live at Mr. Kelly's (1957)
This album is the essence of jazz vocals. The band is clearly under-rehearsed, searching for keys and lyrics, but they are also having a great time and have Roy Haynes holding down the drum chair. Vaughan is loose and at the top of her game. You can just picture her leaning against the piano as the band takes a few tasteful spins through the chord changes. This album proves that all you need is a great feel and everything else will fall into place. Even if you can't remember the words.
9) Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers
Free For All (1964)
This album proves that jazz can have muscle. Not every jazzbo is sitting in the corner snapping his fingers and smoking a joint. A lot of jazz is downright terrifying and this is a good place to start. This music will and should scare you. A lot of people talk about the importance of Miles Davis' bands but Art Blakey basically ran an academy. Over a span of 35 years Blakey hired at least fifty great musicians for his Jazz Messengers: Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, even a couple Marsalis brothers. This incarnation, which featured saxophonist Wayne Shorter, is our favorite. Reckless and unrelenting, the band sounds like an 18 wheeler barreling down the far left lane with little regard for human life. We're not even sure if they have their headlights on.
8) Ray Bryant
Alone with the Blues (1958)
Jazz is a pretty good genre for feeling sorry for yourself. Ray Bryant's solo piano album captures a mood of melancholy and solitude better than anybody. His effortless swing and beautiful left hand are the perfect accompaniment to sitting in the dark, drinking bourbon and remembering the good times. Whatever those were.
7) Ambrose Akinmusire
When the Heart Emerges Glistening (2009)
Where is jazz now? Jazz is here. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire released his debut last year and if we had to convince someone that jazz is still relevant we would hand them this. It's daring, it's challenging and it's accessible. Akinmusire takes a journey that is both progressive and in the pocket. This is, no doubt, the shape of jazz to come.
6) Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius (1976)
Electric bassist Jaco Pastorius introduced a lot of things to jazz — stunning dexterity, steel drums, headbands. I'm not saying it was all good but his record did go on to influence every electric bassist since. But this album isn't entirely about playing a thousand notes per measure; he also managed to reunite Sam & Dave, and it's a sprawling collection of styles and excess that would go on to have a profound effect through the '70s and '80s. It opened up a lot of avenues both commercially and musically for jazz musicians.
5) Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach
Money Jungle (1963)
Duke Ellington is the definition of jazz. His compositions are still played today, his persona is still copied and his lifestyle is still envied. By the time this album was recorded he was 64 years old. (Dig that hat!) Bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach were nearly twenty-five years younger. The album brims with tension whether it is Ellington's twenty-ton paws crashing on the piano or Mingus' menacing thump. The resulting album is an amazing collision of generations that testifies to Ellington's push for relevance til the day he died.
4) Miles Davis
A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
This list could easily be ten Miles Davis records; the man was a game changer almost every time he put the trumpet to his mouth. Obviously if you want classic, Brooks Brothers hipster jazz, start at Kind of Blue. This album, however, which is actually a film soundtrack, is our favorite of Miles' electric period. The band is just burning with drummer Billy Cobham bashing the hell out of his cymbals and John McLaughlin's jagged guitar chopping things to pieces. This one pairs well with a blacklight poster.
3) Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane
Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (1957)
Two of the most polarizing characters in jazz. Pianist Thelonious Monk was a harmonic innovator whose twisted fingers discovered strange beauty in sounds that had previously not been well received. His compositions were convoluted puzzles that revealed more than his little dances led on. Coltrane was even more mysterious. Within a few months he would go on to develop a technique known as “sheets of sound” before breaking open the avant-garde in the 1960s and dividing the jazz community like never before. His early '60s masterpiece A Love Supreme should be worked up to despite the fact that it is used as background music on KCRW every day.
2) Wes Montgomery w/ Wynton Kelly trio
Smokin' at the Half Note (1965)
Jazz has got to swing. The biggest gripe you hear from old timers always revolves around swing. This band? They fucking swung. Wes Montgomery had a unique full-toned sound on his guitar that never sounded better than when it was backed by pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb (the same trio were Miles Davis' rhythm section for a few years). For this album the band just flies with a determined playfulness. Montgomery may have made a few regrettable recording decisions at this time but this album alone is enough to erase those musical crimes.
1) Dizzy Gillespie
At Newport (1957)
Charlie Parker was the most influential alto saxophonist ever. His brilliant lines and reharmonizations created bebop in the late 40s and Dizzy Gillespie was standing right alongside him for most of that. The difference for us is that Dizzy always sounded like he was having a good time. Of course he could play his ass off too. This jovial performance at the Newport Jazz Festival finds Gillespie in top form, joking with everybody around him before exploding full-force over his unit of all-stars.