You’ve listened to some jazz and you like some of what you’ve heard. You’re ready to take the plunge and start building a collection. But the world of jazz is incredibly diverse…where do you start?
- Ask basic questions. The first thing to do is figure out what you do know by asking yourself some questions:
What sort of jazz, if any, have you heard?
- Have you heard any specific jazz CDs or artists that you really liked?
- Are there certain instruments that you really like?
- Is there a tempo or style that you prefer?
- Is there any jazz you have heard that you don’t like?
- Do you like instrumental, or vocal, or both?
- Do you only like a certain sub-genre of jazz?
- Look for affordable classics. If you love getting a lot of bang for your buck with music, there are lots of ways to do that in the jazz genre. Consult the suggestions below and keep these points in mind:
- First off, ask your local record store geek about cheap new classic jazz CDs. There are an amazing amount of deals. In fact, there are so many cheap classics out there, it becomes hard to recommend the more expensive contemporary jazz artists.
- Second, buy used jazz. The availability of used jazz CDs can depend on the kind of neighborhood you live in (and the residing musical taste). If you are lucky enough to live amongst jazz lovers, used jazz CDS are cheap and guaranteed.
- Finally, think about investing in a turntable. If you want to talk about getting affordable classics in any genre, you can always find some great deals on vinyl. This is especially true if you don’t mind looking through a store’s “bargain basement” used stuff.
Start with the heavyweight champions of jazz. Coltrane, Miles, Bird, Louie, Billie. If you have heard of them, there’s probably a reason. So ask your questions, figure out what you like, do your homework, and then start obvious. You can get cooler and more diverse as you go. As it is, the classics are usually about as cool as cool comes anyway, and in most cases, they are cheap.
Follow the artists that show up as sidemen. Play “jazz geography”. Jazz musicians tend to play with many different bands and the big bands were virtual jazz incubators. Once you hear Count Basie with Sinatra, try Basie with saxophonist Lester Young. Another example: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (which, by the way, is a good choice if you’re a classical music enthusiast)–the guys who play on it are all heavyweight champs in their own right. Coltrane on tenor; Cannonball Adderley on Alto; Bill Evans on piano… even jazz rookies have heard of those guys. Once you hear the sax boys soloing on that album, and you read the liner notes (which is essential on Kind of Blue), you are going to want to get Cannonball’s Somethin’ Else or Everybody Loves Bill Evans. The next thing you know – you’ve got a collection.
Talk about jazz with jazz geeks. Someone who’s passionate about jazz will play stuff for you… and ask tons of questions… and get to the bottom of your jazz needs. Then they will set you up. Find the indie record store in your area and start a conversation with a jazz fanatic. Be ready with your answers to the questions you asked yourself earlier.
This list focuses on affordable classics (available for $12 USD or less) so you might notice the absence of artists like Oscar Peterson, Oliver Nelson, or Diana Krall (their CDs are generally more than twelve bucks). It may also be short on free jazzers like Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman because they’re not the specialty of the author as of this writing; feel free to edit the page and add your own suggestions in the same format as offered below. Also, though going the inexpensive route is great at first, once you get interested in this music, you may find that it becomes an expensive habit!
- John Coltrane. Giant Steps. (Atlantic). If you enjoy David Sanborn and some of the “rock” saxophone guys, and want some “real jazz”, start with Kind of Blue and this album.
- John Coltrane. Love Supreme. (Impulse) Coltrane is good enough to warrant two picks. He pushed the envelope all the time, so different labels have different types of stuff. This one is his tribute to the creator.
- Miles Davis. Workin (Prestige). If Coltrane deserves two; so does Miles. This is the famous Miles quintet, which includes Coltrane anyway.
- Dave Brubeck. Time Out. (Columbia). You’ve probably heard this… especially the classic song “Take Five”. While obvious to jazz nuts, it’s essential to beginners.
- Les McCann and Eddie Harris. Live at Montreaux. (Atlantic) Wicked, swingin’ jazz from a great band in a neutral country.
- Charles Mingus. Ah Um. (Columbia). His first album for Columbia is full of modern jazz classics, and has inspired countless jazz musicians. Better Git it in Your Soul.
- Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Best of Louie and Ella. (Verve) Speaking of inspiring generations, when it comes to jazz, Louis Armstrong might be the all-time great, and Ella Fitzgerald isn’t far behind. This little compilation is a place to start… and a good representation of their three albums together. This is also a good place to start if you’re already a fan of pop music.
- Various Artists. Blue Breakbeats Volume 1. (Blue Note) This is a fantastic compilation of artists from the label dubbed the “most sampled” of any in the land.
- Wes Montgomery. Talkin’ Verve: The Roots of Acid Jazz (Verve) If you love jazz guitar, this compilation (and other Talkin’ Verve comps) brings together his fast-paced, groovin’ best.
- Charlie Parker. The Essential Charlie Parker. (Verve). Bird is one of those dudes that revolutionized the genre. There’s so many great compilations and albums that it is hard to know where to start. This one is cheap and good, so let’s start here.
- Thelonious Monk. Monk’s Music. (Fantasy). A good choice if you’re into rock or R&B.
- Dig deeper into the types of jazz you like best. Once you know you like something… get into it. If you love that swingin’, hard-bop sound, for example, you’ll get hooked on albums on the Blue Note label.
- Use radio and the Internet to help expand your palate.
- Trade in some of your unused stuff for some new jazz. Bring in your old CDs, DVDs, or vinyl. Some stores will give you trade credit while you browse the jazz section, or look at the Penguin Guide to Jazz, or listen to some stuff on the used turntable or CD player.
- Your local library may also have a good selection of jazz that you can sample.
- Be wary of compilation CDs, e.g. “The Best of,” “The Essential,” or “Greatest Hits.” These CDs usually come from one record company wanting to plug their own stuff. Since jazz musicians record for many different record companies over their careers, the listener will get a lop-sided view of the artist.
- Don’t rely on the big record stores to have the jazz you want. They only carry the current artists with some crossover appeal to other genres of music. Most of the jazz recordings that will be worth having in your collection will not be found in average record stores.