48 Essential Jazz CDs - in somewhat chronological order
Compiled by Hal March, Toonerville Trolley Records, 131 Water St., Williamstown, MA
The absolute best overview of recorded jazz is the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz 5 CD box (#033), which is now out of print.
1. Milestone 47018 Jelly Roll Morton “Hot Jazz & Blues “23.” While Jelly’s claim that he “invented jazz” was stretching it, these recordings represent the beginnings of jazz, with some blues, ragtime and stride.
2. JSP 903 Jelly Roll Morton box. His greatest recordings, including one - “Black Bottom Stomp” - that is certainly one of the ten best jazz records of all time, all in state-of-the art remastered sound by John R. T. Davies.
3. Retreival 79007 Louis Armstrong & King Oliver (has better sound and more cuts than Milestone 47017, which is the same material.)
4. JSP 100 Louis Armstrong “The Complete Hot Fives & Sevens” box. Armstrong’s earliest and best records in the best possible sound.
5. JSP 3401 Louis Armstrong. These two CDs (and some of the above) document the emergence of Armstrong as a jazz singer. He was, simply, the best. No one else ever even came close.
6. Proper 1018 The Sidney Bechet Story. Bechet was one of the great figures in early jazz and certainly the best player on his chosen instrument, the soprano sax.
7. Louisiana Red Hot 620 Bix Beiderbecke “Great Original Performances 1924 - 30”
8. JSP 906 Eddie Condon “The Classic Sessions 1927 - 1949.” Condon was never more than an adequate guitar player, but he was a great organizer, frontman and judge of talent. These early sessions which defined the “Chicago” school of Dixieland jazz, are loaded with great players like PeeWee Russell, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, etc.
9. Proper Box 1025. Duke Ellington. The English Proper company has solved the essential early Ellington problem by collecting the best early Ellington recordings, regardless of label, in this inexpensive 4 CD set. ( Ellington recorded important songs for at least three different companies, RCA, Decca and Columbia. The early RCA recordings are only collected in the now out-of-print huge “Complete RCA box” or three out-of-print old Bluebird CDs. The other two labels material are on GRP 36402 “Early Ellington 1926-1931” and Columbia 46177 “The OKeh Ellington.” These are all well worth owning, although they contain quite a lot of non-essential stuff.).
10. Columbia 65143 Benny Goodman “Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.” Goodman’s excellent band at its swingingest with some hot guests (Count Basie, Cootie Williams, Lester Young, etc.) and one of the greatest jazz concert recordings ever.
11. RCA 5631 Benny Goodman “After You’ve Gone” The peerless trio & quartet recordings with Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton.
12. Collectors Choice 141 The Very Best of Fats Waller. Very well chosen 24 cut best of the best of the Harlem stride piano players.
13. Verve 549085 Coleman Hawkins “Ken Burn’s Jazz”. The best single disc coverage of Hawkins’ long and influential career, from early recordings with the Fletcher Henderson band through his prebop classic “Body and Soul” to some later bop and mainstream dates.
14. Proper Box 1019 The Count Basie Story. The best of the swingingest of the swing bands, this 4 disc collection also works as a best of Lester Young, since Lester’s early records with Count Basie are his best.
15. Proper box 1026 Billie Holiday (Billie’s best records by far are her early recordings for Columbia. Their Complete Billie boxed set is absolutely great but quite expensive, and the “complete” Billie is worth owning but not essential. The Proper 4 CD box costs much less and has the advantage of including Billie’s important recordings for Commodore and Decca (“Strange Fruit”.)
16. JSP 901 Django Reinhardt “The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order” (This 5 CD set may be more Django than you need, but these are the essential recordings in the best possible sound at a bargain price. A cheaper but good alternative is ASV 5267 Django Reinhardt “The Quintessential”.)
17. Legacy 373 Charlie Christian “The Immortal” This CD contains recordings of the amazing jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and others where you can hear the beginning of bebop, plus the amazing Christian at his most spontaneous.)
18. Pablo 02405434 Art Tatum “Solo Masterpieces Vol. 6’” (all of these volumes - and all Tatum recordings - are great, but this is picked for one of his signature tunes, “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
19. Columbia 45149 Dave Brubeck “Jazz Goes to College”
20. Columbia 40589 Erroll Garner “Concert by the Sea”
21. Proper box 1010 v/a “BeBop Spoken Here.” Well put together survey of important early bop recordings.
22. Rhino 72260 Charlie Parker “Yardbird Suite.” The best overview of Parker, this 2 CD set includes his best recordings for Dial, Savoy and Verve.
23. OJC 44 Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell “The Quintet”
24. Capitol 30083 Bud Powell “The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings”. This boxed set is the best way to currently get the Bud live at the Roost recordings, which capture him at the peak of his powers. Nobody ever played jazz piano with more drive and intensity than Bud his best.
25. Capitol 95636 Thelonious Monk “Best of the Blue Note Years”
26. Capitol 30117 Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool.” Visionary Miles/Mulligan/Gil Evans small band “cool jazz” date
27. Capitol 84049 Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers “Moanin’.” One of many great Blakeys.
28. OJC 291 Sonny Rollins “Saxophone Colossus”
29. Label M 495721 Modern Jazz Quartet “European Concert” (Atlantic 82763 “Dedicated to Connie” or the out-of-print Atlantic 81976“The Last Concert” are probably equally good.)
30. Capitol 59662 Stan Getz “The Complete Roost Recordings”
31. Capitol 95481 Gerry Mulligan & Chet Baker” “Best of...”
32. Candid 79005 Charles Mingus “Mingus Presents Mingus.” It’s hard to pick a best Mingus, but this quartet with Eric Dolphy may be it.
33. Columbia 65512 Charles Mingus “Mingus Ah Um.” With songs like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Fables of Faubus,” and “Better Git It In Your Soul” this is Mingus’s most popular CD.
34. OJC 128 Miles Davis “Cookin.” Classic mainstream modern Miles quintet with John Coltrane.
35. Prestige 24056 John Coltrane “Stardust Session.” Representative example of Coltrane’s influential post-bop style.
36. Verve 513752 Oscar Peterson at the Stratford Shakesperean Festival. While maybe not strictly “essential” (Peterson was never an innovator, he never wrote much and even the trio idea was done before, arguably as well, by Nat ‘King’ Cole) this terrific, driving CD of modern piano trio jazz (with Herb Ellis, guitar and Ray Brown, bass) is one of the best examples of powerful swinging and high-level group interaction.
37. Columbia 64935 Miles Davis “Kind of Blue.” Miles’ modal breakthrough album, an album that works on virtually every level. If this is not the best selling jazz album of all time, it should be.
38. Columbia 65142 Miles Davis “Sketches of Spain” (or Columbia “Porgy & Bess”). This is probably the most successful example of arranged (here by Gil Evans) orchestral jazz with soloist (Miles.), with the Evans/Miles “Porgy and Bess” a close second.
39. Atlantic 1311 John Coltrane “Giant Steps.” The best of the two albums (with “My Favorite Things”) that document Coltrane’s transition from post-bop to modal playing.
40. Columbia 65774 Miles Davis “Bitches Brew.” Miles invents jazz fusion.
41. Atlantic 1317 Ornette Coleman “The Shape of Jazz to Come” Ornette orchestrated the birth of free jazz. This is his best quartet, with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden.
42. GRP 251 John Coltrane “Live at the Village Vanguard: The Master Takes.” Fantastically energetic live blowing with Eric Dolphy.
43. Impulse 000610 John Coltrane “ A Love Supreme” The most popular of all Coltrane’s (or maybe anyone’s) free jazz recordings, undoubtedly because of it’s very hooky vocal refrain and open spirituality, this has a unity that similar but freer pieces like “Meditations” lack.
44. Jazz View 008 Cecil Taylor “Spring of 2 Blue Jays” This CD, of all the Cecil Taylor recordings, may be the best example of what he was all about, including both solo piano and quartet pieces. It is probably out of print (free jazz gets no respect), but may still be found in cutout bins. A good second choice would be either Revenant 202 “Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come” (trio with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray) or 120 #9017, “Silent Tongues,” a solo concert in Montreux.
45. Impulse 254 Archie Shepp “Live in San Francisco” This CD covers all of Shepp’s bag of talents: piano, poetry, Ellington covers, interesting compositions and all-out blowing. (Be sure to get the version that has eight tracks, including the wild “Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime.”)
46. Evidence 22069 Sun Ra “The Magic City.” This is Sun Ra’s masterpiece. The title cut is a 27 minute free jazz piece that totally works.
47. Koch 8501 Art Ensemble of Chicago “Fanfare for the Warriors.” None of the Art Ensemble recordings can capture the impact of their live performances, but this studio session shows the range of what they could do, with the added bonus of the piano playing and organizational talents of Muhal Richard Abrams.
48. Leo 202/203 Anthony Braxton “Birmingham (Quartet 1985). This is a tough call. The Braxton I recommend is Arista “Creative Orchestra Music 1976” which is now out of print, as is the case with most of Braxton’s recordings. While “Birmingham” is more limited in scope than “Creative Orchestra Music,” Braxton’s 1985 quartet was one of his best groups. This music may require a reading a book (Forces in Motion by Graham Locke) to understand, but it’s worth it.