Friday, April 7, 2017

The Best of Jazz

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not a jazz aficionado. I like some types of jazz; I loathe other types. So this list of great jazz tunes is not a comprehensive one, nor is it meant to be. But I have tried to mix up jazz styles and include a few that I'm not fond of, just in case you might be. The great thing about jazz is that it's like soup: there's such a huge variety of it that everyone can find a kind that they like.

However, since many jazz performers tend to stick with a particular style of jazz, it's often easier to find a band or a singer whose music you enjoy rather than picking out individual songs that you like - and in fact, one performer's style might be so different from another that you might love one's rendition of a particular song but hate the other's of the same song. So instead of listing great jazz songs, I'm going to list great jazz performers along with some particularly good examples of their work. If you listen to some of the samples and like them, please dig deeper into that artist's body of work, because you're likely to find lots of other songs you love just as much.

[Note: As I was writing this blog, I came across so much great early jazz that I have limited myself mainly to jazz greats of the 20s through the 60s in this entry. I may take a crack at more contemporary jazz performers in a future blog.]

Charlie "Yardbird" Parker - alto sax player and composer
Parker, more commonly known as "Yardbird" or simply "Bird," was a pioneer in bebop music. A saxophone virtuoso renowned for his incredibly fast tempos and brilliant technique, Bird began his career in the 1930s, working with such jazz greats as Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. Bird loved classical music as well as jazz, and in 1949 recorded an album with a group of both jazz and chamber orchestra musicians called Charlie Parker with Strings. Miles Davis once said, "You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker." Parker was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979.

Best-known songs: Yardbird Suite, Now's the Time
Other songs to try: All of Me, Autumn in New York, Just Friends


Miles Davis - trumpeter, composer, band leader
Davis performed with Charlie Parker in the 1940s, honing his style into the 1950s. Following a bout with heroin addiction, Davis came back to prominence following a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 and led a sextet and later a quintet into the 1960s, which included legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. His 1959 album Kind of Blue has been called the most popular jazz album ever recorded. Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Best-known songs: So What, Bird of Paradise
Other songs to try: Blue in Green, I Fall in Love Too Easily, But Not for Me

Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong - trumpeter, composer, and singer
Satchmo's career began in the 1920s, as he became known for shifting the focus from improvisation to solo playing. He often sang in his distinctive gravelly voice as well as playing trumpet, and he was a pioneer in scat singing, in which nonsense syllables are used instead of lyrics. His career lasted through the 1960s and continued to influence not only jazz but popular music as well. His recording of the song Hello, Dolly (recorded during out-of-town tryouts prior to the Broadway opening of the musical) influenced producer David Merrick to change the title of the show from Call on Dolly to Hello, Dolly!. Armstrong was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Armstrong was also the first jazz musician ever featured in the cover of Time magazine, in 1949.

Best-known songs: Hello, Dolly, What a Wonderful World, A Kiss to Build a Dream On
Other songs to try: La Vie en Rose, When You're Smiling, Cold, Cold Heart

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington - pianist, composer, and band leader
Ellington led a jazz orchestra from 1923 until his death in 1974. Best known for their appearances at Harlem's Cotton Club, Ellington's orchestra included many virtuoso performers, and Ellington often composed with the specific skills and style of a particular performer in mind. He wrote over 1,000 compositions, alone or with a collaborator. Although he was best known as a jazz pioneer, Ellington was a master of multiple genres, including big band, gospel, classical, and pop music. Among numerous other honors, Ellington was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1956, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971, the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978, and the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.

Trademark songs: Take the 'A' Train, Mood Indigo
Other songs to try: In a Sentimental Mood, Sophisticated Lady, Melancholia, Freedom

John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie - trumpeter, singer, composer, and band leader
Instantly recognizable for both his bent-bell trumpet and his distinctive puffed-out cheeks, Gillespie taught and influenced many other well-known jazz trumpeters, including Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Arturo Sandoval, and Chuck Mangione. From his first professional gig in 1935 until his death in 1993, Gillespie played with the likes of Cab Calloway (a collaboration that did not end well; a disagreement between the two escalated into a knife fight, resulting - not surprisingly - in Gillespie's dismissal from the band), Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, and Charlie Parker. Gillespie also wrote music for band leaders including Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey. In 1953, Gillespie's trumpet was accidentally bent during a party, and he liked the sound so much he had a horn specially made with the bell at a 45-degree angle, which he used for the remainder of his career. Gillespie was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1960 and the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

Best-known songs: On the Sunny Side of the StreetSalt Peanuts, Oop Bop Sh'Bam
Other songs to try: Umbrella Man (with Louis Armstrong), Unicorn, In Redondo

Dave Brubeck - pianist, composer, band leader
Brubeck and his quartet were known for a style referred to as "cool jazz," Brubeck's trademark was unusual time signatures, with his most well-known piece, Take Five, written in 5/4 time, and his popular Unsquare Dance in 7/4. However, he also composed orchestral and sacred choral music, as well as television soundtracks, the most famous being for the animated miniseries This is America, Charlie Brown. In 1951, Brubeck suffered a diving accident resulting in spinal cord and nerve damage, suffering from nerve pain in his hands throughout his career, which influenced his playing style away from the popular fast runs into a more chord-based style. Brubeck was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1954. Duke Ellington brought a copy of the magazine to Brubeck's hotel room to show him, and Brubeck, feeling that he had been unfairly favored over Ellington because he was white, could only say, "It should have been you." Brubeck was inducted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 1994.

Best-known songs: Take FiveBlue Rondo a la Turk, Unsquare Dance
Other songs to try:  Kathy's Waltz, Stardust, It's a Raggy Waltz

Ella Fitzgerald - singer
Dubbed "The First Lady of Song," Fitzgerald began her career as a teenager in Harlem, joining the Chick Webb orchestra in 1935, and taking over as the leader of the band upon Webb's death in 1939. She continued to perform and record with them until 1942, when she began a solo career, becoming well-known for her inventive scat singing. She also began to move away from be-bop, recording a series of eight "American Songbook" albums featuring the music of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, and Irving Berlin, among others. Fitzgerald was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.

Best-known songs: It Don't Mean a ThingSummertime, A Tisket, A Tasket
Other songs to try: How High the Moon, Cry Me a River, Blue Skies, Flying Home

Sarah Vaughan - singer
Nicknamed "The Divine One," Vaughan's career, much like that of Ella Fitzgerald's, began in Harlem as a teen, with amateur contests leading to a professional booking - in Vaughan's case, as the opening act for Fitzgerald herself. From 1943 to 1945, Vaughan sang with several big bands, then began pursuing a solo career. Her manager (and later husband) created a more glamorous style for her, changing her wardrobe and hairstyle, having her teeth capped to eliminate a noticeable gap between her front teeth, and encouraging her to perform commercial pop ballads, making her very popular as a live performer. Vaughan's career continued to be solid well into the 1980s, with her final studio recording in 1989 including, appropriately enough, a scat duet with Ella Fitzgerald. Two of Vaughan's recordings, the album Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown and the single If You Could See Me Now, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Best-known songs: Lullaby of Birdland, Black Coffee, The Nearness of You
Other songs to try: The Man I Love, I Got Rhythm, Misty

Chet Baker - trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer, and singer
Although a trumpet player, Baker is notable for his pairings with many well-known saxophonists, including Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. Baker's career was disrupted many times due to his heroin addiction, which led to stints in prison, deportation from several countries, and a violent attack which resulting in his losing several teeth and the inability to play his trumpet for several months before he was fitted for dentures. His striking good looks and cool demeanor led to a role in a Hollywood movie, but Baker opted to continue his music career instead of pursing further film work. Baker was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1989.

Best-known songs: My Funny Valentine, Time After Time
Other songs to try: Almost Blue, Every Time We Say Goodbye, But Not for Me

Billie "Lady Day" Holiday - singer and songwriter
Holiday, whose birth name was Eleanora Hagan, took her stage name from the actress Billie Dove and her (likely) birth father, Clarence Holiday, a musician. She sang in Harlem clubs as a young teen, making her recording debut at age 18 with Benny Goodman Holiday had a limited vocal range and no formal music education, but her vocal style and improvisational skills captivated audiences. Many of her recordings began jazz standards, and her life inspired several films and a Broadway play (Audra McDonald won the Tony Award for her portrayal of the singer). Holiday was posthumously awards a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.

Best-known songs: God Bless the Child, Billie's Blues, Strange Fruit
Other songs to try: I'll Be Seeing You, Riffin' the Scotch, Blue Moon

William James "Count" Basie - pianist, organist, composer, and band leader
Basie began his performing career at age 16, improvising music for silent movies at his local cinema. This led to gigs at resorts and parties, and in 1935 Basie formed the Count Basie Orchestra, which he led for nearly 50 years. The orchestra performed in numerous styles, including bebop, big band, swing, even dabbling in R&B. Basie appeared on television and in movies, and many singers performed with the orchestra through the years, including such jazz luminaries as Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., and Billie Holiday. Basie was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1958 and the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame in 2005, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.

Best-known songs: One O'Clock Jump, And the Angels Sing, April in Paris
Other songs to try: In a Mellow Tone, Splanky, Shiny Stockings

Benny Goodman, clarinetist and band leader
Generally thought of as a swing musician, Goodman was also a leader in bringing bebop jazz into vogue. Goodman played in bands and as a session musician in Chicago and New York City, and in 1935 he became a band leader on the television program Let's Dance, and he and his band appeared in a number of movies from the last 1930s through the late 1940s. His 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall (which was actually intended as something of a publicity stunt) was called "the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history; jazz's 'coming out' party to the world of 'respectable' music" by critic Bruce Eder. Goodman was also one of the first band leaders to have a racially integrated orchestra, and was a prominent civil rights activist.

Best-known songs: Sing, Sing, Sing, Stompin' at the Savoy, Moonglow
Other songs to try: St. Louis Blues, Lady be Good, Let's Dance

Nina Simone - singer and pianist
Born Eunice Waymon, Simone took on "Nina Simone" as a stage name to disguise her identity from highly religious family members who disapproved of her playing in nightclubs. Hired as a pianist, Simone sang to her own accompaniment and was soon recognized primarily as a jazz singer, rather than a pianist. Her style was a mix of gospel, jazz, and classical (she had been trained at Juilliard), and suited her distinctively low, smoky voice. Her music often drew on her African heritage, and in the mid 1960s she began to be increasingly active in the civil rights movement, including a strong civil rights message in her music and spending more time speaking and protesting than performing and recording. Simone received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for her recording of I Loves You Porgy in 2000.

Trademark song: Feeling GoodI Loves You Porgy
Other songs to try: I Put a Spell on You, Lilac Wine

Thelonious Monk - pianist and composer
Monk began his career as a church organist before moving on to playing jazz piano in Manhattan nightclubs. His improvisational style was like no other, with abrupt pauses, dissonances, and melodic twists. He was known for jumping up from the keyboard and dancing for a few seconds before resuming playing during performances. John Coltrane commented that Monk loved to talk about music, and would spend hours explaining the answer to a question someone asked just to be sure they fully understood. Monk was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and in 2006 he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to the evolution of jazz music.

Best-known songs: 'Round Midnight, Straight, No Chaser,
Other songs to try: Don't Blame Me, Misterioso, Just You, Just Me

John "Trane" Coltrane - sax player and composer
Trane's jazz style was mostly be-bop, hard bop. and free jazz. After enlisting in the Navy, he was recruited into his base's swing band, but because it was an all-white group, he was treated as a guest artist to avoid trouble with his superior officers. After his discharge, he continued to both play and study jazz, working with such greats as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.

Best-known songs: Blue TrainMy Favorite Things, In a Sentimental Mood
Other songs to try: Giant Steps, Central Park West, Alabama


If you can't find at least a few songs you like (or at least, can appreciate) from this list, than I find it hard to believe there's any kind of music that you like at all. But don't despair! I still have a whole list of more modern jazz artists who might just work for you (but I kind of doubt it).


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