Because there are multiple decades of jazz, it’s almost impossible to pick the top ten albums of all time; the hip cats with their canes and cool shades will throw their used saxophone reeds in my direction and call me a young whippersnapper.
But so many people out there, young or even a bit older, are curious about jazz, and they’re not exactly sure where to start. Think of this as a jazz bucket list, filled with masterpieces of a true American music. Let’s go!
10. Ornette Coleman
The Shape of Jazz to Come
The title of this album, when it came out in 1959, was the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the fences or Muhammad Ali proclaiming he was the greatest. It was an album that said, you hear this sound, you hear what I’m laying down, everything is about to change. Ornette Coleman went from playing the sax to the trumpet, and he received scorn from Miles Davis who publicly questioned Coleman’s sanity and technical ability. And because the album is often credited as being the anchor to avant-garde jazz albums, it might just sound a bit strange to the newbie’s ear. But Coleman was trying to move away from tradition, shattering conventional ideas of harmony and axing the piano, to create a new dimension of sound. Give it a shot — free of expectations.
9. Sonny Rollins
When you put on The Bridge, take a tumbler of whiskey and imagine you’re staring out at New York City. After a sabbatical from music, Sonny Rollins returned triumphantly in 1962 with this work, whose title track was named after the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan to Brooklyn. It’s where Rollins used to head to practice. He’s a sax player who wanted to be his own man, an individual. This album is accessible to the novice.
8. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock helped bring the synthesizer and the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano to mass appeal. This 1973 album was influenced by Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. Even if you don’t like jazz but you love funk and soul, you’ll likely enjoy this one. At one point, Head Hunters was the best selling jazz album of all time. Be warned though, there is experimentation happening here. Still, the funky drums should keep you driving forward.
7. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Ella and Louis
Imagine it’s a Friday morning, and you have the day off. It’s you and your significant other. You have nowhere to go, and it’s raining. Well, this is the album you need to be playing to create that perfect atmosphere — an album with so much space, soaring trumpet solos, and a duet so unique and soulful even a jazz newbie can’t ignore its grip on their heartstrings. It’s a 1956 album dripping with nostalgia. Plus, the band features Oscar Peterson (piano) and Buddy “Freaking” Rich (drums). Best to listen to an album with such a dreamy atmosphere to ensure, at least once, that you feel romantic and drenched in “Moonlight in Vermont.”
6. Miles Davis
I’m not saying that you have to like this album. But it’s one you just have to listen to before you die; it’s kind of like looking at Abstract Expressionism or listening to Morton Feldman — it just might not jive with you. Bitches Brew was released in 1970. The first time I heard this album, I thought it was a joke. In fact, I was kind of pissed. Where was the melody? Where was the catchy rhythm? Well, it’s so shocking the first time you hear it that it forces you to question what jazz and music can be. It makes you think about structure and limitations of our current music. The prison of the human ear. Ah, enough of that. Just listen to the album. Chaos and cacophony defined.
5. The Thelonious Monk Quartet
Probably one of the hippest figures in jazz, Thelonious Monk was a genius who was able to see notes on the piano that didn’t even exist in Western music. When he would sit down on the piano, he would strike two half notes (notes next to each other that sound awful when played together) to simulate the imaginary notes between the two piano keys. He was so out there and amazing, and Monk’s Dream (1963) is just one example, an imprint of strange and beautiful blaps and boops that were being electrified in his mind. The work is about color; it’s a visual experience as much as an auditory one.
This 1959 album was the soundtrack for parties in New York City and the staple in any bachelor pad. Without it juicing the sophisticated and artsy minds of New Yorkers and beatniks alike, many of us probably wouldn’t have been born. At the time, it was considered an artsy piece, but today, the deviation from standard time and the hip swing might just feel traditional. Songs like “Take Five” have been ubiquitous in our culture — movies, television, and (sadly) malls. It’s an album that screams Don Draper and nightcaps. Check it out and find yourself whisked away to another time and place.
3. Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus is the godfather of the upright bass, and in 1959, he put out Ah Um, which many consider to be a masterpiece and cemented his status as a legendary composer. He combined elements of gospel and blues. The opening track, “Better Get It Into Your Soul,” is not just a ruckus jubilation; it’s a command — the driving brass, the dixie-land rapture and the voice calling out in joy — to stop doing whatever you’re doing and take into your heart and body this music. It’s a roller coaster ride through fast and slow tempos, cacophony and perfect harmony, and a touch of madness.
2. John Coltrane
John Coltrane is clearly one of the leaders of the jazz identity. If you think about the course of hip-hop, then can you really imagine groups like Tribe Called Quest or even someone like Tupac without a cultural and musical prophet like Coltrane? Of course, A Love Supreme is an incredible album, but Blue Train just has so much life and color that it’s impossible to ignore. Recorded in 1957 on Blue Note, Blue Train was Coltrane’s favorite album. It will likely become one of yours soon, too.
1. Miles Davis
Kind of Blue
I can still remember the first time I heard this album. I was 17, and I was driving my Subaru Legacy Wagon in the rain. I drove the car to my grandparent’s house, and put it on. It was only about a five-minute drive, but I ended parked outside of their house, the windshield wipers swatting away rain — the album blaring. I sat in the driveway until the album ended, and, well, music was never the same for me. It’s a composition, released in 1959, that is often considered the definitive jazz album. Honestly, there are some jazz purists who probably would die if they found out our generation was unfamiliar with it. Just listen to who was featured: Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb. If you’re about to go sky diving, and you’re not sure if you’re going to survive, play this album on the car ride over. Why is it so great? Let’s not try to put it into words. It might be something unsayable.
Joseph Lapin is a journalist, author, and photographer living in San Diego, California.