For many people jazz is an acquired taste.
Like your first sip of beer or coffee growing up, jazz may not immediately suit your tastes. But after awhile you start to savor the richness of the rhythms, the textures, the dissonance and the gracefulness that is jazz.
I’ve often wondered how music that can seem so frenetic and chaotic can also be so relaxing. My theory—backed by absolutely no evidence—is this: the crazy energy in jazz somehow mirrors the chaotic thought patterns that exist on some level within all of us. And through audio alchemy a kind of “phase cancellation” happens, bringing calm. (Sounds crazy, I know…)
Regardless, jazz is something every aspiring gentleman should experience for his own personal and cultural development.
But with all the great jazz records out there, where do you start? What are the best jazz albums for beginners?
In no particular order, here are 10 classic jazz albums every man should own:
Kind of Blue
One of the first jazz albums I ever bought. For me, this is contemplative Sunday afternoon music. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of relaxed reflection after a few minutes of listening to this classic Miles Davis album.
Ellington at Newport
A Love Supreme
Meditative yet frenetic, John Coltrane’s sax playing is like a lightening bolt to your heart and your senses. Coltrane said it was meant to be a musical offering to God. For the listener, it is nothing short of a religious experience.
Listening to Thelonious Monk’s distinctive piano playing gives you a new appreciation for the phrase “tickling the keys.” This great mix of songs serves up all kinds of moods, from playful to thoughtful to excited.
The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings
While the audio quality is not great, this three-volume set of classic recordings features Louis Armstrong’s quintessential voice and trumpet work. The bright mix of dixieland, blues and the New Orleans sound recall a sense of innocence and optimism of the early 20th century.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook
Listening to this Oscar Peterson Trio classic without a cocktail in your hand almost seems wrong. Along with partners Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, Peterson explores a range of different moods with this album. Some songs are slow and brooding, others will amaze you that notes played so fast can be so calming.
Watch Oscar and his band absolutely SHRED in the video below:
Bird & Diz
This is billed as a Charlie Parker (Bird) and Dizzy Gillespie (Diz) album, but it also includes Thelonious Monk on keys and Max Roach on drums. The energy of the collaboration between these greats comes right through the speakers. Note: the first 6 songs represent the original studio album, and the rest are outtakes that are worth hearing but not essential.
The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959
Lady in Satin is often considered Billie Holiday’s most famous album, but I think it’s a little sleepy and melodramatic. This collection of songs from her years at Verve records does a better job capturing the haunting and magical quality of Holiday’s voice.
Portrait in Jazz
Miles Davis, who worked with Bill Evans on Kind of Blue, said Evans had a “quiet fire” on the piano, “…like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” You can hear what he means in these inspired recordings with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian.
Choosing Your Own Top 10 Essential Jazz Albums
Deciding on “essential” jazz artists and albums is pretty subjective. To pull together this list, I used research on popular jazz artists, best selling jazz albums, and of course my own personal taste, to decide what made the final cut.
But I encourage you to form your own opinions. There’s no right answer when it comes to enjoying jazz music. If you want to do further exploration, here are some other lists on top jazz albums to check out:
100 Essential Jazz Albums | The New Yorker
10 Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die | Village Voice
Top 25 Jazz Albums of All Time | The Jazz Resource
30 Jazz Albums Every Gentleman Should Hear | Gentleman’s Gazette
Got any other favorite jazz albums to add to the list? Leave them below in the comments!
Note: This post contains some affiliate links, meaning if you buy one of the songs or albums I may get a small commission (at no extra cost to you). But I would recommend this great music regardless.