A Crash Course in Jazz Appreciation

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 27, 2014 · 76 comments

in Travel & Leisure



It’s the music that many men say they like, but don’t actually know anything about.

Which is a shame for a whole host of reasons.

For starters, jazz has had a major influence on most popular music genres in the 20th century — rock, hip-hop, Latin…the list goes on and on. Having an understanding of jazz will give a music connoisseur a deeper appreciation of whatever their favorite genre happens to be.

Second, jazz music perfectly encapsulates the American ideal of collaboration mixed with individuality, and its history is really the history of the country. Born from the music of African-American slaves, it intertwines with so many different facets of modern American life – movies, dance, art, literature, and of course, race. Thus, an understanding of jazz will provide the student of history a fascinating window into 20th century America.

Third, I think it goes unnoticed by lots of folks, but there’s definitely a masculine ethos that underlies jazz. Its emphasis on the solo and improvisation requires a performer to embrace risk, and adds an element of palatable bravado to the music. What’s more, while jazz is certainly collaborative, it’s imbued with a competitive spirit as well. Jazz musicians of the past often tried to one-up each other in virtuosity and in moving the music in brand new directions. Piano players in 1920’s New York would often muster for rousing back-and-forth “battles,” each man trotting out his best stuff during late night cutting sessions. These kinds of competitions in musical mastery continue today, even taking the popular form of the piano bar that has become so trendy in the last few years.

Finally, jazz music is simply good music. There’s a genre of jazz for every man out there. At least, I think so.

If you’ve ever wanted to get into jazz, and don’t know where to start, below we’ve laid out a beginner’s introduction to the different genres of jazz, along with a few artists and songs for each that serve as good starting places for the neophyte to dip his toes.

Hopefully this post will serve as a springboard for getting deeper into this uniquely American music, so that the next time someone asks if you like jazz, you can do more than nod!

The Blues (late 19th century-present)


Lead Belly

Like jazz, the blues also traces its roots to 19th century Southern plantations where slaves and later, sharecroppers, would sing work songs while they toiled under the hot sun. As African-Americans learned to play European instruments, the guitar became a popular accompaniment to the soulful singing and led to the development of the blues style. The blues is characterized by a specific chord progression — often the twelve bar blues progression — as well as blue notes. A blue note is a note sung or played at a slightly lowered pitch than the major scale, which gives the note that distinctly bluesy, sad sound.

While blues developed side-by-side with jazz in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz artists would incorporate many bluesy elements into jazz — particularly the twelve bar blues progression. It’s been said that when jazz gets too abstract, it always returns to the blues.

Artists You Ought to Know

W.C. Handy. Considered the Father of Blues; driving force behind the mainstreaming of blues.

Huddie “Lead Belly” Leadbetter. Wrote dozens of blues songs that have been covered countless times. Legend has it he was shot in the belly with a shotgun and survived, hence the nickname “Lead Belly.”

Bessie Smith. This singer’s style would leave a profound impact on later jazz vocalists.

Songs to Check Out

Ragtime (1895—1918)


Scott Joplin

Along with the blues, ragtime was an important pre-cursor to jazz. While it could be played with other instruments, ragtime is primarily music for the piano. The defining feature of ragtime is a syncopated rhythm — accenting the notes that aren’t usually accented which gives the music an offbeat feel. The techniques used by ragtime pianists would influence later jazz pianists.

Artist You Ought to Know

Scott Joplin. “The King of Ragtime.” Composed two of the most famous pieces of ragtime music (see below).

Songs to Check Out

New Orleans Jazz (1900-1920)


Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers

New Orleans Jazz originated with the black brass marching bands of New Orleans. Consequently, instruments like the cornet (very similar to trumpet) would become a staple in jazz. As ragtime swept the nation, these New Orleans brass bands began composing and playing more syncopated pieces. In addition to ragtime, band musicians blended in the bent notes and cords of the blues.

The invention of the Big Four beat by musician Buddy Bolden gave room for artists to improvise, and made the jazz we know today possible.

New Orleans jazz bands were typically small and consisted of a “frontline” of a cornet/trumpet, clarinet, and trombone, and then a “rhythm section” that had at least two of the following: banjo, string bass, drums, and piano. This group of instruments was the primary vehicle in New Orleans Jazz. Improvisation was collective and would be heard when a lead instrument would engage in a spontaneous counterpoint to another instrument. The jazz soloist had yet to take center stage.

The spread of New Orleans Jazz across America was quick thanks to the invention of the phonograph player. Many New Orleans Jazz musicians left New Orleans and set up shop in Chicago and New York during the Great Migration.

Artists You Ought to Know

Buddy Bolden. Sometimes called the Father of Jazz; discovered or invented the Big Four beat that made jazz possible.

Joe “King” Oliver. Cornet player and bandleader; pioneered the use of mutes (placing something like a hat over the end of the trumpet to muffle the sound a bit); mentor and teacher of Louis Armstrong.

Jelly Roll Morton. Began as a ragtime composer; the first jazz composer; loosened up the syncopated rhythm of ragtime so there was more of a “swing” in the music.

The Original Dixieland Jass Band. They weren’t actually the original — they called themselves the originals for marketing; band consisted of all white members; made the first jazz recording ever; helped popularize jazz music among white Americans.

Songs to Check Out

Chicago (1920s)


Louis Armstrong

Jazz bands in Chicago differentiated themselves from New Orleans bands in several ways, such as replacing the banjo with a guitar, adding a saxophone to the horn section, and changing from a 4/4 beat to a 2/4. But the most important change to come out of Chicago was the ascendency of the individual solo.

And the man who pioneered and mastered the jazz solo was Satchmo himself: Louis Armstrong.

Artist You Ought to Know

Louis Armstrong. Trumpet player; pioneered the jazz solo; had talent for melodic improvisation and an unmistakable voice. While Armstrong is closely associated with New Orleans Jazz, it was in Chicago that he made a name for himself.

Albums to Check Out

  • The Hot 5s  – Armstrong’s first album with the band he led under his own name. Check out “Two Deuces.”
  • The Hot 7s – Armstrong’s second recording with a band led under his own name.

New York (1920s)


Duke Ellington

From Chicago, jazz traveled to New York where even more innovations occurred, the most important being the development of stride piano, a style which would play a prominent role in jazz from then on out. Larger bands began forming in New York City, which paved the way for the Big Band Era of the 1930s.

Artists You Ought to Know

James P. Johnson. Considered the father of stride piano. Wrote “The Charleston.”

Duke Ellington. Moved from Washington D.C. to NYC in the 1920s. Considered one of the greatest jazz composers ever and many of his songs have become American standards. Ellington and his orchestra was the house band at the famous Cotton Club in 1927.

Songs To Check Out

Swing and the Big Band Era (1930-1945)


Benny Goodman and His Orchestra

Up until the 1930s, jazz music was enjoyed primarily by a specific sub-culture of the US population. Its associations with the seedy side of life as well as African-American culture made it unpalatable to much of mainstream white America. That changed with the rise of the Big Band Era in the 1930s. Because the Great Depression put so many regional jazz bands out of work, jazz musicians were plentiful and cheap during the 30s. Consequently, a few prominent jazz bandleaders were able to build large orchestras.

Instead of the more syncopated, “hot” style of earlier jazz, Big Bands played a looser, flowing style called swing. Swing music is primarily dance music and several new styles of dance were inspired by swing music including the Lindy Hop and the jitterbug. In addition to jazz, Big Bands also played American standards, often giving them a jazzier feel in the process.

After WWII when the economy picked up, putting together a large orchestra became much more expensive and Big Band and swing music died out.

Artists You Ought to Know

Fletcher Henderson. Credited with establishing the formula of swing music; formed one of the first Big Bands; considered (along with Duke Ellington) one of the greatest jazz arrangers ever.

Benny Goodman. Called the “King of Swing”; one of the greatest jazz clarinet players ever; first jazz musician to play Carnegie Hall; because he was white, Goodman helped popularize jazz music with white Americans; one of the first bandleaders to lead an integrated orchestra.

Count Basie. Piano player and bandleader; had a much more sparse playing style than Ellington.

Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington continued to be an influential voice all throughout the Big Band Era.

Cab Calloway. Bandleader and singer; prognosticator of jive talk and “hi di hi di hos”; wearer of zoot suits; Cab Calloway and his orchestra was one of the most popular big bands during the swing era.

Songs to Check Out

Jazz After the Big Band Era

Since its beginning, jazz has always been a music catered to a popular audience. It was music to dance to or at least tap your feet to. But around the late 1940s, a shift began among jazz musicians. Instead of writing music for a popular audience, they began writing music for themselves. As Grammy nominated jazz musician Marc Cary told me, “Jazz started to get heady after the Big Band Era.”

Jazz became more and more abstract. While jazz has always been improvisational, musicians had always improvised within a set of constraints. After the Big Band Era, musicians began pushing the boundaries of what constituted jazz or even music. This desire for complete liberation from traditional musical confines was simply a reflection of changing attitudes and ideas in post-war America. Experimentation increased dramatically within jazz during the post-war years and the speed at which new styles developed increased as well.

With the above in mind, as we explore jazz from 1950 and on, note that it becomes increasingly difficult to categorize artists and even particular songs. Many jazz musicians straddled several different styles of jazz all at once and mixing genres was common.

Bebop (1939-1950)


Dizzy Gillespie

The origins of bebop go back to the 1940s when young musicians playing in more traditional Big Bands would get together after shows for all-night jam sessions in which experimentation was encouraged. According to jazz historian Ted Gioia, bebop was a rebellion against “the populist trappings of swing music.” Bebop artists eschewed simple riffs for more asymmetrical ones. Solo improvisation took a more prominent role, and the tempo picked up. When you listen to bebop it sounds sort of frantic and racing. It’s nothing like the bouncy and danceable big band tunes of the prior decade.

Artists You Ought to Know

Coleman Hawkins. Tenor saxophonist; laid the foundation for the bebop era in a 1939 recording of “Body and Soul”; led a combo that included Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Max Roach; recorded the first bebop session in 1944.

Charlie Parker. Nicknamed “Bird”; saxophonist; he, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, became leading figures in the bebop era.

Dizzy Gillespie. Trumpet virtuoso; his puffy cheeks, bent horn, and scat singing became his trademark; infused Afro-Latin music into jazz.

Thelonious Monk. Piano player and considered one of the great jazz composers; his style was very indicative of bebop — angular and abrupt; composed several songs that are now jazz standards (“Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser”).

Bud Powell. Piano virtuoso — sometimes called the “Charlie Parker of Piano”; he, along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, are credited with the development and maturation of bebop.

Max Roach. Drummer who helped develop the bebop style of drumming. Played with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and others.

Songs to Check Out

Cool (1949-1955)


Miles Davis

Cool jazz was a direct response to bebop. While bebop was fast, frantic, and frenzied, cool was relaxed. Musicians downplayed the rhythm and focused on the melody and experimented by incorporating classical music elements like the whole tone scale. Cool bands would also include classical instruments in their line-up. Cool jazz is sometimes referred to as “West Coast Jazz,” though jazz aficionados would argue there’s a difference between the two.

Artists You Ought to Know

Miles Davis. Trumpet; one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century; not only lead the development of cool, but also played an integral role in the development of hard bop, modal, free, and fusion jazz. His album Birth of the Cool defines cool jazz.

Dave Brubeck. Piano player and leader of the Dave Brubeck Quintet; considered one of the great jazz pianists.

Gerry Mulligan. Saxophonist (though he played other instruments, too); played the saxophone with Miles Davis in Birth of the Cool; collaborated with Chet Baker.

Chet Baker. Trumpet player in Gerry Mulligan’s band. Became one of the defining figures of cool jazz.

Songs & Albums to Check Out

Hard Bop (1951-1958)


Art Blakey

Many jazz musicians felt that cool was too classical and European. Hard bop was a return to jazz that was more blues-based and Afro-centric. Hard bop musicians incorporated influences from gospel and rhythm and blues music into jazz.

Artists You Ought to Know

Miles Davis Quintet. Several influential jazz musicians played in this band during the hard bop era.

Art Blakey. Drummer who helped develop hard bop drumming; his style is still influential today.

John Coltrane. Saxophonist; member of the Miles Davis Quintet.

Sonny Rollins. Tenor saxophonist.

Horace Silver. Pianist who helped develop hard bop.

Songs to Check Out

Modal (Late 1950s)


Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Bebop and cool compositions were usually based on predetermined chord progressions. In contrast, modal jazz tunes, were based on a predetermined mode, or a certain musical scale. Also, unlike bebop or cool where changes and shifts happened quickly, in modal, the changes in modes happened very slowly. Because modal musicians only had to think about how to mix up the seven notes in a mode, they could focus more on creative improvisations.

Artists You Ought to Know

Miles Davis

John Coltrane

Songs & Albums to Check Out

Free Jazz (1959-1970)


Ornette Coleman

As we’ve seen, ever since the Big Band Era, jazz musicians pushed against musical constraints. Free jazz was pretty much the elimination of any and all limitations. Instead of compositions being based on a series of predetermined chords or even modes, free jazz was simply based on sounds. Musicians would often make squeaks and squawks by over-blowing their horns. Extreme improvisations and creativity were encouraged.

In addition to eliminating predetermined chords, free jazz musicians often eliminated predetermined meters. Free jazz returned to the collective improvisation of New Orleans Jazz — the different members were constantly reacting to each other. Old became new. Free jazz captures the loosening norms in American society during the 1960s.

Artists You Ought to Know

Ornette Coleman. Played several instruments, but most known for his work on the saxophone. Often considered the father of free jazz.

Cecil Taylor. Pianist known for his highly energetic and complex improvised sounds; his piano playing style is very much percussion-like.

Charles Mingus. Bassist; defies categorization, though is often associated with the free jazz movement because he favored collective avant-garde, New Orleans-style improvisation.

John Coltrane. Coltrane’s later recordings are vey much influenced by free jazz.

Songs to Check Out

Fusion (1969-1990)


Herbie Hancock

After nearly three decades of exploring the boundaries of the avant-garde, jazz musicians in the 1970s began to bring back jazz to the mainstream with jazz fusion. Or how Cary put it, “Fusion was jazz’s last ditch effort to make jazz popular again.”

Jazz fusion is the fusion of jazz with different popular genres of music, particularly rock and funk. Jazz fusion combined the power, rhythm, and simplicity of rock ‘n roll with the sophisticated improvisation of jazz. Electronic amplification as well as other electronic musical devices from rock and funk gave jazz a different sound.  While some critics and traditional jazz musicians don’t think jazz fusion is actually jazz, this style did introduce jazz to an entirely new audience.

Artists You Ought to Know

Miles Davis. What genre of jazz did Davis not help shape?

Weather Report. One of the earliest and most influential jazz fusion groups.

Herbie Hancock. Piano player who played in the Miles Davis Quintet; pioneered electronic instruments in jazz; his type of fusion typically combines funk with jazz; one of the most influential living jazz musicians today.

Chick Corea. Keyboarder; pioneered electric jazz; brings Latin jazz elements into his jazz fusion.

Freddie Hubbard. Trumpet player; fused funk with jazz.

Songs & Albums to Check Out


I hope you enjoyed this introduction to jazz and I hope this has inspired you to dig deeper into the genre.

I want to thank pianist and composer Marc Cary for his help on this post. His insights into jazz in the post-Big Band Era were extremely helpful. Check out his latest album on iTunes or Amazon.com I also want to thank friend, colleague, and jazz manager Charles Brack for his suggestions on artists I should include. Thanks to him, “Mr. Clean” is now a regular in my iTunes lineup.

If you’d like to delve deeper into the history of jazz, I highly recommend two books that I used in the research of this post:

The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia

Notes and Tones by Arthur Taylor

Other resources:

Jazz in America

NPR’s Jazz Page

{ 76 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian W. February 27, 2014 at 10:52 pm

If you have the time, (or if you don’t, make it) I’f suggest you watch all of Ken Burn’s Jazz. It’s a long form version of this post, with interviews of Jazz’s greats, past and present. At the and, you’ll have a good understanding of Jazz 101.

2 Elliot L February 27, 2014 at 11:26 pm

Wow, this certainly is an awesome article! As a ragtime piano player myself trying to get into jazz, this really helps straighten out the entire culture of jazz for me. I will definitely be referring to this in the future.

Thank you again.



3 Ben February 28, 2014 at 12:15 am

Great article! One brief correction: I believe you meant W. C. Handy (the legendary blues composer) rather than W. C. Hardy.

Also, I’d offer a shoutout out to Oscar Peterson too. Of course you can’t mention everybody in an article of this scope. But, in my opinion, he was one of the all-time greats. Incredible harmonic vocabulary, melodic phrasing and always groovy. His 1962 album, Night Train, is delightful listening.

Here’s one more for book suggestions too: http://www.amazon.com/Norman-Granz-Used-Jazz-Justice/dp/0520267826

I’m fascinated by Granz and admire the way he used his love of jazz and musical influence to fight racial prejudice.

Thanks again for a great article!

4 Jonny February 28, 2014 at 12:42 am

Well, I know which post i’m going to have open in the background the next few days.

Let the Jazz lessons begin.

Thank you.

5 Top Dog February 28, 2014 at 1:04 am

Hi Brett and Kate,

First of all, I want to compliment you on your writing. This is an outstanding article and it shows that you took a lot of time and effort in producing such a fine article!
If you get the chance, listen to the cover song by Nirvana of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” If I am not mistaken, it’s the last song on their album “Unplugged In New York.” Nirvana did an incredible job covering this song (there’s a lot of emotion involved and will bring tears to your eyes) and it’s one of the few covers that are better than the original (in my opinion).

Again, great article!

Top Dog

6 GumboVariation February 28, 2014 at 3:17 am

Don’t forget Zappa ! the musical genre !

7 Dirk February 28, 2014 at 3:41 am

John Coltrane was most definitely a tenor saxophone player though.

Also a shout-out to Scandinavian Jazz. Please give a listen to Jan Johansson. Made jazz compositions based on Swedish folk tunes. Wonderfully sublte, his album “Jazz pa Svenska” is an absolute classic.

8 DavidR February 28, 2014 at 3:55 am

Well written article. I second the suggestion to watch Ken Burns. One of my personal highlights was seeing Dave Brubeck live. He was 89 and brilliant.

9 Bernat February 28, 2014 at 4:18 am

I do not see Buddy DeFranco mentioned anywhere, best clarinet player of all times.

10 Rich February 28, 2014 at 5:26 am

Great article that brought back so many memories……for those who’re interested check out the history of Chitlin’ Circuit and it’s influence on the spread of jazz & blues. It led to some amazing jazz venues in surprising places like the Eastwood in San Antonio, TX and the Bronze Peacock in Houston. ,

11 whistler February 28, 2014 at 5:40 am

The problem with beginning such a list in the chronological beginning is that listeners may confuse the quality of recordings with the quality of music. I recommend that people start listening to recordings from ~1959, and then work their way forward and backward until they find what they like. Albums recorded in 1959 include the following:
Kind of Blue (Miles Davis)
Giant Steps (John Coltrane)
Portrait in Jazz (Bill Evans)
Mingus Ah Um (Charles Mingus)
Time Out (Dave Brubeck)
The Shape of Jazz To Come (Ornette Coleman)
Finger Poppin’ (Horace Silver)
and several others whose names left my wandering mind just now. These albums are quite varied in style, and even though I like tons of jazz not in this list, 1959 is a good starting point.

Also absent from this post is the fact that people are still recording real jazz today. Check out Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, etc.

12 Sandy February 28, 2014 at 6:58 am

Super article.

I would also suggest/recommend
Dr. Gordon Vernick’s podcast (available at iTunes). Look for Jazz Insights.

Jazz is the voice of our [American] people… white, brown, black, pink, or purple.

13 AJ Britton February 28, 2014 at 6:58 am

Several of my favorite metal and hip hop artists incorporate jazz elements into their sound, enough to make me want to actually get into jazz. This article has really helped me get started!

14 Erik February 28, 2014 at 7:48 am

Fantastic article!

15 Nate February 28, 2014 at 8:13 am

I’ve always been a huge fan and appreciator of Jazz and the Blues. I think it is from the experience of learning to play the viola at a very early age. Although I no longer play, I attribute learning to play as the main reason why I have such a breadth of musical appreciation. New Orleans is my favorite style. Aside from that Miles Davis is the man.

16 Bryan February 28, 2014 at 8:34 am

I’ve always enjoyed good music but have maybe a little below average knowledge about specifics. Recently, a friend of mine who has formal music training got me intrigued by jazz by describing some of the unique characteristics you mentioned in the intro. I’d been interested in learning more, but hadn’t had a chance to start trying to sift through the mountain of info. This looks like exactly the starting point I was looking for. Thanks Brett and Kate

17 Matt February 28, 2014 at 8:46 am

Whistlers advice is sound. I too started around the year 1959 and worked my way forward and backward.
My current fav artist is Pharoah Sanders.
Great article!

18 Rick February 28, 2014 at 9:14 am

Great primer, but I have a couple fairly minon corrections, both regarding John Coltrane:

1) “Alto saxophonist; member of the Miles Davis Quintet” Coltrane was primarily a tenor player, though he made some very important recordings on soprano as well. He did play alto very early in his career, but it wasn’t until after he switched to tenor that he began making a name for himself. He also played alto on ‘Live in Japan,’ but that was because he was presented with a Japanese (Yamaha) alto, and wanted to show his appreciation.

2) “Coltrane’s later recordings are vey much influenced by free jazz.” Coltrane’s later recordings are influenced by earlier free jazz efforts, but that makes them sound like they weren’t otherwise significant. In fact, they pushed the boundaries of free jazz (and music), and became the springboard for the likes of such free jazz visionaries as Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, and many more.

19 Daniel February 28, 2014 at 9:57 am

When looking at this evolutionary chart of Jazz music, where does the zydeco genre fit in?

20 Matt February 28, 2014 at 10:00 am

Fats Waller. You can’t forget Fats Waller.

21 David Guba February 28, 2014 at 10:14 am

This is a great post! Funny thing is that I was working on a nearly identical post for my blog. I’ll have to work a different angle, but I should still be able to do it. Solid work!

22 Aaron February 28, 2014 at 10:41 am

Why does this stop at 1990? No credit for today’s great artists like Boney James, Euge Groove, or Chris Botti? They don’t deserve to be dismissed. I hope there was an intention to write a part two and include the greats of smooth jazz. I look forward to it.

23 David P February 28, 2014 at 10:46 am

Excellent post! So many to choose from over the great history of Jazz but a great sampling. I threw together a Spotify playlist as I worked through the article and it’s chock full of awesome. Check it out it you’re interested. http://open.spotify.com/user/5tots/playlist/7bjzmEYQBSf6C1Isu34qQQ

24 JazzFan February 28, 2014 at 11:07 am

You forgot Jelly Roll Morton under the Ragtime section. And Louis Armstrong started in New Orleans. He went to Chicago with Joe “King” Oliver. Oh, one more. Sidney Bechet. I’ll stop now because I could go on and on… Yeah, I love the history of Jazz. I’m teaching that in one of my classes this semester.

25 Branden February 28, 2014 at 11:08 am

I’m a huge fan of jazz fusion. Return To Forever’s “Romantic Warrior” and Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire” are a couple more albums that are worth attention, as well as the solo works by the members of those two bands. (I’ll let you WIki if you want to explore further, that’s a lot of people for me to name.)

A lot of modern extreme metal bands, such as Exist (In Mirrors EP), Cynic (Traced In Air), and Atheist (Unquestionable Presence) actually incorporate a LOT of jazz elements into their music as well, so if you’re a younger person used to listening to much heavier music, that can be a way to get yourself a taste before diving in. (I guess, in a way, THAT is REALLY jazz’s last-ditch effort to become popular again lol.)

26 Bryan J. Oates February 28, 2014 at 11:19 am

Wakin’ up in the morning, with a cup of coffee, my favorite website/ magazine, and my boy Brett speaking on Jazz… what could be better?

Thanks for this… love it!

Bryan J
(Lacey, WA)

27 Nick Pierce February 28, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Great post. To add on, I’d like to mention that none of those styles if jazz were limited solely to their time period. New Orleans and Chicago styles are performed and enjoyed to this day, and often fused with other styles like funk, rock, or even hip-hop. See the Youngblood Brass Band and the Hot 8 Brass Band for examples.

28 Jeremy February 28, 2014 at 12:20 pm

I love jazz in all its forms. Thanks for this article! Jazz is just a road that you can go down forever. It’s fun to pick an artist, see who influenced him, listen, then see who played with who, listen, then who influenced them, who they influenced, who they played with, and it goes on forever and ever.

29 Anthony N. Emmel February 28, 2014 at 12:51 pm

what? No, Woody Herman?

30 Luis Sancho February 28, 2014 at 12:52 pm

What? No Mahavishnu Orchestra in fusion? Talk about bravado and risk, that is omnipresent on those two first albums (Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire). Records one hears over and over and still would find new things.

31 Matt S February 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm

No mention of Glenn Miller?

32 Byron Jourdan February 28, 2014 at 1:38 pm

This might be the most timely article I’ve ever seen. My wife and I just had our first son on Wednesday and decided to name him Miles (not after Miles Davis, but just because we like the name Miles). I figured we can’t have a son named Miles and not be pretty familiar with his music. I’ve obviously heard of him, but don’t know much about jazz. This will be a great place to start!

33 Leia Ingram February 28, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Great article once again!!! My favorite genre of music, aside from hip-hop and R&B (during its glory days as actual music that expressed emotions and social attitudes) has always been jazz. My favorite sub-genres of jazz are jazz fusion and smooth jazz, which, alas, was not mentioned in this article. Smooth jazz was popular in the mid-tolate 1980s (I was born in 1985, around the time it started to get popular on the radio, especially the year after in 1986, when Kenny G broke out with his debut album “Duotones”) and I believe it started around the late 1970s with guys such as Bob James and David Sanborn. Wikipedia has a nice entry on this sub-genre, which started losing popularity around 2007 or so on the radio. I know that in 2009 that they swapped out the smooth jazz station in the D.C. Metro area for a classic rock station that played some good old school rock classic (from around the ’50s to the ’70s). Both stations have since gone to Internet and HD radio where they are played non-stop. The removal of the jazz stations from the air around the country has practically made me boycott the recording industry. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some good music out there, but most of it is garbage.

P.S. Kudos to the man who mentioned the Mahavishnu Orchestra in his comment. :D

34 JJ February 28, 2014 at 2:21 pm

I would only suggest that soul jazz (Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Ramsey Lewis, etc.) be included.

35 No Names Please February 28, 2014 at 3:02 pm

If you live in Denver you need to check out Dazzle Jazz

36 Chris A February 28, 2014 at 3:56 pm

No mention of the incredible Bill Evans? Much shame! Aside from having his own fantastic body of work, it is widely accepted that Evans was highly influential in Miles’ standout ‘Kind of Blue’, both as a composer and a player. His style was so unique, and heartfelt, i’m really surprised he’s been overlooked here.

37 Shawn February 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm

No Django?!

38 GF Bishop February 28, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Moanin’ was by Bobby Timmons, not Art Blakey, though he was Blakey’s sideman. Other than that, this is a really great article, I would like to see more.

39 Sgt. Joe Friday February 28, 2014 at 4:24 pm

I think Vince Guaraldi a/k/a “Dr. Funk” deserves a mention. How many of the late Baby Boom generation got their first taste of jazz through the Peanuts TV specials that featured Guaraldi’s music? Linus and Lucy, Cast Your Fate to the Wind, and other Guaraldi classics have held up remarkably well – hard to believe those songs are nearly 50 years old.

40 Russell Scarbrough February 28, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Might be helpful to mention that jazz is indeed alive and well today, and continues to develop and renew itself, despite what you might be led to believe by Ken Burns and others. In fact, most jazz musicians playing today were born after this timeline ends. (!!)

There are plenty of guys (and ladies) out there playing beautifully in the “older” styles nicely summarized above. But there is a 21st century jazz that thrives with 21st century elements, a kind of (for lack of an official name that future historians will no doubt coin) post-modern jazz. Played by musicians who studied the older stuff, but grew up around rock, hip-hop, and digital technology, 21st century jazz doesn’t consciously “fuse” jazz with anything the way 70′s musicians did, trying to get the energy of rock in a jazz setting, for instance. Instead, today’s jazz flows organically out of the music we heard growing up, and studied as kids. It’s harder, therefore, to identify the different elements from which it comes. Electronica, classic jazz, contemporary classical music, hip-hop, Radiohead (that’s a big one lately)… not only is it all grist for the mill, 21st century jazz musicians don’t even acknowledge there’s a difference. “Genre” is like a big box of crayons with the labels torn off. But there is still a love of groove, and of spontaneous creation. If that’s not enough for the old folks and historians to call it jazz, then like Miles said, “Call it anything”…. cause we’re still playing.

So check out Dave Douglas, The Bad Plus, Tim Hagans, Stefon Harris, Bela Fleck, Kneebody, Ben Monder, Vjay Iyer, Chris Potter, The Claudia Quintet, Ingrid Jensen, Medeski Martin & Wood, the San Francisco Jazz Collective, Ellery Eskelin, Joe Locke, Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Theo Bleckmann, Joshua Redman…. just a sampling of really outstanding, innovative new small-group jazz, and all very listenable stuff.

Like big bands? I do, and they are on the creative edge these days: Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, John Hollenbeck, Ed Palermo, Guillermo Klein, the Bjorkestra, and the Jazz Big Band Graz are all playing stuff that was unheard of 20 years ago. And there’s a lot of diversity in both of those lists.

If you find it hard to jump directly into the classic records for whatever reason, you might enjoy the sounds of some of the contemporary names I’ve given. Hopefully as you get drawn into this fantastic new music, you’ll want to check out where their language came from in the really wonderful classic recordings.

Happy listening, and discovering!
Russell Scarbrough
(I would have put links if these comments allowed them)

41 Brady February 28, 2014 at 5:02 pm

A Night in Tunisia was written by Dizzie Gillespie while he was playing with Earl Hines’ band, not Charlie Parker.

Other than that, great article.

42 jdanter February 28, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Excellent jazz overview.
‘Preciate discovering that Duke’s “Flaming Youth” is the AoM podcast theme song.

I like the 1920s/early 30s hot jazz.
Fess Williams And His Royal Flush Orchestra – Hot Town is a great one.
On YT- http://youtu.be/EiUeCAgk_BQ

43 Nameless February 28, 2014 at 6:18 pm

No mention of Sun Ra?!?! :)

44 Helen February 28, 2014 at 8:33 pm

I’ve always loved listening to cool jazz. (we called it slow jazz) Great article Brett & Kate!!

45 Michael de Percy February 28, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Keep it coming AoM. I must admit to learning so many interesting things from the diverse content I find in my inbox each day. This article provides a brilliant overview and sufficient examples to explore more of the forms I enjoy (like Weather Report’s “Birdland”, for example) but really didn’t know where to start. Thank you.

46 mrG February 28, 2014 at 10:01 pm

hey! it was just getting to the good stuff!! where’s Sun Ra, Josh Redman, The Bad Plus, Darcy Argue …

oh and the ODJB wasn’t about marketing, it was about rivalry; once the core band became super-famous, disgruntled ex-members started calling themselves the Dixieland Jass Band too prompting Nick LaRocca to add the ‘Original’ and rightfully so as his was. Worthy of mention are also the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and absolutely also Mitchell’s Jazz Kings and James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Band!

47 cody February 28, 2014 at 10:40 pm

the ink spots were a good band they weren’t necessarily a jazz band but had jazz elements in their music

48 Romain March 1, 2014 at 3:43 am

When I saw the title of this article, I though “there’s no way this is going to cover all the essential artists”, but it did managed to do so for 80-90% of the article, which is a feat!
A lot of artists from the 60′s onwards have been omitted from the list, but that’s understandable, given the growth in jazz artists and album releases around that time.
I think the main omissions are:
- Pharoah Sanders (my favourite jazz artist, like Matt): should be mentionned somewhere in there, though he straddles a lot of genre, mixing free jazz, fusion and African and Oriental rythms and instruments.
- Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever for the Fusion genre. Especially the Return to Forever “circle”, which included other very successful and great fusion artists like bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola, drummer Lenny White and Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim (alongside her husband Airto Moreira, they released some fantastic latin jazz albums).
- The “Soul Jazz” genre epitomised by the CTI label, which released Freddie Hubbard’s albums (Hubbard is one of my favorite jazz artists, if you like Mr. Clean from Straight Life, I highly recommend his albums Red Clay and First Light, whose eponymous song is great in the morning after waking up), Stanley Turrentine (Sugar), Milt Jackson (Sunflower), Grant Green, George Benson, Grover Washington Jr., etc.
- Scandinavian/European modern jazz: epitomised by the German label ECM.

Great article either way.

49 Salient March 1, 2014 at 8:33 am

Thanks! Exactly what I’ve been waiting for. I always wanted to expand my drumming to Jazz but never knew where to start listening or learning. New Orleans Jazz on the streets is all I’ve really heard.

50 Kieran Greenfield March 1, 2014 at 9:44 am

Great article AoM! I have been a fan of jazz for a while now but have never really pondered to a great extent about its origins. A really good crash course that has given me motivation for doing some of my own research into genre.

51 Kent Sanders March 1, 2014 at 10:32 am

Brett and Kate, thanks so much for your time and effort in producing this article. I had no idea this was an area of interest for AoM! Just goes to show what great depth and breadth of content is here. Thanks again!

52 Dan March 1, 2014 at 10:47 am

Glad to see I’m not the first to be befuddled by the absence of Bill Evans. This man made jazz move for me in a way that no one else had (apart from the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts work).

53 Joel March 1, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Yes, i did not know almost nothing about jazz before reading your post.

I don´t know if it fits here, but Brazilian Jazz is fabulos too.

If anyone is interested in hearing jazz just go to jango radio (jango.com), they have a very wide selection of music (any kind of music), and they have a lot of “stations” like cool jaz, jazz fundamentals, bebob, classic jazz, and also you can find stations classified by your favorite artists like Charles Mingus station, Miles Davis station, etc.

Thank you.

54 Matt March 1, 2014 at 5:54 pm

Great article, but I’m also a little disappointed you didn’t mention contemporary jazz. (Yes, some call it smooth jazz, but I’ve never understood that label since not all of the songs are “smooth.”) Contemporary jazz is what got me into jazz (which is now one of my favorite genres). I know some jazz snobs don’t consider it to be jazz, but whatever. I still love it!

55 Michael Caleb Tasker March 1, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Ben Webster & Art Tatum… my one and only love. Humble pie for Coltrane.

And Jelly Roll mentioned anywhere these days is a blessing!

56 Dave Davis March 1, 2014 at 9:48 pm

Something to think about: Bluegrass music is the Ozark Mountains version of jazz. It uses many of the same conventions (call and response, individual improvisation). Mountain music., as did traditional jazz, took its inspiration from spiritual music, although bluegrass drew more equally from the Scottish-Irish-English dance tune tradition.

57 Jon March 2, 2014 at 12:22 am

Great article, but I feel that any discussion of jazz that does not include the names Glenn Miller and Bill Evans is not complete!

58 Romain March 2, 2014 at 4:43 am

Salient, if you’re interested in jazz drumming,
listen to Art Blakey (as was mentionned by Brett & Kate), and also Elvin Jones (listen to John Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things” for a preview; Elvin Jones has released a lot of albums as a band leader with the Blue Note label) and Billy Cobham or Tony Williams for Jazz Fusion.

59 Romain March 2, 2014 at 4:48 am

Agree that the absense of Bill Evans is a sin haha. He’s probably the most important jazz pianist of the 20th century, after Ellington. His body of work is indeed breathtaking.
If we’re mentionning Bill Evans, we might as well also mention Ahmad Jamal. His albums from the early 50s to the mid 70s were at times groundbreaking, and always very entertaining. And he’s still playing today at jazz festivals, 60 years after starting, how amazing is that !

60 Boris DeLaine March 2, 2014 at 12:56 pm

I love this website. because of the diversity of interests represented. This was a great article and there should be a part 2. Interests in Jazz is akin to personal quest. There are so many artists that could not be included in this articles. I consider Jazz to be the first form World Music, because it was able to embrace many forms styles, cultures, belief systems and instruments.

Thank you AoM!

61 Evan Martin March 2, 2014 at 5:24 pm

And of course in this modern day, there are artists still playing every one of these styles (although a little searching may have to happen to find them).

62 Richard March 3, 2014 at 7:54 am

Very nice overview!

I wonder where my personal favorite – Exotica a.k.a. “Space Age Bachelor Pad” – would fit in (assuming one can consider it as Jazz). See Martin “Quiet Village” Denny, Les “Ritual of the Savage” Baxter, Raymond “Powerhouse” Scott, and Juan Garcia “Latin-esque” Esquivel…


63 Devin Anderson March 3, 2014 at 8:53 am

What about gypsy jazz started by Django Reinhardt and all? Unless this is strictly American. Gypsy jazz was more of a European/French thing.

64 Devin Anderson March 3, 2014 at 8:56 am

Also, Xiu Xiu has a Nina Simone cover album titled, “Nina”. Really cool stuff, weird/eccentric vocals with some nice free jazz backing band.

65 Devin Anderson March 3, 2014 at 9:04 am

Also, jazz played a very loose role in early hardcore punk with bands like the Bad Brains and Black Flag. Check out Black Flag’s “The Process of Weeding Out”. Really cool, experimental, instrumental album they released.

66 James March 3, 2014 at 5:41 pm

For those who prefer the Big Band genre, another very respectful and popular artist was Glenn Miller. Well known for doing covers to other songs (In The Mood), he also composed several famous pieces and conducted one of the better saxophone players of the era, Tex Beneke. Check them both out if you have the time, I highly recommend it!

67 Keith March 4, 2014 at 7:04 am

Weather Report, getting some love! Jaco Pastorius was a hero of mine back when I was learning the bass.

68 Tyler March 4, 2014 at 11:32 am

Brett and Kate, this is a fantastic article. However, I feel like a couple genres and artists were left out:

– I saw no mention of people like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. While they didn’t do much pioneering (in my opinion), they are a huge part of jazz culture, and they helped influence contemporary artists like Michael Bublé.

–Recently, there has been the emergence of a genre called electroswing. This combines modern electronic music with many of the jazz types you mentioned here. The result is typically a very upbeat style that’s really fun to dance to.

Speaking of dancing, I’d love to see an article here on swing dancing. It’s a lot of fun to learn, and it calls back to a time when manliness was the greatest achievement in life.

69 Jon March 4, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Fantastic article, however don’t forget the influence of Kansas City and the Blues and Jazz museum on 18th and Vine right next door to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

70 Alex March 5, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Ah, one of these days I’ll get my organizational skills together and pick up my old tenor again. There’s something about closing your eyes and playing free…

71 St. Vital Kid March 6, 2014 at 8:43 am

Please don’t overlook jazz guitar. There are a multitude of players past and present worth checking out. For starters, may I suggest:

Tal Farlow
Wes Montgomery
Kenny Burrell
George Benson
Ed Bickert
Lenny Breau
Pat Metheny
John Scofield

…just to name a few.

72 SEO Diaz March 7, 2014 at 10:27 pm

I was just browsing some online courses and found: https://www.edx.org/course/utaustinx/utaustinx-ut-8-01x-jazz-appreciation-1149

Maybe someone will find it useful… I will surely take it

73 Jorge Naranjo March 8, 2014 at 1:34 am

Hello Brett and Kate,

I’m a guitarist and a musicology grad student at City College in NYC. I thought you guys wrote a solid article for people who are looking to begin listening to jazz music. As other people have mentioned in the comments, there are so many artists that can be talked about, but then this article would go on for days, haha. If you both ever need someone to write an article about other styles of music or are just looking for information, feel free to contact me.

P.S. I’m surprised nobody said anything about Joe Pass. Only one of the greatest jazz guitarist ever in the history of ever!!! Haha.

74 Ryan P Owens March 10, 2014 at 8:56 pm

A word of caution about the Ken Burns documentary that was mentioned by one of your users: it is heavily biased towards early Jazz and African American jazz. While it does touch on some of the newer wave (and by that I mean the Rat Pack, Chet Baker, etc), it does not treat them with the same gravitas and respect.

75 Moshe March 11, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Great article! I also wish Brazilian jazz were included — Stan Getz is one of the greats and bridges worlds. As for Gerry Mulligan — well, his role with Dave Brubeck and his playing on Take 5 have to rank as a milestone for contemporary jazz for sure!

76 Jesse March 20, 2014 at 8:11 am

I’ve been an AOM reader since 2012. I started liking Jazz since 2008, I’ve found this article quite informative, lots of things I didn’t know.
here’s a link i think you might find usefull
(if you like jazz)

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