Jazz 101: A Listener's Companion

Duke Ellington at Olympia Park Theatre in 1958. (Photo by Herman Leonard)
Duke Ellington at Olympia Park Theatre in 1958. (Photo by Herman Leonard)

Worth a listen ...

It's About The Music

(This was originally written as an email to a friend of mine who wanted to start getting into jazz. My friend comes from a rock and country background, heavy on the Frank Zappa. I've since saved this and sent it to a few other friends who wanted to know where to start listening to this genre:)

OK, son, you did ask for it ... here's kind of a listener's guide to jazz, version 1.0 etc.

If you have Zappa's albums Hot Rats, The Grand Wazoo, Waka/Jawaka, or The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, those will be a nice intro to the jazz side. Ol' Frank was seriously into the genre. I think he recorded another album in 1969 called King Kong, which features violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, one guy you should check out.

Jazz, by period:

Early days:

- Louis Armstrong -- Check out his earlier period (1930s and before) for his best stuff. Became more of a crossover artist after that, and his lip wasn't in good shape any more.

- Sidney Bechet -- Solidly in the New Orleans tradition, but more a surgeon with his instrument while Armstrong played with more passion.

- Bix Biederbecke -- Cornetist. Could say more with four notes than many could say in 4,000.

The Swing Bands: There are two basic divisions here: Swing bands for dancing, and swing bands for listening. Guys like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey played stuff you dance to. I'll key on swing bands for listening, 'cause that's what jazz was all about back then:

- Duke Ellington -- You should find some of his material at the library; he had an especially long and prolific career. Check out his stuff with Johnny Hodges, or Bubber Miley. He did a live recording at the Newport Jazz Festival (in 1956, I think) that resurrected his career -- the concert was fast heading into train-wreck status until tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves blew the roof off the joint with his long solo in "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue."

- Count Basie -- Always fielded great bands. If you can find it, grab any with Lester Young on tenor sax. Young was an original on sax, trying to whisper on his instrument when everyone else was trying to yell. The Count often put him up on the stand with Hershel Evans, a roaring Texas tenor player, giving the audience a real contrast of styles. Basie got a lot of mileage with his "less is more" approach on piano.

- Lionel Hampton -- Played vibes. Been around forever. My favorite of his songs is "Flying Home" with Illinois Jacquet on tenor sax.

Pre-bop:

- Coleman Hawkins -- pretty much invented tenor sax. His best is the song "Body And Soul." He had to have been 900 years old, but was still in great form on a CD with Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

- Roy Eldridge -- Kind of the "bridge" on trumpet between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Harmonica player Magic Dick with the J Geils band cites him as an inspiration for his own playing.

- Louis Jordan -- Popular, good-time music. Louis was a hell of a bandleader and quite the alto sax player. His stuff was more bluesy than straight-ahead jazz, and a precursor to rock and roll.

Bebop: This was a subgenre put together by rebels who saw their music as being "dumbed down." It's challenging stuff to listen to.

- Dizzy Gillespie -- Always put on an exhilerating show. I got to meet him a couple of years before he died, and although his stamina wasn't what it once was he could still blow up a storm.

- Charlie "Bird" Parker -- a genius on alto sax and part-time heroin addict.

- Bud Powell -- Incredible pianist, seldom operated on all cylinders. All the booze, heroin, electroshock treatments and whacks on the head by cops eventually got to him.

Postbop:

- Miles Davis. His best work is late 1950s through 1960s. His "Kind Of Blue" is indispensable. Went into jazz-rock with "In A Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew."

- John Coltrane -- Check out his earlier (up until 1964) material. His later stuff is great, but it takes a LOT of getting used to, and until you've heard some of his early albums (with Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk, and with his classic quartet) it'll all sound like geese farts on a muggy day. Recommended starters: "Blue Train," "Ballads," "My Favorite Things." Also heard on Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue." His greatest, "A Love Supreme," may take a little getting used to.

- Clifford Brown -- Probably the best trumpet player ever, even though he didn't live past 25. Great sound, lots of ideas, plenty of soul.

- Charles Mingus -- Bassist. He called his band the Jazz Workshop, and the personnel changed from album to album. "Blues And Roots" is a good place to start.

(Note: I did not include the "free" period here, which featured folks like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, or Albert Ayler. Much as I love sitting down with those CDs, I didn't want to scare the poor guy.)

Also, if you're coming from a country direction, check out any of Bob Willis' work with the Texas Playboys. Created the subgenre called Western Swing, and Charlie Parker was one of his big fans. Also listen to anything by Asleep At The Wheel. To catch the connections between bluegrass and jazz, listen to Bela Fleck & The Flecktones' early material: "UFO Tofu" and "Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo." These albums have Howard Levy, a harmonica player who totally intimidates me.

Essential recording:

Miles Davis, "Kind Of Blue" -- I call it the greatest album ever recorded in any genre.

Listening:

Put the CD on and kick back. Pay attention to what's happening. This is very active listening. If you have the CD cover, pull out the liner notes and read them. You'll get an idea of who's doing what, and where they're coming from. Most jazz liner notes are an excellent resource. Most bands have revolving personnel, or a few players called to the studio for a particular project. Check out who's who. You might find a certain player really turns your head and you'll probably begin research on some of that player's other material. It's a process. It was a Charles Mingus album that turned me on to guys like Jaki Byard and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, for example.

Once you start getting into the music, it just gets bigger and bigger.

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Comments 9 comments

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 8 years ago from California

Very good hub about jazz, my favorite genre, along with rock and roll. What, no mention of George Benson's guitar work in the 1970s? Guess you can't list everybody, right. And what about trad and ragtime? Too long ago, I'm hip. Please check out my hubs. I just wrote one on Miles Davis.

Kosmo


ericsomething profile image

ericsomething 8 years ago from Charleston, SC and Riverside, CA Author

Kosmo, one would have to really dig into the archives to find Benson's best jazz guitar work. I've heard some of his stuff with Lonnie Smith (few know who *he* is!) and it's great. George has changed a lot musically since those days, but he's more or less forsaken jazz in the process.


the dentist 8 years ago from Midwest

Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz album of all time. One of the few times the populace got it right.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Great Hub - thanks for sharing. I also love jazz and am linking your Hub to one of mine.

Love and peace

Tony


music messenger profile image

music messenger 6 years ago

Great hub. i love the Duke. I have jazz reviews on my hub. Take a look. I also voted!


ericsomething profile image

ericsomething 6 years ago from Charleston, SC and Riverside, CA Author

I'm definitely a Dukeophile. A couple of my favorites from Ellington are Far East Suite and Money Jungle. The latter one really stretched him musically, playing with Charles Mingus and Max Roach in a trio.


music messenger profile image

music messenger 6 years ago

I agree. Money Jungle is a masterpiece. Anything that pairs the Duke with Mingus is going to be a classic. One of my favorites.


William Bokas profile image

William Bokas 4 years ago from Athens, Georgia

I really enjoyed your article. I just wrote one on Money Jungle, check it out. I agree with your selections for a first time jazz listener. If later they want to get into jazz guitar players, try Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery before you get to guys like George Benson and Joe Pass, but that's just my opinion. Keep up the good writing!


ericsomething profile image

ericsomething 4 years ago from Charleston, SC and Riverside, CA Author

William, good call about the jazz guitarists. But mustn't forget Django. Still blows my mind listening to the things he did on guitar; a modern listener who thinks in terms of recording technology would say there was some serious overdubbing, which didn't really exist back then. It's all him. And to think Django did this with basically half of a left hand.

Read your piece on Money Jungle, commented ... enjoyed it. Thanks.

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