On Learning to Love Jazz and Wanting to Love it More

One of the more interesting, for me anyway, side effects of my recent commitment to writing is my new-found love of Jazz.

I had a short-lived flirtation with Jazz back in my high school days. I was a member of my school’s concert band (don’t laugh – it got me to Vancouver, New York and Paris) and several of my friends were a part of that and the school’s much smaller jazz style band. I remember that our teachers pointed us to a jazz concert series that would be taking place at the local University one year and a couple friends and I were the only ones I knew who decided to take advantage of it. I really enjoyed the music I heard going to those shows but I didn’t really stick with Jazz any further than that. At the time exploring music wasn’t quite so easy or cheap as it is now.

Fast forward to a few months ago and I decided that I wanted some music I could listen to while writing. The problem I quickly found was that I can’t write when I’m listening to music with lyrics. Other people’s words coming in my ears when I’m trying to get my own words out of my head just doesn’t work well. There are some modern albums with vocals, such as Bon Iver’s Bon Iver or Radiohead’s Kid A that I can listen to when writing. On albums like those the lyrics are just another part of the overall sound and easy to block out. There are also some classic rock albums, such as Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails that are pretty much just instrumental pieces, but I’m going to leave off with the non-jazz albums there. That can be a post for another day.

So I was looking for writing music and decided to try jazz. I had no idea where to start, so I popped over to Rolling Stone and checked out their greatest albums of all time list and looked for jazz. What I found was some John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and I knew those names, so I started there. After listening to them for awhile I popped over to last.fm to see what it might recommend based on the small amount of jazz I’d listened to. That led me to Sonny Rollins. This was a perfect call by last.fm because I’ve loved the Sonny Rollins I’ve tried.

From there I moved on to some not-quite-as-well-knowns (to me anyway): Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey. Art Blakey – now there was a real revelation.

The newest additions to my jazz library are Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Aderly, and Herbie Hancock.  I quite enjoy them all.

So here’s the thing – I don’t know much about any of this music or these artists at all. I’ve picked up some bare-bones knowledge. For example, it seems most of these musicians come from the hard-bop and post-bop eras, or perhaps styles would be a better descriptor. The problem is, I don’t really know what that means, but I want to find out.

Up till now jazz has just been convenient music for me to listen to while writing, but I’ve enjoyed it so much for its own sake that I’m setting myself a little quest to improve my understanding and appreciation of the music, and I’m inviting you to come along with me. So please, pull up a chair and join the conversation. If you know jazz then feel free to share your knowledge; if you’re like me and really don’t know anything then feel free to learn along with me. To start the conversation I’ve ranked my jazz collection in a list. Now I know some people disdain lists, but I like them. They’re good conversation starters and easy shorthand. As long as you understand that this list is simply based on my own limited experience and personal tastes and not meant to make claims as to any album or artists worth versus another then we shouldn’t have any problems.

I’m thinking of doing in-depth album exploration posts where I’ll pick an album and study up on it and then share what I learn and my personal feelings about it. I’m not sure yet if I’ll start at the top, or start at the bottom, or go chronologically, or choose randomly, or what. Any suggestions are welcome.

Anyway, this post is long enough so I’ll give you the list and sign off. But first a couple quick notes about it. First – I like all these albums. Just because Dexter Gordon’s Doin’ Alright is at the bottom doesn’t mean I don’t like it. Second – I’ll be continuing to expand my jazz library going forward, so the jazz album ranking list will be expanded and shuffled as I do.

The Jazz Album Ranking List

  1. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
  2. Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
  3. Art Blakey: Orgy in Rhythm, Volume 1+2
  4. John Coltrane: Giant Steps
  5. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
  6. Sonny Rollins: Tenor Madness
  7. Cannonball Aderlly: Deep Grooves
  8. Sonny Rollins: Sonny Meets Hawk!
  9. Ornette Coleman: The Complete Science Fiction Sessions
  10. Art Blakey: A Night in Tunisia
  11. Charles Mingus: The Clown
  12. Dexter Gordon: Dexter Calling
  13. Charles Mingus: Pithecanthropus Erectus
  14. Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch
  15. Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come
  16. Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage
  17. Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles
  18. Dexter Gordon: Doin’ Allright

3 thoughts on “On Learning to Love Jazz and Wanting to Love it More

  1. Jeff,

    You have a great starter list here.

    Some recommendations, in no particular order (further useful information on each can usually be found on wikipedia), and I’ve stayed away from really avant garde material:

    Experanza Spalding (bassist/singer, so not best for writing, but an amazing new talent)
    Keith Jarrett (pianist/improvisor, also has many great collaborations)
    Duke Ellington (anything)
    Ike Quebec (saxophonist)
    Charlie Haden (bassist, particularly look for collaborations with Mat Metheny and Hank Jones)
    Pat Metheny (anything)
    Esbjorn Svenssons Trio (lots of great material, alas the leader/pianist died a while ago, wonderful, interesting music)
    Sydney Bechet (reed player from the 30s-50s)
    John McLaughlin (guitarist, band leader)
    Coleman Hawkins (saxophonists…ANYthing by him)

    Most of this should be within your current comfort zone, and IMO, some of it is just too good to do anything but just sit and be wrapped in it…)

    Got the link here from your comments on Scalzi’s Whatever on the Creep thread. I’ve been a reader since the early 2000s.

    If you want any more jazz input, or particular album info on any of the above list, you can email me.


    • Thanks for the suggestions Ed. I’ll definitely be checking them out. I’ll probably start with some of the non-saxophonists to give my listening more variety in the lead department. Feel free to stop by here anytime, and I just might take you up on the email offer going forward in my jazz explorations.

  2. Pingback: The New Additions to My Jazz Collection | Jeff Xilon - Looking for a Rabbit Hole

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