10 Starter Albums for the Jazz Novice

Clockwise from top: Charlie Parker, left, and Miles Davis circa 1948; Nina Simone in 1985; John Coltrane; and Thelonious Monk.
Clockwise from top: Charlie Parker, left, and Miles Davis circa 1948; Nina Simone in 1985; John Coltrane; and Thelonious Monk. (Center Photos: By William P. Gottlieb; By Rene Perez -- Associated Press; File Photo; Warner Bros.)
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

This isn't a definitive list of jazz essentials by any stretch, just a starter kit from a former neophyte who once aspired to expand his awareness of jazz beyond the theme music from "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." All of these albums are available on Amazon or iTunes.

-- Chris Richards

Duke Ellington "The OKeh Ellington" (Sony/Columbia, 1927-1930)

The District has named a high school, a bridge, a plaza, restaurants and sandwiches after Duke Ellington. Why? Because the city's favorite son has been immeasurably influential on the trajectory of popular American music. But back in 1927, long before that mural went up on U Street NW, Ellington was a 28-year-old bandleader preparing to settle in at the mythic Cotton Club in New York's Harlem. There he would inflect his crowd-pleasing compositions with unprecedented sensitivity, verve and elegance. These recordings capture that pregnant moment in Ellington's young career; it's the sound of pop music waking up to its infinite artistic possibilities.

Essential track: "Mood Indigo"

Charlie Parker "Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings" (Savoy, 1944-1948)

With the birth of bebop in the early '40s, jazz began racing through America's cultural bloodstream at virtuosic speeds. Charlie "Bird" Parker was bebop's Usain Bolt, and these sessions find the saxophonist sprinting into the future, practically daring the world to try to keep up. Bird's bleating was as lyrical as it was nimble, and if you listen closely, you might even hear his solos curling into the double-helix DNA of improvisational jazz to come.

Essential track: "Yardbird Suite"

Thelonious Monk "Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1" (Blue Note, 1947-1948)

Sure, Thelonious Monk was a pianist, but his early works posit him as jazz's great structural architect, punching out new rhythms and new chords, and stacking them where he pleased. He could play piano with a percussive thwack or a gentle stutter, conjuring thunder and snowflakes in the same passage. Today, many of Monk's early compositions have become well-worn jazz standards, but on "Genius" they're recorded fresh off his fingertips. There's still magic in every keystroke.

Essential track: "Well You Needn't"

Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" (Sony, 1959)

Miles Davis often used his trumpet as a weapon of mass seduction, and his 1959 watershed is no exception. He's an improvisational soothsayer here, burning soft and cool, dropping every note in the right place. The perennial popularity of this album is equally intriguing and certainly worthy of closer examination by floundering record industry honchos. Last year, National Public Radio reported that "Kind of Blue" still sold a whopping 5,000 copies a week.

Essential track: "So What"

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