Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) is a celebration and recognition of one of America’s greatest contributions to world culture. JAM was started by the Smithsonian Institute in 2001 and continues to highlight the proud tradition and continuing vitality of this musical form each year.
If you’re new to jazz, you’re probably wondering where to even start with an art form that has a century of history. Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns (also on Hoopla and Kanopy) is not a bad place to begin–as long as you recognize that a 19-hour documentary is just a beginning that scratches the surface. If you’re interested in jumping right into the music, Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings will give you both giants and gems to satisfy your aural palate.
Starting with the giants is a great way to get to know jazz. For about a half century, few stood taller than Louis Armstrong. To get a sense of his influence as both a singer and a trumpeter, check out his early Hot Fives and Sevens recordings, especially “Heebie Jeebies” (the birth of scat singing) and “West End Blues.”
Duke Ellington gained his nickname in childhood, but backed it up as perhaps the foremost composer of the genre. Hear him in an intimate setting in Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, or check out Ellington in his full band glory with Ellington at Newport 1956.
Charlie Parker set a standard on the saxophone that continues to this day and, once one of the top seminal bebop players, you can hear what made everyone so excited on Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve.
Miles Davis started as a trumpet player for Charlie Parker, but went on to record some of the most important works in jazz, including the groundbreaking Kind of Blue, which featured a supergroup including pianist Bill Evans, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly, bassist Paul Chambers, and most significantly, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane.
But jazz is not limited to men at all. Billie Holiday was one of the most controversial voices in jazz, singing about issues both personal and cultural. Some of her best work can be heard on The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959.
Ella Fitzgerald was one of the strongest voices in jazz, and you can hear Ella at her best on Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin.
Jazz has not remained static since the days of Armstrong and Ellington. Like any good art form, jazz has listened to and adapted with the music and the culture around it. Just as Bob Dylan created controversy by “going electric” in the mid-1960s, Miles Davis did the same as one of the early pioneers of fusion in the later 1960s, breaking new ground again with another supergroup when he recorded Bitches Brew. Weather Report, founded by Davis-alumni Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, continued Davis’s jazz rock fusion into the 1970s and 1980s. As jazz spread through the Latin world, the music has absorbed local influences, perhaps most notably on the sublime jazz/bossa nova album Getz/Gilberto by American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto.
Jazz continues to grow with the times. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz musician/composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his oratorio Blood on the Fields. Bassist Esperanza Spalding’s 2012 album Radio Music Society peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200 charts, a sign that jazz continues to resonate with the listening public. Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington is a newer player on the scene, already adding his own style to the jazz tradition. And, if you’re interested in learning how jazz can continue to evolve in the 21st century, be sure to read Nate Chinen’s manifesto Playing the Changes: Jazz for the New Century.
A final few words of advice for the neophyte inspired to explore jazz: appreciate it, dig into it. If you are listening to a CD or LP (or on a streaming site such as Alexander Street), read who else played on the tracks. We've dropped a handful of famous names here, but listening to Charlie Parker can lead you directly to Dizzy Gillespie; Miles Davis can lead to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin. Jazz is a communal music, and looking at who played together is a great way to discover new favorites. There is an audio world to explore with side trails galore– enjoy your adventure!