Jazz Listening 101: A Primer For Students Of Exemplary Songs Of the Genre
by Dr. David Fodor
I was recently asked by a friend for a good online jazz listening resource that covered a broad range of history of the music and featured its best exemplars. I jumped at the chance to create such a list, and in doing so, realized that many others might have a similar need – especially with the start of the new school year. This list contains links to audio and video recordings on the internet that were all active at this writing.
Since 2017 is the 100th anniversary of recorded jazz music, I started at the very beginning with my list. The categories below are mostly chronological, so you might introduce it to your students in that order. However, I would also suggest that you might use it in other ways:
Consider presenting it in reverse order, by exploring the most recent artists and then discovering the earlier music that influenced them, working your way back through time. The latter approach is more authentic to the jazz idiom learning process, as young performers often learn to imitate their favorite contemporary artists, then begin to assimilate the styles of others who influenced them, and finally they develop an innovative style of their own.
A third way to explore this list is by category. Perhaps you have a combo this fall that wants to explore examples of Bebop music. Or maybe you want your jazz ensemble to listen to exemplars from the first big band era to learn more about the early performance styles.
A fourth way is to start with the stars. The * indicates core contributors to jazz history: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. If you can only sample a few recordings from this list, these are a great place to begin.
Finally, no list like this can ever be comprehensive, and I am sure that many of you will wonder why other artists are missing or why the modern era is not categorized more thoroughly. My goal was to give novice listeners a grounding in the genre that would lead them to explore the music more on their own. I’d welcome your comments and suggestions for enhancing this list for future use.
Everyone’s path exploring jazz music is unique. Something resonates – and some things do not. About a month after I shared my list, my friend who requested it wrote to me to thank me for the information, and to ask me about Keith Jarrett (who is not on the list!). He had discovered the pianist through another link suggested by one on the list. He was mesmerized. When I asked him what it was that he liked about Jarrett’s playing he replied: “It’s almost ethereal sounding with the changes in tone and volume that happen both where you kind of expect them but also where it’s really surprising. Some of it feels almost like you’re going for a walk or a drive.”
The teacher in me was beaming upon reading his response – my novice jazz aficionado had found a deeply personal and emotional connection with improvised music that he might have never found without a little help from a list.
May the list below do the same for you and your students this coming school year!
FIRST JAZZ RECORDING:
1917 Original Dixieland Band – “Dixie Jazz Band One-Step”
This is where it all began almost exactly a century ago, with a small ensemble from New Orleans. This style can still be experienced live at Preservation Hall in NOLA. It was mostly full ensemble playing – not soloistic work.
FIRST JAZZ SUPERSTAR:
*1927 Louis Armstrong – Early: “Potato Head Blues”. Louis brings the concept of soloist to the Dixieland sound. Although Louis never changed his approach to playing music, he remained an enduring presence even into his final years: “What a Wonderful World”, featured in movies and hitting the top of the Billboard charts: “Hello Dolly”.
Other influential artists to explore on your own: Jellyroll Morton, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Django Reinhardt, and Fats Waller.
PREMIERE COMPOSER OF AMERICA’S MUSIC:
*1933 – Duke Ellington – “A Bundle of Blues”. Ellington created jazz compositions and developed orchestras filled with great soloists from the mid-1920’s until his death in 1974. Here is a video from the latter years: Duke Ellington 70thBirthday Concert in Paris.
BIG BAND ERA:
Benny Goodman – Best remembered as the band that brought jazz into the classical realm by being the first jazz group to perform in Carnegie Hall. He popularized the clarinet as a jazz instrument in the Swing Era, and his drummer, Gene Krupa, immortalized the tom-tom solo in “Sing, Sing, Sing”.
Glen Miller – The epitome of the original big band era sound. “In the Mood”
Woody Herman – After 1945, the big band era gave way to Bebop, but the Woody Herman band exemplified the best of both genres: “Four Brothers”. He incorporated the “hip, new” up-tempo and intricate solo work of the Bebop scene in a big band setting.
*Count Basie – My personal favorite of the big bands, Basie re-defined the role of the rhythm section in a big band – piano, guitar, bass, and drum set. Whereas the Ellington Band was a large group of soloists that played together, the Basie Band focused on playing tightly together and made room for great solos. Like Ellington, the Basie band spanned many decades and influenced the music significantly. 1941 – “Swingin’ the Blues”. Here’s a full video of the band from later in his career: Count Basie Live in Europe, Paris, 1981. This clip shows off the highly refined rhythm section style at the beginning!
Thanks to the big bands, many singers got their careers going by being featured with the bands.
Ella Fitgerald – was among the best, and her career spanned the longest of the great female singers. Here she is early on:“A Tisket, A Tasket”; Here she is singing with Louis Armstrong – a huge influence on her style: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”.
Frank Sinatra – One of the best male jazz singers. Here he is with the Basie Band in Las Vegas in 1966 – the height of the Rat Pack: “Come Fly with Me”.
If you like vocalists, also be sure to check out Sarah Vaughan, Billy Holiday, Mel Torme, and – of course – Tony Bennett.
*Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie – The patron saints of the style. Here is a 1952 video of “Hot House” with both of them playing: “Hot House”
*Miles Davis – No jazz musician re-invented himself more than Miles. First a product of the Bebop movement: “The Last Bebop Session”, he redefined small group jazz in the “Cool” style: Birth of the Cool, and continued to infuse current musical trends until his last album: Miles Davis Do Bop.
Thelonius Monk – 1963: Monk’s Dream. Quirky, angular, and inspired piano playing and writing.
Stan Getz – Best known for bringing the Bossa Nova style into the jazz realm, making Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and others a household name in the 60’s: Getz/Gilberto.
JJ Johnson & Kai Winding – Gotta throw in some trombone heros: “This Could be the Start of Something Big”.
Dave Brubeck – His quartet of the 60’s introduced odd-meter to the jazz world, proving that 5 and 7 beat measures could swing, too. Here’s “Take Five”.
Charles Mingus – Way ahead of his time compositionally, Mingus and his groups continued to stretch what was possible in jazz expression. Here is perhaps his most popular album, Ah Um.
*John Coltrane – His journey from Bebop to the final recordings merit your full attention – in chronological order. It is a lesson in the development of the entire small group jazz vocabulary from its inception to its zenith. For starters, try these three – early, middle, and late – as examples of what I mean: 1. “Be-Bop” also includes vibist Milt Jackson: “Be-Bop”; 2. Video of quartet in mid-60’s: John Coltrane Quartet in Jazz Casual; 3. Coltrane’s final album: Expression.
THE “MODERN” ERA:
Although various incarnations of the musical styles above continue to be created, the absorption of new music styles and advent of electronics ushered in new kinds of jazz. Here are a few examples that I believe will stand the test of time:
Chick Corea/Gary Burton (1972) – From Crystal Silence: “Senor Mouse”.
Weather Report (1977) – The ever-popular album Heavy Weather.
Yellowjackets (1981) – Listen to “Matinee Idol” from Yellowjacket.
Medeski, Martin, and Wood (1996) – Here is a live video from Austin, Texas. Quite a contrast from the very first jazz recording in 1917!
YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN FROM HERE:
Enjoy exploring this always-morphing improvisational American original music called jazz! Other contemporary musicians to check out: John Scofield – Guitar, Brad Meldau – Piano, Kurt Rosenwinkel – Guitar, Chris Potter – Sax, Esperanza Spaulding – Bass, Matt Wilson – Drums, Marsalis’ family – Ellis, Wynton, Bradford, Jason, and Delfayo, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling – singers.
Dr. David Fodor is the Coordinator of the Jazz Education Network Young Composer Showcase, and a forty-year veteran music educator and performer. He retired from public education in 2013 to pursue new musical opportunities performing in several big bands, conducting the Wilmette Community Band, and presenting music clinics and workshops throughout the Midwest.