Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (center ring)

10 Essential Albums for Starting a Jazz Collection

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (center ring)

If I’ve seen it once I’ve seen it a hundred times. Someone just getting into jazz ventures online looking for some music to start with, and is instantly inundated with about 500 different choices. Everyone has their own ideas about the best places to start a jazz music collection, and it can get overwhelming pretty quickly. I know because I was one of those neophytes.

So as a public service to all you new jazz lovers out there, here’s one man’s list of recordings that are essential for any new jazz collection. This is not an attempt to chronicle the best jazz records ever. Rather, it showcases some of the more popular movements and artists in the genre, and should serve as a good starting point for further exploration.

#10. Louis Armstrong — The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings, Vol. 1

Louis Armstrong -- The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings, Vol. 1To start a jazz collection with any artist other than Satchmo would be foolishness. This volume contains 20 essential selections from 1925-26, when Armstrong and his Hot Five (Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano/vocals, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo) were essentially forming the basic vocabulary jazz has used in the nearly 100 years since.

I know that this style and sound (usually referred to as Traditional Jazz) is not for everyone, but it’s critical to hear where the music started in order to appreciate where it went.

And hey, you never know, you may love it for more than its prime historical value.

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#9. Dizzy Gillespie — Groovin’ High

Dizzy Gillespie -- Groovin' HighGetting this particular release (Savoy, 2000) isn’t so important as getting most of the songs — which have appeared on probably a few dozen compilations — on it is. That’s because they are basically to the bebop movement what the U.S. Constitution is to American government.

As World War II raged, a seismic shift was occurring in the jazz world. A younger generation of musicians, led in part by trumpeter extraordinaire Dizzy Gillespie, were no longer interested in playing sweet dance music for docile crowds. They wanted to explore the limits of jazz, no matter where it took them.

Gillespie brought a band that included the legendary Charlie Parker into the studio in February and May 1945 and cut some of the most exciting music heard to date. Songs like “Groovin’ High,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House,” and “Dizzy Atmosphere” officially heralded the bebop wave and established the blueprint for jazz since then. It also signaled the passing of the torch from Louis Armstrong to Gillespie as jazz’s greatest trumpeter.

Even now, more than a half century after its recording, this music remains vibrant, fresh, and exciting.

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#8. Miles Davis — Kind of Blue

Miles Davis -- Kind of BlueAny list that doesn’t include Kind of Blue as essential listening is worthless and can be instantly disregarded. Hell, I could make this #1-10 and still have a good list. There’s a reason this album is the best-selling jazz LP ever. It’s pretty much flawless in terms of composition, production, and performance. Even the few flubbed notes that made it through seem to be there for a good reason.

I must warn you about one thing, however. If you end up falling in love with this album as I and countless other millions have, you will search in vain for another that matches Kind of Blue‘s sound and overall feel. And while many have come close, but none has ever matched it. I see people asking variations of “What other albums sound just like Kind of Blue?” all the time, and the answer is that there aren’t any.

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#7. Bill Evans — The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961

Bill Evans -- The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961Like hockey, jazz is best enjoyed in person. But since watching the late piano legend Bill Evans is no longer an option, this set may be the next best thing. It captures Evans with the short-lived trio — whom many consider his finest — of Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian performing several sets at New York’s fabled Village Vanguard jazz club in June 1961.

Two classic live albums resulted from those recordings — Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby — and while they are both excellent LPs, this collection from 2005 flows much more nicely and provides a more true representation of the performances. Evans is in fantastic form, naturally, playing with his rare combination of grace and artistry.

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#6. The Dave Brubeck Quartet — Time Out

The Dave Brubeck Quartet -- Time Out1959 was a damn good year for jazz. Not only was Kind of Blue released then, but so was Time Out. I will simply say of the late Dave Brubeck and this album that it was one of the foundational works in my early exploration of jazz. Forget the impressive musical prowess that Brubeck and his three bandmates boasted — the compositions themselves are just great.

Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” is of course one of the legendary songs in the jazz canon, but only slightly less famous and no less deserving of acclaim is Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” With its inventive mixture of 9/8 and 4/4 swing time, as well as traditional Turkish melodies, it’s almost progressive in nature.

By the time this album was released, jazz had already transitioned from America’s foremost popular dance music to a more cerebral enterprise. Time Out essentially helped to cement and complete that transition. This is music to soothe your mind more than shake your ass, and it’s some of the best ever produced for that.

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#5. Thelonious Monk — Brilliant Corners

Thelonious Monk — Brilliant CornersHow to describe Monk and his music? I’m afraid I’m simply not enough of a writer for that, so I can only say that he was the single most unique jazz musician I’ve ever heard. When you hear the music on this album, your brain might resist at first. It simply doesn’t seem like his piano playing and his compositions should work. But in your soul (whether or not you believe in such a thing), it just feels right.

I don’t think there ever was a man whose music so accurately reflected his personality — because to be sure, Monk had his fair share of problems over his turbulent life, the last decade of which was spent completely out of the public eye. Never mind the bold masterstroke that is this album’s title track; even on sweet ballads like “Pannonica,” the whole thing sounds just a bit unhinged and likely to fall apart at any minute. But somehow Monk keeps it all together and it’s a thing of beauty.

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#4. Wes Montgomery — The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery

Wes Montgomery -- The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes MontgomeryThere may have been more successful or influential guitarists in jazz, but for my money there have never been any as distinctive as Wes Montgomery. Before his late-career transformation into a slightly bland interpreter of contemporary pop hits, the Indianapolis-born Montgomery was born into a musical family (his brothers Buddy and Monk each being very good jazz musicians in their own right).

This album, his sixth as a group leader in three years, is a masterclass in jazz guitar. Making liberal use of block chords and his trademark playing technique — Montgomery didn’t use a pick, but rather the fleshy part of his right thumb to achieve his warm, slightly muted sound — produced one of the most remarkable and memorable sounds in jazz.

To top it all off, the performances and song selections from The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery are impeccable. The album opens with a fiery rendition of Sonny Rollins’s outstanding tune, “Airegin,” before moving into the sizzling, sauntering “D-Natural Blues.” At times hushed and gentle, and at others tastefully forceful, Montgomery leads the quartet of Tommy Flanagan (piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Albert Heath (drums) through eight magical tracks.

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#3. The Mahavishnu Orchestra — The Inner Mounting Flame

The Mahavishnu Orchestra -- The Inner Mounting FlameJazz fusion gets a bad rap, some of it rightly deserved. But in its early years, the mix of rock instrumentation and songwriting structure with jazz melodies and improvisational technique was a potent one. The door that Miles Davis helped open in the late ’60s was blown off its hinges thanks to groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report.

The Inner Mounting Flame is the first release from John McLaughlin’s group, and it’s absolutely stacked. McLaughlin is a guitar genius of the highest order, while Rick Laird on bass and Billy Cobham on drums don’t just lay a solid foundation of rhythm, they pulse and throb with an almost orgasmic quality. To say nothing of course about the formidable contributions of keyboardist Jan Hammer (he of Miami Vice fame) and violinist Jerry Goodman.

The group is as powerful as any hard rock band of the era when they flex their muscles on tracks like the searing “Meeting of the Spirits,” but floats like a gentle spring breeze on others like “A Lotus on Irish Streams.” Fantastic stuff.

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#2. Charles Mingus — Mingus Ah Um

Charles Mingus -- Mingus Ah UmI could probably pick ten albums from 1959 alone to populate this list, but I suppose three is enough. But whereas the Miles and Brubeck albums are largely cool and measured, this is a more raucous affair altogether. From the rowdy Gospel inflections of “Better Git It in Your Soul” to the caustic, politicized “Fables of Faubus,” this is Charles Mingus at the peak of his powers.

While Mingus recorded more ambitious and perhaps fully realized works in his all-too-brief career, Mingus Ah Um is the most fun and accessible. It also contains one of the great jazz ballads ever recorded in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a tribute to the late, great saxophonist Lester Young. I want someone to play something at my funeral the way John Handy plays his sax solo during this song.

This is probably not the first album on this list you should start with, especially if you’re brand new to jazz. But once you’ve gotten warmed up, by all means dive right in.

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#1. Robert Glasper — Double Booked

Robert Glasper -- Double BookedI chose this not because it’s my favorite Robert Glasper album, or even because I think it’s his best. No, I picked 2009’s Double Booked because it represents both where jazz is right now and where it could go. Glasper has been one of the brightest young stars on the jazz scene for the better part of the last decade, and it’s been fascinating to watch his progression. His early albums, while melodically complex and impeccably performed, were a little more tied to the past.

On his 2007 disc In My Element, Glasper hinted at the exciting new directions he wanted to take his music in — where jazz informed the compositions and laid their foundation but where the music could go into any style or genre he pleased. That vision seems to be coming much closer to fruition with his latest album, Black Radio. But it’s on Double Booked where Glasper consciously shows you the transition point.

The first half of the album is performed by the Robert Glasper Trio, and should be structurally recognizable to modern jazz fans. The back half is performed by the Robert Glasper Experiment and deftly fuses jazz, R&B, soul, and funk into a sound that’s fresh and innovative and yet familiar. Had an artist with lesser talent or maturity attempted this move it would’ve bombed horribly. Glasper pulls it off with seeming ease, and thus seems to be setting the stage not just for his growth as an artist but for jazz’s growth as a genre.

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  • Michael Parr

    Your omission of Giant Steps makes me a sad egg.

  • Rob

    This list is really nice. I agree with most of them.

    You’re right about “Kind of Blue” being an essential add to any collection. I used to work at Tower’s jazz department and I can’t tell you how many customer came in, wanting us to start their jazz collection. Not an easy thing to do for them.

    You have to walk the line here – because you don’t want to throw them into the deep stuff too fast, but ease them in slowly. Some of the albums serve as good intros that will encourage the listener to explore jazz more deeply.

    A few more I would add, just off the top of my head:
    •John Coltrane “A Love Supreme.” Or “Giant Steps.” “Or “My Favorite Things.” Pure genius. ‘Nuff said.

    •Stan Getz “Getz/Gilberto.” Yes, “Girl from Ipanema” gets a bad rap, but this is an amazing album, well worthy of the Grammy it received. Plus I find Bossa Nova easy for jazz newbies to digest.

    •”‘Round Midnight” Soundtrack. Really a sampler of great 50s and 60s jazz. Dexter Gordon. Herbie Hancock. Chet Baker. Ron Carter. Recorded live on the set. Some new tunes (including one composed by Stevie Wonder!) but also some classics such as the title Monk tune, “The Peacocks” and “How Long Has This Been Going On”

    •Duke Ellington “Live At Newport” or “Mood Indigo.” The Duke was just completely amazing. And again, he’s the kind of artist jazz newbies can easily warm to.

    •Herbie Hancock “Takin’ Off” 1962 debut album from HH that included the dynamite horn section of Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard – and the tune “Watermelon Man” that would later become big hit for Mongo Santamaria. You also can’t go wrong with his 4th album “Empyrean Isles” that included his composition “Canteloupe Island” (later the basis for the US3 hiphop hit).

  • Chris Holmes

    I found Coltrane very off-putting as a jazz newbie, and I suspect he would be for many others as well.

  • jabartlett

    Coltrane *will* be off-putting if you start with “A Love Supreme.” But “Giant Steps” and “Blue Train” were among the first jazz albums I loved after getting turned on by “Kind of Blue.” They’re a relatively short hop away. And I’d cast a vote for Kenny Burrell’s “Midnight Blue,” too.

  • The Fires Of

    Oliver Nelson – The Blues and the Abstract Truth?

  • The Fires Of

    Oliver Nelson – The Blues and the Abstract Truth?

  • Mordalo

    I would add only this:

    To fully experience Jazz, don’t buy digital downloads. Yes, I realize, in this day and age that statement is not only potentially blasphemous, it’s difficult for most modern music listeners, but you’re doing a disservice listening to music such as this in a lossy format.

    Invest in a good (not expensive, but decent) set of headphones and either find the albums on CD or, if you can, vinyl. There are vinyl platters of most of these out there, and they’ll just sound better. If not, I’m sure you can scrounge up a CD player somewhere.

    Listen to them in one sitting. Block out as many distractions as you can. Only then will you begin to understand what so many already love about this unique art form we know as Jazz is, and what it can be.

  • Curt Shannon

    If the idea is jazz for newbies I’ll suggest the album that hooked me on jazz – “In a Silent Way” by Miles. I realize that that is blasphemy for lots of jazz purists, but it’s not nearly so over the top as “Bitches Brew” and the musicians are impeccable. Other good fusion bands were Return to Forever and Weather Report (featuring alumni of Miles’ groups in that same era.) I agree with Rob too – Duke’s “Newport”, and a personal favorite, Charlie Parker’s “Ballads”, where he actually slows down on occasion.

  • Curt Shannon

    I agree with you for the most part. But sometimes you just put on a great jazz album and do other things and wait for it to sneak up on you. Then put on the headphones and dive in.

  • Chris Holmes

    A fine choice.

  • Guy Smiley

    No Coltrane? WTF! No Sonny Rollins either?

    I think it’s great you included Mahavishnu, though I’d probably pick Birds of Fire. Not that your choice was a bad one.

    I suppose you were only picking one album from each artist, but not including Bitches Brew, or something from Miles’ fusion period, probably should’ve been included. Still, fine list!

  • Christian Kennedy

    Glad to see Mahavishnu Orchestra here. I like Keith Jarrett (I know his humming to the songs are offputting to most) but I can’t live without Les McCann’s “Layers.”

  • Erik

    Double Booked is a heavy record. Glad to see it included, as a jazz musician myself, the first time I heard it, the second half of the album just flattened me.

  • Jazz Neophyte

    Hate to be repetitive but you’ll need to listen to both John Coltrane and Art Tatum for a real taste of the best of jazz.

  • krav1414

    i found coltrane mindblowing as a jazz newbie

  • Mike

    You say you found Coltrane off-putting, yet you said this about Armstrong:

    “I know that this style and sound (usually referred to as Traditional
    Jazz) is not for everyone, but it’s critical to hear where the music
    started in order to appreciate where it went.”

    Coltrane is where it went. The omission of Giant Steps is a Giant mis-Step.

  • Chris Holmes

    Fair enough. Obviously lists like these are subjective. : )

  • Kostas


  • Paul Bracegirdle

    Far too much bop, not to say hard bop, in this selection , ditto Miles Davis. Here’s the ultimate heresy: I think Davis was greatly over-rated, ditto ” Kind of Blue” which for me constitutes a lot of fuss about nothing much! Any collection which doesn’t include ” Kind of Blue” is “worthless”!? Talk about arrogant but then this school of jazz has long been so.Call me a no taste, ignorant idiot, I don’t care. I just cannot abide the noises that Coltrane, Mingus et al make. At least this compiler managed to include King Louis’s greatest tracks- truly joyous jazz- so there is some hope for him! .There you are, I have pinned my colours to the mast and invited the boppers and Davisites and their ilk to fire away as they doubtless will. And why are Red Allen and Roy Eldridge and Bill Coleman missing from this selection?

  • Mike

    Chris – Enjoyed hearing your interview with John Grayson this morning from my home in Detroit via KMOX’s 50,000 watts. If you came up with a next 10, I’m hoping Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd would crack into the list.

  • Bakeca XincontriAdulti

    Cool! I love this list. Thanks

  • jdj

    A great list. My only suggestion: Add some Art Tatum to the list…

  • Val De La Guardia

    I dont think this is a good list for beginners. I had to go trough fusion before enjoying bop, free jazz,etc. For a person new to jazz that enjoys rock i would suggest the following:

    Jimmy Smith – Root Down

    Billy Cobham – Spectrum

    Weather Report – Heavy Weather

    Chic Corea – Elektric band

    Then transition to
    Coltrane – Blue Train
    Miles Davis – ESP

  • Jack

    Leaving Coltrane out of a ten essentials list for jazz is like leaving Socrates out of a ten essentials for philosophy list. Maybe they’re off-putting, but you’ll never know what it’s about without them.

  • Jorge

    blue train John Coltrane

  • Ileane

    Seriously, you can NOT have a top ten without Coltrane. For real.

  • Krum Pir

    Keith Jarrett – Live in Japan

  • DJLori

    Very well put but it is his opinion. I am into rock n roll and found Jazz kinda by accident but I love it. I was a member of Columbia House and have a vast array of music. Enjoy the Music

  • Shannon Kennedy

    These are all really great suggestions and I agree with most of them. I am actually kind of surprised that neither Brecker, Coltrane, Parker, or Hancock made the list… But I understand that some of their music can be hard for a beginner to listen to. I do think that Horace Silver might have been a good addition…

  • ts

    on the above time out album i would highly suggest instead the brubeck at cargagie hall

    1962 that has the songs in that live. much more exciting

  • Sujit Patwardhan

    Many unfamiliar with John Coltrane feel he is difficult to understand. To these Jazz lovers I would strongly recommend “Coltrane Plays the Blues” followed by individual selections like Alabama, After the Rain, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, My Favorite Things, A Love Supreme. There are many more but if you don’t like Coltrane after this – indeed if you aren’t transformed by his music then Coltrane’s not for you but that’s unlikely if you are bitten by the Jazz and Blues bug. Give it a try. It’s a life-changing experience.

  • freshacconci

    Yeah, that’s your taste, I guess. It’s awfully limiting, though. I enjoy Louis Armstrong but love Davis. I think there’s room for both.

  • freshacconci

    Anything that has him playing some pop standards is a good introduction. As beautiful as A Love Supreme is, it might be a bit much for a complete beginner.

  • Bill Stowe

    Wow! Look at the discussion you’ve started here. Whether or not one agrees with your choices the real education for jazz listening rookies are both yours and the selections in the comments that have followed. Essentially, you are all correct in your recommendations. I would hope these remarks are mirrored in schools throughout and become the backbone of some college radio stations that still play jazz. This jazz ain’t background; it’s the music you listen to.

  • Ed Jones

    Honestly, Coltrane was the first jazz artist that I ever really listened too, his sound blew my mind, particularly Aisha from ‘Ole Coltrane’

  • Beau

    Nothing from the Marsalis family? I enjoyed Black Codes from the Underground and Trio Jeepy, though I know the latter was more fun than substance.

  • oscar

    Well, a list of 10 albums is impossible to do for the entire world of Jazz.. even for a beginner. But I would certainly suggest “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane as both important and accessible. I would also suggest at least one Jazz vocal album, maybe Sarah Vaughn, to encompass that aspect of Jazz.

  • Walter

    A Love Supreme was a milestone album – a huge leap in composition and arrangement. It is a little out there, but nothing like Coltrane’s way out there albums like Om. When A Love Supreme came out Coltrane was torn apart by the critics some of whom claimed that he couldn’t carry a melody and that he was no balladeer. DownBeat magazine gave it 3 stars only. To answer those critics, Coltrane came out with three stellar Albums: Ballads; John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman; and John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Those albums are over the top, totally beautiful. It’s unfortunate that so many people associate Coltrane with Acid Jazz when every one of his earlier works were incredible. Many of the songs from them are mentioned on this post. This isn’t the first top ten list to shun Coltrane, and it is such a shame – He was an incredible kindly spiritual person who was a musical genius (pick up one of his biographies) who lost his way with drugs. I’ve listened to My Favorite Things probably 10,000 times, hopefully 10,000 or 20,000 more, and if I had to take only one album with me to a deserted desert island it would probably be it. If you want to develop a first rate collection of birth of the cool albums, and after, (i.e. post big band jazz), start with Kinda Blue, and then go out and get the first few albums put out by each of the musicians on it immediately after that album came out (it’s a who’s who list of late 50s early 60s jazz royalty). Finally, just because some guy posts a top 10 list, don’t believe he or she knows what he is talking about. No Coltrane on a top ten jazz list? It’s like bread without butter. My two cents.

  • Rodger

    Wow.! That was a good try but, A jazz list without MJQ ? or maybe Milt, Percy and John were before your time.

  • Amit Chaturvedi

    you haven’t mentioned linkin park

  • trijaste

    I would sub McLaughlin’s “Extrapolation” for his “Inner Mounting Flame.”

  • Bodhisaxva

    Agreed!! I would argue that Love Supreme was much more influential than giant steps, because all players have incorporated that pentatonic style in their playing now, while Giant Steps remains somewhat of a technical exercise, although certainly an important harmonic development.

  • Bodhisaxva

    I’m not sure how this list does not include Charlie Parker???? Since he more or less begat modern jazz???? None of the early big bands are here (i.e. Duke Ellington or Count Basie), no Lester Young, who was highly influential, no Art Tatum. Although Miles is included, his work with Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock is not here, and is arguably of greater historical impact. We include Wes Montgomery and Mahavishnu, but not Jim Hall??? No Coltrane, as many others have commented. (No Charlie Parker and no John Coltrane makes this list a poor one, to be sure). And then to say that Robert Glasper is somehow indicative of modern jazz and its direction is strange. What of Wayne Shorter’s recent work? Chris Potter? Dave Holland? Herbie Hancock (His River album is both highly listenable and forward looking). Joe Lovano also has been massively influential. I wouldn’t sign off on this list to be sure.

  • Juan Francisco

    It’s difficult to please everyone. For a Jazz newbie I would add:
    – Lady Day and Prez
    – Giant Steps
    – Bird with Strings

  • Bill Altreuter

    A good candidate for people who want more like “Kind of Blue”.

  • Slippy

    Huh. I know everyone’s going to have their own list, and mine shares a good few with the list above, but I’m not sure that list will realistically get a newbie started. Louis Armstrong is brilliant, but that’s likely going to be more for a developed curiosity.

    My intro course consists of:
    Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’ – duh entry
    Dave Brubeck ‘Take Five’
    John Coltrane ‘Blue Train’
    Billie Holliday ‘Lady in Satin’
    Cannonball Adderley ‘Somethin Else’ – may not be the be all end all, but this tends to get people on the program
    Horace Silver ‘Song for My Father’

    Kenny Burrell ‘Midnight Blue’ (great way to get Stanley Turrentine into the program)

  • WhatOneDo

    Sorry amigo but you can’t start a Jazz collection without John Coltrane. I’m sure if you asked every artist on your “essential” list they would say the same. Coltrane was the spiritual voice of Jazz. He pioneered the method of playing multiple notes at the same time. He was an amazing and honest artist. The real deal in my book. I appreciate your dedication to expanding the audience for Jazz music, but leaving out John Coltrane is not right and I would go out on a limb and claim it’s impossible.

  • Özge başak

    These albums are amazing. i will share them on my blog here: