The Saint Paul Public Library has many great resources for musicians and listeners alike. This is a guide to jazz music for casual listeners who are looking for a place to start, as well as jazz fans who may wish to dig a little deeper into our catalog. It is not intended for the academic or professional. We'll start out chronologically with some recommended listening that encompasses eleven decades of jazz history through a variety of styles. Click on the tabs above for more CD suggestions along with books and films.
The Greatest Ragtime of the Century (Shout! Factory, 2003)
Although the roots of what we call jazz can be traced much further back, these player piano rolls from 1916 to 1931 are some of the earliest recorded pieces with the syncopated rhythm that would become a hallmark of this great American art form. James P. Johnson and Fats Waller in particular were the bridge from Ragtime to Dixieland and Swing, connecting New Orleans roots with Harlem style.
Duke Ellington: The Essential Duke Ellington (Sony BMG, 2005)
This fine two disc compilation of Ellington in studio and live from 1927 to 1960 makes a good introduction to traditional jazz and swing. Includes contributions from Ellington Orchestra stand-outs like Jimmy Blanton, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, and Johnny Hodges. See also: The Essential Louis Armstrong, which stretches from Louis' early Hot Five recordings made in Chicago in 1925 to his 1968 vocal hit "What a Wonderful World."
Sidney Bechet: Masterpieces, Vol. 7 (Jazz Archives, 1994)
An early innovator, Bechet was the first (of few) major soprano saxophonists in jazz. Though legal troubles led to an erratic career, these recordings from 1932 to 1943 had a lasting impact, and include other early New Orleans and Chicago jazz legends such as Tommy Ladnier, Meade "Lux" Lewis, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Muggsy Spanier, and Baby Dodds.
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie: Bird and Diz (Essential Jazz Classics, 2012)
Charlie Parker was one of the most influential musicians in jazz, emulated by many alto sax players as well as other instrumentalists. Joined here by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Curly Russell, and Buddy Rich, this album features the seminal bop quintet’s “Bloomdido,” among others. The original 1952 Verve release was a collection of 78 rpm singles recorded in 1950, and this CD reissue features bonus alternate takes. If you find yourself craving more Bird (and you will), check out the awesome 8 CD set The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings, 1944-1948.
Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music: Volume One and Volume Two (Blue Note, 1951-52)
These compilations of recordings from 1947 to 1952 showcase the early bop innovator’s classic tunes, including "'Round Midnight," "Ruby, My Dear," "In Walked Bud," "Well, You Needn't," and "Straight, No Chaser" in vibrant performances with ace drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, plus a number of other collaborators (notably Milt Jackson, Kenny Dorham, and Lou Donaldson on Volume Two). Considered somewhat odd and quirky at the time, Monk's compositions went on to become bonafide standards.
Dinah Washington: Dinah Jams (EmArcy, 1954)
A top-notch vocal jazz album featuring the incredible (yet short-lived) Clifford Brown on trumpet, with a relatively small band that leaves plenty of room for the instrumentalists. Stephen Cook of AllMusic wrote: "even though she's in the midst of these stellar soloists, Washington expertly works her supple voice throughout to remain the star attraction, even matching the insane, high-note solo blasts trumpeter [Maynard] Ferguson expectedly delivers."
Machito: Kenya (Roulette, 1958)
While the tight arrangements lean toward dance or even pop music, Kenya is a fun showcase for the percussion-heavy sounds of Afro-Cuban jazz, with some great contributions of alto sax from the wonderful Cannonball Adderley. In 2007, percussionist Bobby Sanabria told NPR "this was an example of the great musical and cultural interchange that was happening at the time between the jazz community and the Latino community in New York City, and still exists to this day."
Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959)
Breaking even further from chord structures than Miles, Ornette’s third album helped pave the way for free jazz, with inventive playing that, in retrospect, can seem tame in comparison to the avant-garde of the '60s. Coleman is joined by trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and versatile drummer Billy Higgins. Highly controversial at the time, but has since been canonized in the Grammy Hall of Fame and declared one of Rolling Stone's "500 greatest albums of all time." Coleman remained a working musician until his death at age 85 in June of 2015.
Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959)
A great starting place in the catalog of the bassist/composer, Mingus' septet comes off like a big band on their debut recording for Columbia. Features the raucous “Better Git It In Your Soul,” the elegiac “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a tribute to Lester Young), and “Fables of Faubus,” a biting satire of the anti-integration governor of Arkansas. A great showcase for some of his lesser-known bandmates such as John Handy, Booker Ervin, Jimmy Knepper, and Horace Parlan.
John Coltrane: Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1960)
Featuring the memorable title track and “Naima,” two of his most enduring compositions, this is Coltrane at the critical intersection of innovative and accessible: somehow hummable even while it spawned an enduring set of chord relations known as "Coltrane changes." If you like this, work your way further into his explorations of sound and spirit with Crescent (Impulse, 1964) and A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1965).
Jimmy Smith: Back at the Chicken Shack/Midnight Special (Blue Note, 1960)
Switch gears with some soul jazz in the classic organ quartet format, featuring the great Kenny Burrell on guitar, Stanley Turrentine on tenor sax, and Donald Bailey on drums. Follow these somewhat relaxed sets with the funky, raucous Root Down, a 1972 live recording for Verve famously sampled by the Beastie Boys.
Stan Getz & João Gilberto featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim: Getz/Gilberto (Verve, 1964)
This laid-back, song-oriented classic is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and popularized bossa nova internationally. Includes Astrud Gilberto's classic bilingual rendition of "The Girl From Ipanema." Tenor sax doesn't get much cooler than Getz's, which pairs wonderfully with João Gilberto's soft vocal and acoustic guitar style.
Bobby Hutcherson: Dialogue (Blue Note, 1965)
Comprised of the complex, intricate compositions of pianist Andrew Hill and drummer Joe Chambers, this was the first of many, varied LPs the avant-vibraphonist released for Blue Note records. See also: Eric Dolphy’s better-known Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964), featuring some of the same musicians.
Miles Davis: On the Corner (Columbia, 1972)
Miles’ last major innovation was popularizing jazz-rock fusion, beginning in the late ‘60s. This release is his most overtly funky of the period, with both Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on keyboards, multiple percussionists, and John McLaughlin shredding on wah-wah guitar. Miles and company are even wilder on Get Up With It (Columbia, 1974).
Joe Henderson: Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Verve, 1992)
The tenor sax player’s tribute to Ellington’s longtime collaborator features two giants of a younger generation, Wynton Marsalis and Christian McBride, and excellent recorded sound, especially on the solo and duet pieces. Beautiful and swingin,' this album earned Henderson a Grammy for "Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist."
The New Gary Burton Quartet: Common Ground (Mack Avenue, 2011)
Burton returns to the guitar-driven format of his pioneering 1967 foray into jazz-rock fusion, with a swinging, lighter touch, led by the fantastic young guitarist Julian Lage and anchored by Grammy-winning drummer Antonio Sánchez. This group performed at the 2011 Twin Cities Jazz Festival in Mears Park
Chris Bates’ Red 5: New Hope (Near North Studios, 2012)
This CD proves that we have a vital local jazz scene in both composition and performance. Bates leads on acoustic and electric bass with his prolific brother JT on drums, Brandon Wozniak and Chris Tompson on reeds, and Zack Lozier on trumpet. Check out the local tab for more great artists.