Getting Jazz

I took a friend to a jazz club recently and, despite the powerhouse performance laced with complex improvisations, the experience was a disappointment to my friend. I had built up the event as something special, but he just didn’t “get” jazz. I suspect the root cause was that he was not properly prepared for the encounter, not schooled in the history of the music and thus unable to hear it in a context that made musical sense. He said it was just “interesting” and that he could “appreciate the mastery.”

My own appreciation of contemporary jazz is based in part on listening a lot to the precursors of the hard bop style and extended improvisations of modern jazz. This historical perspective is just as important in jazz as in classical music, where an informed listener can understand more modern classical forms in the context of, say, music from the Baroque Period. It is, for example, easier to hear the magic in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring if you are familiar with what came before.

I have compiled a list of jazz performances that, in a manageable time frame, could provide a short course in the progression of the music from the original Dixieland originating in the back streets of New Orleans, progressing through ragtime, swing and the other major “movements” to the challenging styles of the present. This is not the “definitive list” or a “complete list” but it’s a pretty good one. More is omitted than is included, but anyone with a minimal ear can listen to the changes through time, without a detailed analysis of what is actually going on, and hopefully learn to dig the sound and the freedom that inheres in jazz music. Jazz deconstructs music to its core elements and reassembles it in new ways. As Cyrus Chestnut says at the end of the first set at each performance: “We’ve enjoyed playing these songs and we promise never to do it again.” He means that the improvisation will be different each time, a spontaneous reimagining of each tune. Like chess games, no two performances of the same tune are the same.

Here is my list:

Louis Armstrong                                  West End Blues

Sidney Bechet                                       Summertime

Jelly Roll Morton                                   Black Bottom Stomp

Pete Fountain                                        Rampart Street Parade

Art Tatum                                               Tiger Rag

Count Basie                                            One O’Clock Jump

Dorsey Brothers                                     St. Louis Blues

Charlie Parker                                         Cherokee

Charlie Parker                                         Scrapple From the Apple

Lester Young                                            Stardust

Ben Webster                                             Stormy Weather

Coleman Hawkins                                   Body & Soul

Bud Powell                                               Bouncing with Bud

Thelonious Monk                                    ‘Round Midnight

Thelonious Monk                                    Straight No Chaser

John Coltrane                                           Giant Steps

John Coltrane                                           One Up, One Down

George Shearing                                      Lullaby of Birdland

Art Blakey                                                  Moanin’

Modern Jazz Quartet                               Softly As In a Morning Sunrise

Erroll Garner                                             Autumn Leaves

Stan Getz                                                   Girl From Ipanema

Stan Getz                                                   These Foolish Things

Miles Davis                                                So What

Miles Davis                                                Oleo

Dave Brubeck                                            Blue Rondo a la Turk

Dave Brubeck                                            Take Five

Marcus Roberts                                         What Is This Thing Called Love?

McCoy Tyner                                              Passion Dance

Stefon Harris                                              Black Action Figure

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