On a recent episode of “30 Rock”, a character declared that there are three things nobody likes to talk about: soccer, jazz, and I forget what the third thing was, because the whole line was such a stupid, pandering joke – better suited to “Family Guy” than “30 Rock.”
People world-wide love to talk soccer…and jazz is a favorite straw man for lazy comics who, on the other hand, are happy to share with audiences their hilarious obsession with Beyonce, or maybe now it’s Rihanna.
Granted, there are a lot of people who don’t like jazz; but jazz, unlike Rihanna, is pretty easy to avoid. With a little effort, you can probably avoid hearing jazz for the rest of your life, so why the hostility?
If jazz has brought some of this acrimony down on itself – and it has – the fault lies with the pantheon of great jazz recordings.
Let’s say you grew up when I did – the 1970s. The acknowledged great days of jazz are over. Rock and roll is still going strong, and anyway, there’s nothing else for kids to listen to but rock and roll. So you listen to rock and roll radio, and then you get the notion you want to start buying records (or maybe 8-track cartridges). How do you decide to build your collection? Well, you don’t; you just start buying 8-tracks. You like “Slow Ride,” so you buy an album by Foghat.
The same is true nowadays for indie rock or rap or Top 40 or country or Christian – only the format has changed. (Well, that and the “buying” part.)
But, if you think you might be interested in jazz, or your child or niece or nephew might be, you have to confront the pantheon. For starters: Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, A Love Supreme, Time Out – four albums I can live the rest of my life without hearing again.
If you give your jazz-curious nephew A Love Supreme, it could be you’re a sadist…or simply unrealistic. In any event, you haven’t done jazz or your nephew a favor.
The problem with every list of “essential” jazz recordings is that the albums listed are not entry points into the music. They’re always game-changers. What kind of listening experience is that for someone who doesn’t know the game yet?
The bulk of jazz recordings are blowing sessions from the fifties and sixties: the leader, most often a pianist or reed player, would throw together a small group – the ensemble determined by some combination of who the leader had gigged with recently, who happened to be in town, who wasn’t junk-sick or locked up, etc. – bring an original tune or two and arrangements of a couple standards and something currently popular from Broadway or a crooner on the radio, and record six or eight tracks in an afternoon session or two.
That off-hand quality is part of what makes jazz great. Let The Rolling Stones hidey-hole in Nice for two years arguing over every note of their work-in-progress; Stanley Turrentine can cut an entire record while Jagger decides what truffles to have with lunch.
Getting your hands on a bunch of these workaday recordings is a better introduction to jazz than the great deathless masterworks by Davis and Coltrane that are pushed on everyone and leave many (if not, apparently, most) feeling that jazz is just too hard to follow – or even ripe for hatred.
Here are a few titles from the (non-curated) pig-pile near my CD player. You could do worse, and Monk and Ornette will wait for you.
Just Wailin’ Herbie Mann (New Jazz, 1958)
Luminescence! The Barry Harris Sextet (Prestige, 1967)
Good ‘n’ Groovy Joe Newman with Frank Foster (Swingville, 1961)
When Farmer Met Gryce Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce (Prestige, 1955)
McPherson’s Mood Charles McPherson (Prestige, 1969)
Forrest Fire Jimmy Forrest (New Jazz, 1960)
“Smack Up” Art Pepper Quintet (Contemporary, 1960)
We Three Roy Haynes/Phineas Newborn/Paul Chambers (New Jazz, 1958)
Jimmy & Wes The Dynamic Duo Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery (Verve, 1966)
Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges (Verve, 1960)
Soul Station Hank Mobley (Blue Note, 1960)