Editor's note: Bradley Gitz is taking the week off. This column was originally published Sept. 1, 2014.
Although I grew up listening to what is today called "classic rock," I began to gradually lose interest in it by the early 1980s or so--David Bowie's Let's Dance was probably the last rock album I remember taking home and playing over and over again.
Then on the cusp of middle age I suddenly discovered jazz.
I had actually listened to some of the jazz/rock "fusion" stuff and owned some Weather Report and Return to Forever albums, but none of it resonated much at the time compared to Dark Side of the Moon or Led Zeppelin IV. I even recall checking out Miles Davis' Bitches Brew just to see what all the fuss was about, but finding its squeaks and squawks impenetrable.
A friend's assessment that it sounded "like stepping on a cat" seemed apt.
Joining the Columbia Jazz Club as part of a second effort changed all of that. The first three CDs I was sent were Ellington at Newport, Stan Getz's Sweet Rain and Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea, each of which came with a useful little booklet describing their respective places in the jazz discography. Every month thereafter a couple more classic jazz CDs showed up and I began reading just about everything I could find on jazz history.
I doubt that the Columbia Jazz Club exists any longer; I quit after about a year because by then I was capable of tracking down what I wanted to hear on my own. So for the past couple of decades, about 90 percent of what I have listened to is jazz. Music services like Rhapsody have been a godsend in this respect, allowing me to download entire box sets of Dexter Gordon and Chet Baker by just hitting a key on the keyboard, such that I now have way more jazz that I'll ever be able to listen to.
And my youngest son is named "Parker," after Charlie Parker, and because it was much less weird than "Mingus" or "Monk."
Jazz isn't for everyone. No one in my family likes it much and my three boys (even Parker!) despise it to an even greater extent than I did when I was their age, perhaps because it was about all they heard around the house when growing up.
So if we admit that jazz is truly an acquired taste, what albums would I recommend for those willing to give "America's classical music" a fair shot? There's so much to choose from, but the following would, with some repeated listening, be most likely to sink the hook. By this point, I've listened to each of them a lot more than Music from Big Pink or Who's Next.
• Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1959) is one of the most influential recordings in jazz or any other kind of music. An early experiment in "modal jazz," it also features perhaps the finest jazz combo ever assembled in session (including Bill Evans on piano and John Coltrane on sax).
At last count, I have used three of the numbers on it for ringtones.
• Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald's Ella and Louis (1956) combines two utterly incongruous voices--Louie's sandpaper growl with Ella's crystalline purity--to create something magical in jazz balladry.
The pairing was so good, they followed it up with two more--Ella and Louis Again and Porgy and Bess, so you might as well get all three, packaged together as The Complete Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong on Verve.
• Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (1957) has the alto saxophonist borrowing key pieces from Davis' legendary quintet to create perhaps the slinkiest and sexiest jazz record ever.
There has been a great deal of mythology surrounding this recording, including that Pepper had never met any of the other players before the session and was a drug-addled mess throughout, but how much of it is true is hard to figure out. I've been looking for years now for a copy of his autobiography, Straight Life, to check out the claims, with no luck.
• The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out (1959) was allegedly the first jazz album to go platinum and anyone from my generation who grew up in the Chicago area would instantly recognize "Take Five" as the theme song of the WGN late-night movie, with its quintessential expression of composer Paul Desmond's "liquid sax" one of the more intriguing sounds in all of jazz.
• John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963) is not only the best jazz album of all time, but the best album of all time, period, according to a review that jazz enthusiast and historian Daniel Okrent once wrote for Esquire.
I'm not sure how you make that determination, but I know that nothing I have heard sounds as gorgeous as this, with the mating of an unusually constrained Coltrane sax with the rich baritone of Hartman. Their version of "Lush Life" might be my single favorite recording.
And once you've worn those out, you can move on to a second round of Horace Silver's Songs for My Father, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus.
If you don't "get" jazz by that point, you probably never will.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 06/11/2018
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