Louis Armstrong
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The 20 Best Jazz Albums for Beginners

If you’ve always wanted to get interested in jazz, jump in. Don’t approach it with fear or a sense that you don’t know enough about it. It’s just a smorgasbord of stuff to enjoy.

“Jazz.” Such a fun (if controversial) word. Jazzy, snazzy, zippy, trippy. Pizazz. But in 2023, so many people are put off by this music. They will say, “I want to like jazz – but it’s so intellectual! You jazz people don’t like regular music. And where would I start?”

It’s not so intellectual. It’s like anything else that is a big body of work that folks have talked about seriously. Like The Sopranos maybe. And where do you start? Right HERE. Sure jazz is a big body of music, but it is full of wonders.

If you’ve always wanted to get interested in jazz, just jump in. Don’t approach it with fear or a sense that you don’t know enough about it. It’s just a smorgasbord of stuff to enjoy. Or not. Take your pick from the variety.

Here are two lists for beginners. There is the historical canon for those who want to be students, but first I’m giving you a list designed to draw you in. No lessons here. No crusty things that don’t groove or only appeal to the brain. But, yes, it’s JAZZ, with the improvising and the daring but without the scary stuff.


Louis Jordan – The Best of Louis Jordan (1940s) then Somebody Up There Digs Me (1956)

Let’s dance! Saxophonist and singer Louis Jordan’s music was called “jump music” in the 1940s when he recorded a series of super-hip records that were proto-R&B or proto-rock but using the tools of a small jazz group. He was a huge influence on early rockers, so hearing his own 1956 re-recordings of his hits, but with a guitar out front this time, brings it all around. Anyone who doubts that modern pop music grew out of jazz just needs to hear these records.

Horace Silver – Song for My Father (1965)

Horace Silver played the “hard bop” of modern jazz but wrote joyful tunes that make you want to tap your feet and never stop listening. Notably, Steely Dan stole the very first sound on this recording (the bass line for the title track) for their hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”). Don’t blame Fagen and Becker – they simply have great taste. All the music here is catchy, not just the title track, and it helps that tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson is featured, including his tune “The Kicker”.

Billy Cobham – Spectrum (1973)

Billy Cobham was the drummer in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, British guitarist John McLaughlin’s band that mashed up jazz and rock. Now, 50 years later, those Mahavishnu records sound brittle, but this small date by Cobham still has the pliant sound of the best American music: horns, guitars, synthesizers, blues, yum. It was recorded at the famous Electric Ladyland studio in two days with no overdubs and all the beautiful mistakes left in, This includes guitarist Tommy Bolin (mainly a rocker who played in Deep Purple and died from a heroin overdose two years later) breaking a string in the middle of a solo. Pianist/synth master Jan Hammer is sublime throughout.

Wayne Shorter – Native Dancer (1975)

In the 1960s, jazz musicians started playing with the Brazilian bossa nova artists who fused samba and jazz to create a new sound. Here, Wayne Shorter (see the canon, below) works with Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento and Herbie Hancock (see the canon) to make a fusion record that is light as a feather. It dances and floats, and I hope it inspires you to listen to more music by Shorter, including his run with the band Weather Report.

The Crusaders – Chain Reaction (1975)

As jazz reacted to rock and soul in the 1970s, there was a strain that wasn’t “jazz-rock” made with stratospheric guitars and synths but something more “down home”. These guys were from Houston, Texas, and the music has a southern funk to it – a bit New Orleans and a bit like the New York scene of the 1970s that is well-represented by albums by the band Stuff or the Brecker Brothers. The hit song “Pick Up the Pieces” by the Average White band owes its vibe to this kind of music. It’s called jazz.

Charlie Haden and Hank Jones – Steal Away (1994)

Charlie Haden grew up singing spirituals and country music with his family band on the radio, then he became Ornette Coleman’s bassist (see the canon). Hank Jones was a classic bebop pianist whose brother Elvin played with Coltrane (see the canon) and whose other brother Thad was a trumpeter and big band leader. These modest but sublime duets are built on classic spirituals and folk songs. The elegance and simplicity of the playing are matched only by its utter sophistication. Is that a contradiction? No, that’s what jazz has always been.

Cassandra Wilson – New Moon Daughter (1996)

This unique singer from Jackson, Mississippi came up singing music by Joni Mitchell as well as wild jazz in downtown New York. In the 1990s she put her sound together in a way that combines Billie Holiday, singer-songwriter folks, Americana, roots explorations, everything. If Norah Jones were ten times better, she would be Cassandra Wilson.

John Scofield – A Go Go (1998)

John Scofield is that rare thing: a jazz musician whose credibility is equally strong in “pure” jazz circles and with folks outside the inner circle. This record, made with the organ trio Medeski Martin & Wood (also a wonderful group of “jazz” musicians who are thought of as “jam” players in the world of Phish-heads and Dead fanatics), is effortlessly grooving and cool. See also the astonishing “jazz” albums by guitarists Bill Frisell (All We Are Saying takes on the Beatles, The Sweetest Punch covers the music of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello) and Pat Metheny (really any of them).

Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra – MTO Plays Sly (2011)

This little big band, led by a trumpeter and acclaimed arranger for rock and hip-hop acts as well as in jazz, takes on Sly Stone’s songbook – and uses Talking Heads/Parliament keyboardist Bernie Worrell along the way. This is the kind of genre-busting stuff that makes up so much of “jazz” in the new century.

Aaron Parks – Little Big II: Dreams of the Mechanical Man (2020)

Aaron Parks is one of a stable of new-century jazz pianists including Brad Mehldau, Matt Mitchell, Gerald Clayton, Robert Glasper, and Jon Batiste. They seamlessly infuse “jazz” with influences beyond the classic jazz canon. Parks’s music has an indie-rock vibe but uses hip-hop rhythms as well. Play it for everyone and watch them grow transfixed.