Since 2001, April has been designated as Jazz Appreciation Month. This annual celebration was instigated by Dr. John Edward Hasse, Curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and a lifelong jazz advocate. The event has gained momentum with each passing year, and has spurred jazz activities in all fifty states and forty countries.
I share Dr. Hasse’s zeal for exposing new audiences to jazz music, and most of my career has found me doing this in a range of settings—in concert halls, in classrooms, in lecture halls, through books and magazines, and now on the web. Few things give me more satisfaction than witnessing the joy and excitement of listeners who are discovering the magic of this great American music for the first time.
But over the years, I have the heard the same lament repeated by people who are new to jazz. Put simply, they don’t know where to begin. A leading jazz discography tells us that some 365,000 jazz recordings have been released over the decades, and by my estimate another 4,000 to 5,000 come out each year, many of them self-produced or issued by small independent labels. New listeners are intimidated by the sheer abundance of all this jazz, and lacking an accessible entry point into the music, never experience its riches.
In response, various jazz experts have put together lists of historically important jazz recordings, touting these as suitable starting points for newbies. In my book The History of Jazz I offer a list of 315 tracks that represent, I believe, a complete survey of the art form since its origins. Just a few months back, the Smithsonian released an anthology of jazz on six compact disks—more than one hundred tracks that will give new listeners an excellent overview of the music.
These lists and compilations are invaluable to fans just starting on their exploration of jazz. Yet for some listeners, this historically sensitive approach is still too daunting—the music seems too complex, the old recordings too scratchy, the unfamiliar names and songs too confusing.
For this reason, I’m offering below a different list of jazz tracks. I’ve thrown out the historical parameters, and chosen recordings simply because they are fun and inviting. Yes, jazz belongs in a museum, but it’s more than just a museum piece. As jazz has gained respectability and become accepted at schools and universities, we often forget that this music came about as a vibrant form of popular entertainment.
So here’s my list of eight fun jazz tracks for new listeners—along with YouTube links for each performance:
Fats Waller: The Joint is Jumpin’
During the 1930s, jazz was party music, and no performer was better suited to be the life of the party than Fats Waller. Even when Waller brought his music into a recording studio, he made it sound like a riotous celebration was underway. “The Joint is Jumpin’” from 1937 captures this loose, rambunctious spirit.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Bright Moments
Fans who saw Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-1977) at a jazz club never knew quite what to expect. He might play one sax, or three at the same time. He would play the flute with his nose, or solo on a strange horn you had never seen before. He could put down all the instruments, and mesmerize audiences with his exhortations and testifying, turning the bandstand into an impromptu soapbox. His “Bright Moments” is aptly name, and an excellent example of the life-affirming spirit that animated this artist.
Cab Calloway: Saint Louis Blues
Cab Calloway was the Michael Jackson of his day—he was even doing Jackson’s signature ‘moonwalk’ dance step back in the 1930s. He possessed remarkable stage presence, great comic instincts and had one of most distinctive voices in the history of jazz. Hear him hold a high G for 8 bars here, then deliver some of the wildest scat-singing ever captured on record.
Cannonball Adderley: Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
This is one of the most soulful jazz performances of the 1960s, and many were surprised to learn that it was composed by Joe Zawinul, an Austrian-born pianist who learned his craft in Vienna, a locale more famous for Strauss waltzes and the Vienna Boys Choir than for simmering funk. Cannonball Adderley enjoyed a hit single with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” in 1967, and it continues to be a crowd-pleaser so many decades later.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
Collaborations between jazz stars can be hit or miss. But the pairing of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong was a match made in jazz heaven. They joined forces on a handful recordings together in the 1950s, and almost any one of them would make a good starting point for a new jazz fan.
Charles Mingus: Better Git It in Your Soul
In 1959, when Charles Mingus recorded this track, the jazz world was entranced by the new avant-garde players arriving on the scene. Mingus himself was a fervent experimenter, but here he countered with one of the grittiest, hard-swinging performances of his career. I especially like the hand-clapping accompaniment that takes over at the midpoint of the song.
Blossom Dearie: I’m Hip
Contrary to what you may have heard, jazz musicians often have knack for humor, and sometimes can even laugh at themselves. On this track, Blossom Dearie even pokes fun at the hipster aspirations of many members of the jazz community. The song was composed by Dave Frishberg, also a fine jazz pianist and vocalist.
Herbie Hancock: Cantaloupe Island
This song was later sampled by the rap group Us3, and served as the basis of their 1993 hit recording “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).” But I suggest you go back to Herbie Hancock’s original recording, one of the best jazz groove tunes of the 1960s, and also a vehicle for a sparkling solo from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.