Here is my list of 25 jazz artists that represent my essential jazz collection and one I would recommend to any newcomer to jazz who wants to get a representative flavor of what the music is about as well as listen to the milestones of jazz' golden era. I have included albums which are essential to the history of jazz as an art form as well as jazz albums that have gained relative popular success, and, therefore, are considered to be more accessible. Also I have included albums which by their sheer beauty are a pleasure to listen to and also very accessible for the neophyte listener. Duke Ellington said, and I paraphrase, there are only two kinds of music: good and bad.
No list of 25 artists or albums can ever be exhaustive. Some of the omissions from this list are big band albums although I've included a few as well as some more on the orchestral side as opposed to the straight ahead big band style. I haven't included a lot of jazz vocalists but Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holliday are nothing to sneeze at. Most of the albums are small groups, but this is where most of the action has been since the advent of the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie Quintet recordings of the mid 1940s.
In my humble opinion Charlie Parker was the greatest innovator and creative musician in jazz history. Most of so-called modern jazz flows from his creativity and inspiration. Unfortunately, he died at an early age (35) due to alcohol and drug abuse. Clifford Brown was the greatest trumpet player, in my opinion. His life was cut all too short by an automobile accident at the age of 24. Miles Davis was always trying to invent the next new thing and he was responsible for several of the seminal developments in jazz from the modal tunes of "Kind of Blue" which was also the all time best selling jazz album, to the chamber music of the "Birth of the Cool" album. His collaborations with Gil Evans produced "Porgy and Best", "Sketches of Spain" and "Miles Ahead." These albums used orchestral instruments such as french horns and oboes to get a distinctly different sound from the typical big band sax section. Several of the recommended albums, including Ella and Louis' "Porgy and Bess" and Roy Hargrove's "Moment to Moment", use full orchestral string sections.
Art Pepper's "Great Jazz Standards" is included because (a) it's a great album and (b) it introduces a novice listener to some of the essential jazz literature.
Another of my biases is that most of the recommended albums are from the post-swing era starting around 1945 although Art Tatum was definitely a player preceding that era as arguably was Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday in terms of her accompaniment. I don't include any "free" jazz because I don't consider it essential to jazz history nor do I personally enjoy it. Wynton Marsalis includes Ornette Coleman among his jazz essentials. I disagree with him there. I also don't include any "lite" jazz or "smooth" jazz as I consider it essentially watered down and diluted. There are enough albums in this list that should be accessible even to the jazz neophyte including some of the best selling albums of all time: Dave Brubeck's "Time Out," the aforementioned "KInd of Blue," Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," and John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things."
In addition there are albums of familiar content such as Oscar Peterson's "West Side Story," Ella and Louis' "Porgy and Bess," Dave Brubeck's "Dave Digs Disney" and Errol Garner's "Concert By The Sea" that are very accessible to anyone with even a modicum of musical let alone jazz appreciation. For sheer orchestral beauty I would include Ella and Louis' "Porgy and Bess," Roy Hargrove's "Moment to Moment," Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige with Mahalia Jackson," Miles Davis and Gil Evans' "Porgy and Bess," and George Russell's ambitious project, "New York, NY," which includes John Hendricks poetical musings.
The two vocal group albums considered here, "Silver and Voices" and "Sing a Song of Basie" deserve special mention, the former for the great writing of Horace Silver and the great trumpet solos of Tom Harrell as well as excellent group singing, the latter for the pioneering arrangements of John Hendricks who put words and vocal arrangements to great Count Basie instumental arrangements including all the horn solos.
Finally, a word about the greatest jazz composer of all time, Billy Strayhorn, whose music can be heard on Duke Ellington's "And His Mother Called Him Bill." In addition to writing Ellington's signature tune, "Take the A Train," he also wrote some of the most beautiful music of all time, jazz or otherwise, including "Lush Life (which he wrote when he was a teen living in the Pittsburg slums!)," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Upper Manhattan Medical Group," "Prelude to a Kiss," and "A Flower Is a Lovesome Things."
Here, finally, is the list:
1. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong - Ella and Louis Sing Porgy and Bess
2. Duke Ellington - Black Brown and Beige with Mahalia Jackson, And His Mother Called Him Bill
3. Art Tatum - Masterpieces
4. Billie Holliday - The Unforgettable Lady Day
5. Charlie Parker - The Essential Charlie Parker
6. Clifford Brown - Clifford Brown and Max Roach
7. Charles Mingus - The Clown, Mingus Ah Um, Tijuana Moods
8. Dave Brubeck - Time Out, Dave Digs Disney
9. John Coltrane - My Favorite Things, Giant Steps
10. Bill Evans - Everybody Digs Bill Evans
12. Roy Hargrove - Moment to Moment
13. Art Blakey - Free For All
14. Wayne Shorter - Night Dreamer
15. Thelonious Monk - Brilliant Corners, Monk's Music
16. Oscar Peterson - West Side Story
17. Herbie Hancock - Maiden Voyage
18. Lee Morgan - The Sidewinder
19. Art Farmer - Modern Art
20. Art Pepper - Modern Jazz Classics
21. Modern Jazz Quartet - Odds Against Tomorrow
22. Errol Garner - Concert By the Sea
23. Horace Silver - Silver and Voices, Song for My Father
24. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross - Sing a Song of Basie
25. George Russell - New York, NY