Hi guys, sorry about the incommunicado around these parts. We’re still in the bunker, working to finalise the first mini-series of The Great Everything podcast. We’re kicking things off with an intro to 10 classic jazz artists. We love all the music, and we think it’s a real shame that jazz, one of the Great human achievements, has this entry barrier that prevents more people from enjoying it. But here’s the thing – it doesn’t have to be that way. That barrier? It’s mainly self-imposed.
We all get confused by some parts of jazz and assume we need in-depth knowledge to get it. But all we actually need to do is listen out for a few things and have a loose grasp of the different styles. With our podcast mini-series, we’re going to help you do that by taking this mesmerising (but sometimes mystifying) musical style and breaking it down – giving you all the basic context, listening tips and artists’ stories you need to start getting more out of the jazz you listen to. Oh, and we’ll be getting excited about some of our favourite American cities and throwing in some cool bits of human history in the process.
One of the ways we’ll be doing this is by taking you through the 10 classic jazz artists you need to know to get started with jazz. And because we feel bad about how reclusive we’ve become as we do all our research and teach ourselves how to record and edit a damn podcast (and the licensing requirements… fugheddaboudit…), here’s a little taster of the artists you’ll be learning about on the mini-series. We’ll have a lot more to say on the podcast about each of these, so if you’re interested in learning a little more about these fellas, tune in soon.
Caveat: any list of only 10 classic jazz artists is going to be incomplete. There’s just so much talent and innovation involved in every decade that you inevitably have to cull some incredible performers. Our list shamefully misses off people like Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and all of the jazz fusion guys, to name a few. But we think the ones we did select will be perfect to give you a good sense for the development of jazz and the different styles that make it the wonderful and varied art form we both developed a deep love for.
1. Louis Armstrong
Louis Pops Armstrong might be the most important musician in the history of jazz, and music more generally. He took New Orleans jazz from its primordial state as a vibrant but chaotic improvised music and transformed it into a celebration of the soloist’s personal expression. His revolutionary recordings in the 1920s created the basis of much of our modern music, with his inventive trumpet solos and innovative singing introducing us to new sounds, rhythms and tones. You could say he invented swing, that sense of rhythmic propulsion that is at the centre of jazz and of all the many musical forms that stem from it. Without context, to the modern ear, his music can sound obvious, old fashioned, and cheesy. But all it takes to appreciate his unparalleled genius is to hear what music was like before and after Louis. As Dizzy Gillespie succinctly said about him years later:
No him, no me.
But aside from his incredible innovations, what we love about Pops is thewarmth and unbridled joy that bursts through his horn. Every one of his solos, even in the most melancholy songs, feels like a ray of sunshine brightening our day and reassuring us that everything’s going to be alright.
2. Bix Beiderbecke
Bix is probably the most controversial addition to this list, but we’re gonna stand by it. The troubled cornetist was the first Great white jazzman and his relaxed style was a precursor to the cool jazz scene. Not just that, but his brilliant chemistry with saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer was an early prototype for Great trumpet / sax partnerships to come: Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
In many ways, Bix was the exact opposite of Louis Armstrong: a laid-back, pensive alternative to Pops’ hot New Orleans frenzy. Where Armstrong’s tone is bright and bouncy, Bix’s sound is mellow and melancholy. Even his tragic, short-lived life stands as a mirror image to Louis’ joie de vivre in the face of adversity. What we love most about Bix is his clear tone, and how each note pops with militaristic precision – like shooting bullets at a bell, they’d say.
3. Duke Ellington
Not much you can say about America’s Greatest songwriter that hasn’t already been said. Quite literally one of the classic jazz artists, Duke was instrumental in advancing the concept of jazz as true art, worthy of the same level of intellectual discussion as opera or classical music. Over the course of his long career, he composed more timeless jazz standards than any other artist before or since. An outstanding pianist in his own right, Duke’s true talent lay in his ability to mould an orchestra to his individual voice, while still allowing his individual band members to express their own personalities. He also brought an elegance and sensual exoticism into jazz, injecting the whole genre with a sense of dark mystery. As Wynton Marsalis puts it:
Duke’s best music takes you to a dimly lit room at midnight where something of interest is about to take place.
4. Benny Goodman
The King of Swing was probably the most popular musician of the 1930s. The explosion of the radio brought Goodman’s Swing style into the mainstream, turning jazz into a worldwide phenomenon. Goodman himself was perhaps the very first pop idol, acting as a template of sorts for what it meant to be a global music superstar – an example that lived on through artists like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, Michael Jackson and so on. But while he may have been the most mainstream musician in jazz, Goodman also led smaller experimental groups in his later years, laying the ground for the small bebop combos that came after. He was also a renowned civil rights activist, leading one of the first ever integrated bands, at a time where racial segregation was a common reality all over America.
Goodman was a fantastic clarinetist, bringing elements of classical music and his own Jewish heritage into jazz. His band’s fluid arrangements and foot-stomping urgency captivated dance floors all over the world, while drummer Gene Krupa’s frenzied attack guaranteed a rolling thunder like nobody had ever heard before. In the history of jazz, few bands have ever rocked harder.
5. Count Basie
Soon, jazz musicians began to tire of the rigid structures and arrangements of Swing, looking for new ways to express their individuality. Count Basie came to the rescue. As a pianist, Basie rarely played a note where silence would suffice. He had a bluesy style that focussed less on complex note patterns and more on groove. As a result, his big band had looser arrangements, and a laid-back rhythm that allowed soloists the freedom they needed to explore new musical directions. A true altruist, Basie’s sparse style created space for his band members (which included legends like Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young) to really shine. Because of this space and freedom, Basie’s Kansas City style was the foundation from which the bebop generation sprung.
But really, who cares about any of the theory – look at how much fun he’s having!
6. Billie Holiday
Lady Day is, with the exception of Louis Armstrong, the most influential jazz singer of all time. She had neither the technical virtuosity of Ella Fitzgerald nor the versatility of Sarah Vaughan, but the vulnerability and intimacy she brought to even the most banal pop tune could bring tears to your eyes. In her prime, her voice sounds thin and almost broken, betraying the harrowing circumstances of her youth. But there’s such an emotional richness there, such an incredible sense of tempo, that you barely even notice. You could read volumes on her command of pitch and tone, but ultimately what Billie Holiday boils down to is you’ll never hear anyone sing as expressively.
Simply put, Lady Day was born to sing. So much so that she didn’t even need a good voice to do it. She proved that in her later years, when a lifetime of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs had reduced her voice to a croak. Yet, unbelievably, she never sounded better. Take a look at her performance below. (Or check out one of Marc’s favourites – her deeply harrowing Strange Fruit, a song depicting the lynchings of the Deep South. It’ll stir your soul and might well sit in your mind for days.)
7. Charlie Parker (& Dizzy Gillespie)
Ok, it’s a cheat. There’s two of them. But this dynamic duo built their success on a collaboration that would end up redefining what jazz was all about. The Kansas City style had risen as an answer for musicians that felt stifled by the popularity of Swing. From that base, Charlie Bird Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and a few others created a new style called bebop, where the improvisation was based on the song’s chord changes, rather than its melody. This meant a new freedom of inventiveness that invigorated young musicians, re-energising all of jazz as a movement. It was a radical shift, and Parker and Gillespie quickly became the most influential instrumentalists since Armstrong. Parker in particular wrote the book on modern jazz saxophone, to the point that you find clear echoes of his style in every major sax player since.
Bird and Diz are two of the most spectacular virtuosos in the history of jazz. Together, they rip through their incredibly complex and synchronised choruses at absurd speed, leaving you astonished and often a little confused. It’s a difficult style to get into, but the combo of Parker’s boundless creativity and Diz’s humour and penchant for catchy Afro-Cuban rhythms are as rewarding a listen as we’re bound to find in all of jazz.
8. Art Blakey
Art Blakey was one of the most powerful drummers in jazz. Like most jazz artists of his generation, his roots were in bebop, but he brought a more earthy, hard-hitting groove to his music, peppering it with influences from gospel and rhythm & blues. This sound became known as hard bop, and is not only arguably the most popular form of jazz since Swing, but also what the general public usually associates with the term jazz today. Art Blakey’s hard bop sound has a more down-to-earth, bluesy and soulful feel than bebop, but with the same rhythmic excitement. For 30 years, his band, The Jazz Messengers, acted as a training ground for countless superstar musicians, from Clifford Brown to Wynton Marsalis.
9. Miles Davis
This guy. I mean sure, Armstrong might have sparked the whole jazz revolution in the first place, Ellington might have done more than anyone else to cement its position as a serious artform, but Miles was the single Greatest musician in jazz. For a period of around 30 years he continuously broke down the art form’s boundaries, always evolving his style and pushing jazz into ever-new directions. He broke onto the scene as a trumpeter in Charlie Parker’s band. Then, with his own band, he kick-started the whole cool jazz / West Coast movement with the legendary Birth of the Cool. A few years later, he further expanded the jazz vocabulary with a series of seminal orchestral recordings arranged by longtime collaborator Gil Evans (they’re all amazing, but start with the impressionistic Sketches of Spain). This wasn’t good enough, so next he pioneered a whole new way of improvising – a style called modal jazz – and in the process recorded the Greatest and the highest selling jazz album of all time: Kind of Blue. Still not content, he single-handedly invented fusion, with Bitches Brew and my favourite jazz album ever, In A Silent Way. Sensing a pattern? And we haven’t even mentioned his milestone recordings with his classic Quintet (featuring John Coltrane) and Sextet.
Yet for all his innovation and diversity, Miles’ personal sound remains unmistakable throughout his career. Lacking the technical virtuosismo of a Dizzy Gillespie, he prefers to explore space and stretch out single note than to dazzle with a cascade of sounds. He’s the ultimate minimalist. He’s also the epitome of cool, with his laid-back, detached sound. How cool was he? Well, forget Pops, Duke and Bird, Miles’ nickname was The Prince of Darkness. And just look at his expression whenever he’s playing: just chillin’.
This guy’s just the best.
10. John Coltrane
And finally, the last of the truly Great classic jazz artists. You can read more about his life and style here, but for the purposes of this post: he was the philosophical opposite to Miles Davis. Where Miles’ playing was chillingly dispassionate, John injected into his music a fire and intensity that had never been heard before. Coltrane saw music as a path to transcendence and used his saxophone to explore not just musical space, but infinity itself. You can hear it in his soloing – raw, passionate and full of spiritual fervour. Many were and continue to be put off by the seemingly incomprehensible sequence of screeches and squawks in his more abstract solos, but in them you can hear the pure sound of a man pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to express in music. In the end, he alienated a portion of the general public with his forays into the avant-garde and free jazz movements, but to this day he stands as one of the Greatest instrumentalists and most fearless innovators in all of jazz.
What we both love about Coltrane’s sound, aside from his esoteric inclinations and mystic fervour, is the sheer fury he could unleash on stage. His legendary Quartet could play with all the power and volume of a full Swing ensemble, but with ten times the ferocity. When his drummer Elvin Jones was asked just how his band was able to play with such intensity, his simple reply was:
You gotta be willing to die for a motherfucker.
That’s all for now folks. We hope that was a useful taster of things to come. If you’re interested in finding out more about this incredible art form and the lives and styles of these 10 classic jazz artists (plus a few more…), stay tuned for the upcoming podcast!