Hear 2,000 Recordings of the Most Essential Jazz Songs: A Huge Playlist for Your Jazz Education

If you were to ask me “What is jazz?” I wouldn’t pre­sume to know the answer, and I’m not sure any sin­gle com­po­si­tion exists to which one could point to as an ide­al type. Maybe the only thing I’m cer­tain of when it comes to jazz is—to quote Wal­lace Stevens—“it must change.”

Of course, there’s an incred­i­bly rich his­to­ry of jazz, broad­ly known, espe­cial­ly to those who have seen Ken Burns’ expan­sive doc­u­men­tary. I’d also rec­om­mend the excel­lent jazz writ­ing of Amiri Bara­ka, Stan­ley Crouch, or Philip Larkin. For the young, we might con­sult Langston Hugh­es’ illus­trat­ed jazz his­to­ry. And maybe every­one should read Charles Min­gus’ Gram­my-nom­i­nat­ed essay “What is a Jazz Com­pos­er?” in which the con­trar­i­an genius writes, “each jazz musi­cian is sup­posed to be a com­pos­er. Whether he is or not, I don’t know.”

Min­gus the icon­o­clast argued for tear­ing up the text even as he sought a clas­si­cal pedi­gree for jazz. His wish was part­ly grant­ed by the influ­ence of jazz on com­posers like Leonard Bern­stein, who sought to answer the ques­tion “What is Jazz?” in a 1956 spo­ken-word LP. The ten­sion between jazz as a com­po­si­tion­al or whol­ly impro­vi­sa­tion­al art seems to resound through­out the form, in all of its many guis­es and vari­a­tions. But one thing I think every jazz musi­cian knows is this: Stan­dards, a com­mon com­pendi­um of songs in the tra­di­tion.

You’ve got to know the rule­book (or the fake­book, at the least), before you can throw it out the win­dow. Even some of the most inno­v­a­tive jazz artists who more or less invent­ed their own scales, modes, and harmonies—like Cecil Tay­lor and Ornette Cole­man—either stud­ied at con­ser­va­to­ry or paid their dues as side­men play­ing oth­er people’s songs. Jazz—Coleman once told Jacques Der­ri­da—is “a con­ver­sa­tion with sounds.” Its under­ly­ing gram­mar comes from the Stan­dards.

Until fair­ly recent­ly, the only way one could get a prop­er edu­ca­tion in the stan­dards was on the job. Crit­ic, jazz his­to­ri­an, and pianist Ted Gioia writes as much in his com­pre­hen­sive 2012 ref­er­ence, The Jazz Stan­dards: A Guide to the Reper­toire. Gioia’s “edu­ca­tion in this music was hap­pen­stance and hard earned.” He writes, “aspir­ing musi­cians today can hard­ly imag­ine how opaque the art form was just a few decades ago—no school I attend­ed had a jazz pro­gram or even offered a sin­gle course on jazz.”

How times have changed. These days, if you can get in, you can take grad­u­ate-lev­el class­es taught by the greats, such as Her­bie Han­cock and Wayne Short­er at UCLA. Hun­dreds more less-famous jazz musi­cian pro­fes­sors stand at the ready in music depart­ments world­wide or at the renowned Berklee Col­lege of Music.

But for those auto­di­dacts out there, Gioia—who has served on the fac­ul­ty at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty and been called “one of the out­stand­ing music his­to­ri­ans in America”—offers an excep­tion­al guide to the Stan­dards, one we can not only read, but also, thanks to Jim Hig­gins of the Jour­nal Sen­tinel, lis­ten to, in the Spo­ti­fy playlist above. (If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, down­load it here.) In a com­pan­ion essay, Hig­gins describes the process of com­pil­ing “as many of the per­for­mances [Gioia] rec­om­mend­ed” in his com­men­tary on 250 jazz stan­dards.

Gioia names over 2,000 dif­fer­ent per­for­mances of those 250 stan­dards, and the playlist con­tains near­ly all of them. You’ll find, for exam­ple, “sev­er­al dif­fer­ent record­ings of ‘In a Sen­ti­men­tal Mood’ by the com­pos­er (includ­ing one with John Coltrane), as well as ver­sions by Son­ny Rollins, Art Tatum, McCoy Tyn­er, Abdul­lah Ibrahim and Bud­dy Tate, and Chris Pot­ter.” While the playlist is “not a com­plete reflec­tion of Gioia’s rec­om­men­da­tions,” giv­en that cer­tain artists’ work can­not be streamed, “there’s a lot of music here”—a whole lot—“spanning a cen­tu­ry.”

The expe­ri­ence of lis­ten­ing to this incred­i­ble library will not be com­plete with­out some con­text. Gioia’s book con­tains a “short his­tor­i­cal and musi­cal essay” on each of the 250 songs and he isn’t shy about offer­ing inci­sive crit­i­cal com­men­tary. Oth­er than going to music school or join­ing a tour­ing band, I can’t think of a bet­ter way to learn the Stan­dards.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What is Jazz?: Leonard Bernstein’s Intro­duc­tion to the Great Amer­i­can Art Form (1956)

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

Langston Hugh­es Presents the His­to­ry of Jazz in an Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book (1955)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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