Jazz Resource Guide

This is your ticket to learning about jazz.  I have collected here resources for people who wish to gain a basic understanding of the “jazz” musical genre as a whole, while avoiding explicit suggestions to particular albums by particular artists or biographic material about particular artists.  There are many resources on the genre available, and my goal here is to provide references to only the most reliable sources, rather than to provide a comprehensive listing.  Where appropriate, I have placed definitive and exceptional resources in bold font.

Introductory Materials

Books:


Concise Guide to Jazz by Mark Gridley
Jazz 101 by John Szwed
The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond by Joachim E. Berendt
Jazz Styles: History and Analysis by Mark Gridley
Understanding Jazz by Leroy Ostransky

Other:

What Is Jazz? by Leonard Bernstein
Was ist Jazz? by Joachim-Ernst Berendt

Note:

The best place to start if you are a novice trying to learn about and understand jazz is probably an introductory book.  These are worth reading even before you start listing to the music.  The reason for this suggestion is that an explanation of some of the broad musical concepts that are common to the genre can help you to listen to jazz music on its own terms, while reducing the chance that predispositions from listening to other musical genres might cloud or inhibit your appreciation of jazz.  The best introductory books present a more or less objective background into general concepts without persuading or coercing readers to like or dislike particular artists, songs, or historical movements.

Introductory Compilation Albums

General:


The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (unparalleled overview of jazz up to the early 1960s)
JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology
Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music (good overview up to ~1960 and kind of erratic after that)
Collection of Modern Jazz
Jazz: The Definitive Performances
The World’s Greatest Jazz Collection
The Ultimate Jazz Archive

Period/Style/Label-Specific:

Les trésors du jazz 1898-1943 (pre-jazz influences and early jazz, dixieland and swing)
History of Jazz: 1917-1939 (early jazz, dixieland and swing)
Kings of Swing (late big band swing era, ~1930s-40s)
Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz (~1950s to mid-1960s mainstream) This set being too long.
Impulse! Records Compilation, Red Hot on Impulse, Impulse Energy Essentials: A Developmental & Historical Introduction to the New Music or The House That Trane Built: The Best of Impulse Records (~1960s and early 1970s mainstream and avant-garde jazz)
Faith & Power: An ESP-Disk Sampler (1960s free jazz)
Jazzactuel: A Collection of Avant Garde / Free Jazz / Psychedelia From the BYG/Actuel Catalogue of 1969-1971
The Saxophone: A Critical Analytic Guide to the Major Trends in the Development of the Contemporary Saxophone Tradition
For Example: Workshop Freie Musik 1969-1978 (European jazz)
Arista-Freedom Sampler
Wildflowers: Loft Jazz New York 1976 (New York City)
Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz & the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82
Universal Sounds of America and New Thing! Deep Jazz From the USA
Meltdown: The Birth of Fusion, The Real Birth of Fusion or Classic Jazz: The Seventies (~fusion)
Classic Jazz: The Eighties (mainstream)
Howard Mandel: Future Jazz (~1990s New York City)
The Blue Series Sampler: The Shape of Jazz to Come (~late 1990s to early 2000s)
Assemblage 1998-2008
Pi Recordings 2009 Amazon Sampler (~ late 2000s)

Note:

I would recommend listening to a good, well-rounded jazz compilation even before looking to what might be classified as essential jazz albums.  These collections can complement an introductory book nicely.  There are numerous compilations available that give a representative overview of jazz from its birth through about 1960, but subsequent to that time frame a single representative set does not exist yet (though for a “virtual” compilation of this sort, see Collection of Modern Jazz).  Until such a better compilation is made available, I have made some selections from among compilations limited to particular time periods, genres and records labels, though some are certainly imperfect and may still be hard to find.  Even with these concessions, some time periods, labels and sub-genres are still not well represented on my list due to the lack of suitable albums for me to mention.

Jazz History Books

A New History of Jazz by Alyn Shipton
The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia
A History of Jazz Music 1900-2000 by Piero Scaruffi
Blues People by LeRoi Jones (a/k/a Amiri Baraka)
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis
Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff
Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development by Gunther Schuller
The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945  by Gunther Schuller
As Serious As Your Life: John Coltrane and Beyond by Valerie Wilmer

Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times by Robin D.G. Kelley

Note:

Some jazz history books can be a chore to read, but not the better ones.  Others can be overly congratulatory or dismissive of certain historical movements or styles, but not the better ones.  Some of these “history” books overlap with my category of introductory books, as well as that for musicology and ethnomusicology.  But I’ve tried to list here the ones with more widespread appeal, and the ones that complement a basic introduction to jazz music for beginners.

Album Guides

The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings by Richard Cook and Brian Morton
Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, Ninth Edition (2008): Core Collection
25 DISCOS DE JAZZ: UNA GUÍA ESENCIAL (+ 40) (or English translation)
The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz by Ben Ratliff
A Suggested Jazz Starter Kit
Jazz Core Collection
What I call an essential Jazz collection
A Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz
Ethan Iverson’s “Jazz: 1973-1990”
Downtown Jazz: New York City 1979-2009
Jazz – RYMers 80s Choices
Jazz – RYMers 90s Choices
Jazz – RYMers 00s Choices
The Rough Guide to Jazz by Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley
All Music Guide Jazz Page
RateYourMusic Jazz Page
Top Rated Jazz Albums on RateYourMusic
The Jazz Discography by Tom Lord

Note:

Album guides can be great resources even if you ignore completely any ratings assigned to particular albums.  The better ones are those that are relatively comprehensive in coverage, have an easy to navigate layout, are revised often and include information about personnel, recording dates and other album-specific factual data.

Jazz Writing and Critical Analysis

Black Music by LeRoi Jones (a/k/a Amiri Baraka)
Jazz Is by Nat Hentoff
The Jazz Life by Nat Hentoff
Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings by Ralph Ellison
All About Jazz
Jazz House
Down Beat Magazine
JazzTimes Magazine
Jazz Improv Magazine
Cadence Magazine
The Wire

Note:

Writings by music critics and the like can be tremendously invigorating and can often cultivate enthusiasm for the jazz genre.  However, I would recommend setting this kind of stuff aside until after you have heard some of the music for yourself.  React to the music on your own.  Then find out how others react to it.

Jazz Musicology, Ethnomusicology and Musical Theory

The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine
Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music by Derek Bailey

The Anatomy of Jazz by Leroy Ostransky

Note:

Musicology (and/or enthomusicology) and musical theory books can quickly become dense and technical.  In other words, many are not for a beginning listener.  Actually, a lot of highly academic works that might fall into this category (or the jazz history one) are slight and unenlightening even for experts and jazz insiders.  There certainly is no shortage of them.  But in the end, this category of resources is recommended for people with a special interest in more of the technical details associated with the performance of jazz music or intensive academic analysis of the music’s history, and perhaps not so much those with only a general interest in listening to jazz music.

Introductory Films

Unfortunately, I find that many documentary films and TV programs on jazz tend to present rather poor introductions to and overviews of jazz as a whole.  Books, compilation albums, and websites make better starting points.

Live Performance

Get out there to a live jazz performance!  While your ability to do this may depend upon where you live, attending a concert is a great way to learn about jazz even if you have no clue beforehand what you’re getting yourself into.  Don’t shy away.  I’ve often heard people comment that appreciating jazz can be a far simpler task when you have the opportunity to see musicians while they perform, as opposed to just hearing them on a recording.