Commentary Magazine

Jazz Masterpieces: A Finale

In 1919, the Swiss musician Ernest Ansermet, who was in London to conduct for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, took a night off to attend a concert by an American ensemble called the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. He later wrote an article in praise of the group’s featured soloist, a then-unknown clarinetist from New Orleans named Sidney Bechet:

Already, [Bechet’s solos] gave the idea of a style, and their form was gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto. . . . What a moving thing it is to meet this very black, fat boy with white teeth and that narrow forehead, who is very glad one likes what he does, but who can say nothing of his art, save that he follows his “own way,” and then one thinks that this “own way” is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.

Eight decades after Ansermet wrote those astonishingly prescient words, Bechet’s ancient 78’s have been transferred to digital CD’s, and the music he played on that long-ago night in London is known the world over as one of America’s outstanding contributions to Western art. Yet jazz is still too young for critics and historians to have formulated a definitive “canon” of major recordings To that end, I have compiled a list of 65 recorded masterpieces intended to offer a wide-ranging but historically representative sound picture of jazz’s first century.

The first two installments, consisting of 45 recordings made between 1923 and 1953, appeared in the November and December 1999 issues of COMMENTARY. By way of reminder, here they are again, chronologically and in capsule form:

1923: New Orleans Rhythm Kings, “Tin Roof Blues”; King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, “Dipper Mouth Blues.”

1924: Clarence Williams’s Blue Five, “Texas Moaner Blues.”

1927: Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke, “Singin’ the Blues”; Jelly Roll Morton, “The Pearls” and “Wolverine Blues”; Charleston Chasers, “Imagination.”

1928: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “West End Blues”; Earl Hines, “Fifty-Seven Varieties.”

1930: Duke Ellington Orchestra, “Mood Indigo.”

1931: Casa Loma Orchestra, “White Jazz”; Louis Armstrong Orchestra, “Star Dust.”

1932: Billy Banks and His Rhythm-makers, “Bugle Call Rag”; Sidney Bechet and His New Orleans Feetwarmers, “Maple Leaf Rag.”

1933: Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang Blue Five, “Raggin’ the Scale.”

1934: Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, “Lady Be Good.”

1936: Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, “Organ Grinder’s Swing”; Jones-Smith Incorporated, “Lady Be Good.”

1937: Red Norvo Orchestra, “Remember”; Benny Goodman Orchestra, “Down South Camp Meeting”; Fats Waller and His Rhythm, “Blue, Turning Grey Over You”; Bob Crosby Orchestra, “South Rampart Street Parade.”

1938: Teddy Wilson Orchestra, “Jungle Love.”

1939: Coleman Hawkins, “Body and Soul.”

1940: Benny Goodman Sextet, “Till Tom Special”; Duke Ellington Orchestra, “Ko-Ko”; Chocolate Dandies, “I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love with Me”; Bud Freeman and His Famous Chicagoans, “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble.”

1941: Artie Shaw Orchestra, “Suite No. 8.”

1943: James P. Johnson, “Mule Walk-Stomp.”

1944: King Cole Trio, “Easy Listening Blues.”

1945: Dizzy Gillespie and His All Stars, “Shaw ‘Nuff”; Woody Herman Orchestra, “Your Father’s Moustache”; Lester Young, “These Foolish Things.”

1946: Charlie Parker Septet, “A Night in Tunisia”; Kenny Clarke and His 52nd Street Boys, “Epistrophy.”

1947: Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, “Manteca.”

1948: Thelonious Monk Quartet, “I Mean You”; Benny Goodman Septet, “Stealin’ Apples”; Charlie Parker’s All-Stars, “Parker’s Mood.”

1949: Lennie Tristano Sextet, “Wow”; Miles Davis Orchestra, “Israel.”

1953: Shorty Rogers and His Giants, “Powder Puff”; Dave Brubeck Quartet, “Stardust”; Gerry Mulligan Quartet, “Five Brothers.”

Now for the final twenty items on the list, recorded between 1954 and 1977. During these tempestuous years, jazz penetrated American popular culture to an unprecedented degree, entered an avant-garde phase from which it emerged as an art music whose audience had shrunk appreciably, then sought once more to engage the public at large by incorporating elements of rock-and-roll.

The list ends at the high-water mark of the popularity of the jazz-rock movement, a time when the common language of jazz appeared to have permanently splintered into a variety of incompatible stylistic dialects, and many critics and musicians were questioning the continuing viability of jazz as a living musical tradition. Following the list, I shall briefly summarize subsequent developments, and then offer some concluding reflections on the place of jazz in the history of Western music.



46. Horace Silver and the
Jazz Messengers
Stop Time

The vogue of such West Coast-based “cool-jazz” players as Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Shorty Rogers (see Nos. 43-45 in the December issue) alienated many East Coast musicians who felt that cool jazz was overintellectualized. Their response was “hard bop,” a simplified variant of bebop that emphasized rhythmic directness over compositional sophistication. Together, the drummer Art Blakey (1919-90) and the pianist-composer Horace Silver (1928- ) led the first important hard-bop group, the Jazz Messengers, which featured Blakey’s explosive solos and Silver’s gospel-tinged tunes, of which “Stop Time” is a choice example. Silver would later lead a series of quintets that played his music with irresistible verve; Blakey continued to lead the Jazz Messengers until his death, employing many young players who became noted soloists in their own right, including Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, and Wayne Shorter.

“Stop Time” is on Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (Blue Note CDP 7 46140 2).



47. Erroll Garner
It’s All Right With Me

A self-taught pianist unable to read music, Erroll Garner (1921-77) was one of jazz’s great primitives, and his extroverted style won him a broad popular following in the 50’s and 60’s. His twin trademarks—long, bustling solo lines superimposed over the guitar-like “strumming” of his left hand—can be heard to exhilarating effect on this up-tempo version of Cole Porter’s tune taped at a California concert.

“It’s All Right With Me” is part of Concert by the Sea, the best-selling album ever recorded by a jazz pianist (Columbia/Legacy CK-40589).



48. Clifford Brown and
Max Roach
Pent-Up House

Though many early boppers died young or were sidelined by drug use, those who survived continued to deepen and refine their playing throughout the 50’s. Among them was the drummer Max Roach (1924- ), who played with Charlie Parker in the 40’s and subsequently led a quintet together with the trumpeter Clifford Brown (1930-56). The tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (1930- ) joined Brown and Roach in 1955, and their recording of Rollins’s “Pent-Up House” shows all three men at the peak of their powers. Brown is bold yet precise, Rollins vibrant and richly elaborate, and Roach caps the performance with one of the “melodic” solos that won him recognition as the most musical of bebop drummers. Three months after “Pent-Up House” was recorded, Brown was killed in a car crash that tragically cut short a career of immeasurable promise.

“Pent-Up House” is on Sonny Rollins Plus 4 (Prestige/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-243-2).



49. Art Tatum-Ben Webster
All the Things You Are

This performance of a Jerome Kern ballad long favored by jazz musicians for its challenging chord progressions features Art Tatum (1909-56), jazz’s greatest virtuoso. Tatum used the stride-piano style of James P.Johnson and Fats Waller (see Nos. 21 and 30 in the December issue) as the basis for a technically elaborate, harmonically subtle style admired by both jazz and classical pianists. Though he usually appeared as an unaccompanied soloist, Tatum’s final recording session teamed him with the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (1909-73), a key soloist in Duke Ellington’s early-40’s orchestra, whose ripely romantic yet swinging playing proved ideally complementary to the pianist’s ornate traceries.

“All the Things You Are” is on The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 8 (Pablo 2405-431).



50. Jimmy Giuffre 3
The Train and the River

Jimmy Giuffre (1921- ), a clarinetist-saxophonist-composer, launched his drummerless trio with its unorthodox instrumentation (it also included guitar and bass, and was modeled after Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp) as a showcase for his quietly inventive playing and folk-flavored compositions. “The Train and the River,” a lyrical exercise in jazz impressionism (at one point, the players imitate a train whistle), is one of his most delightful pieces, and an example of West Coast jazz at its freshest. Also heard is Jim Hall (1930- ), who played with Giuffre in the 50’s and is now widely regarded as jazz’s greatest living guitarist.

“The Train and the River” is on The Jimmy Giuffre 3/The Music Man (Collectors Jazz Classics COL-CD-0248).



51. Miles Davis + 19
My Ship/Miles Ahead

The trumpeter Miles Davis (see Nos. 35 and 42 in the December issue) became a musical trend-setter comparable to Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong, though his idiosyncratic playing—at once tonally fragile and unforgettably passionate—was less influential than his ability to assemble small groups made up of stylistically disparate yet compatible players. Davis also recorded a memorable series of albums with a studio orchestra led by Gil Evans (1912-88), who wrote for the trumpeter’s “Birth of the Cool” band (see No. 42 in the December issue). In this medley of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” and the Davis-Evans composition “Miles Ahead,” Evans’s subtly blended orchestral sonorities provide exquisite support for Davis, who is heard here on flügelhorn, a larger-bored, warmer-sounding cousin of the trumpet.

“My Ship/Miles Ahead” is on Miles Ahead (Columbia/Legacy CK-65121).



52. Count Basie Orchestra

Unlike his prewar band, which heavily featured such soloists as the tenor saxophonist Lester Young (see No. 18 in the November issue and No. 34 in December), the orchestra led by William “Count” Basie from 1952 on was first and foremost an arranger’s band, albeit one whose robust ensemble playing remains unrivaled to this day. The strongest soloist was Basie himself, and his terse piano style enlivens this medium-tempo blues by Neal Hefti (1922- ), an alumnus of Woody Herman’s First Herd (see No. 33 in the December issue). Hefti’s no-nonsense arrangements were central to Basie’s postwar style, of which this is a quintessential example.

“Splanky” is on The Complete Atomic Basie, a program of Hefti compositions generally regarded as the finest of Count Basie’s later studio albums (Roulette CDP 7 93273 2).



53. Ahmad Jamal Trio
Ahmad’s Blues

Five gifted jazz pianists—Brubeck, Garner, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, and Ahmad Jamal—“crossed over” to attract large popular audiences in the 50’s and early 60’s. The most influential was Jamal (1930- ), who played show tunes in an airy, harmonically sophisticated style, beautifully accompanied by the veteran bassist Israel Crosby (1919-62) and the drummer Vernel Fournier (1928- ). Though many critics dismissed him as a lightweight popularizer, the Basie-like use of space and silence heard in “Ahmad’s Blues” would soon become a hallmark of Miles Davis’s bands.

“Ahmad’s Blues” is the title track of a CD compilation of sixteen live recordings by Jamal’s trio (Chess GRD-803).



54. Miles Davis Sextet
So What

By the end of the 50’s, a growing number of jazz musicians found the harmonic obstacle courses of late bebop to be overly restrictive. Miles Davis, who had already been experimenting with a less cluttered ensemble style based on Jamal’s playing, found its compositional equivalent in “So What,” a deceptively simple riff tune in which the four soloists—Davis, the alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (1928-75), the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-67), and the pianist Bill Evans (1929-80)—improvise not on regularly repeating harmonic sequences but on two scales located a half-step apart. This freer, more open approach was quickly adopted by younger players, and Kind of Blue, the album on which Davis and his soon-to-be-famous sidemen codified the new technique of “modal” improvisation, became and remained the single most influential album in the history of jazz.

Kind of Blue, which includes “So What,” has been in print ever since its original release (Columbia/Legacy CK-52861).



55. Charles Mingus
Fables of Faubus

Jazz composition has always been formally limited—it exists chiefly to stimulate the imagination of the improviser—but Charles Mingus (1922-79), a classically trained bebop bassist, devoted much of his career to composing ambitious pieces in which he adapted Duke Ellington’s compositional techniques to a small-group context. Mingus was also one of the first jazz musicians to use his music to make political statements, and “Fables of Faubus,” a sardonic, march-like piece whose title refers to Orval Faubus, then the segregationist governor of Arkansas, is a characteristically pungent example of his writing.

“Fables of Faubus” is on Mingus Ah Um, which also contains such well-known Mingus compositions as “Better Git It in Your Soul” and “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat” (Columbia/Legacy CK-66512). Mingus rerecorded it in 1960 as “Original Faubus Fables” with a four-piece group that included the avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy (plus a set of inflammatory spoken lyrics that Mingus’s producers at Columbia had been unwilling to include), but this more vivid version, originally released on the Candid LP Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, is currently out of print in the U.S.



56. Ornette Coleman Quartet

The initial appearance of a true jazz avant-garde dates from the late 50’s, when the self-taught alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930- ) developed a radically new style of improvisation that dispensed with fixed harmonic sequences and regular structural periods. Though the peculiarities of Coleman’s playing were as much the result of his lack of musical training as of any conscious attempt on his part to innovate, his natural gifts as an improviser allowed him to use his limitations as the basis for the idiom that came to be known as free jazz. “Ramblin’,” which is very loosely based on the twelve-bar blues form, demonstrates Coleman’s techniques—as well as his deep roots in traditional blues—with singular clarity.

“Ramblin’” is on Change of the Century (Atlantic 7 81341-2).



57. Bill Evans Trio
Some Other Time

In 1959, Bill Evans organized a trio in which his sidemen, the bassist Scott LaFaro (1936-61) and the drummer Paul Motian (1931- ), abandoned the regular statement of the beat customary among rhythm-section players, instead improvising simultaneously with Evans in an ensemble technique first used by Coleman and Jimmy Giuffre. Evans’s lyrical solos, employing the harmonic language of Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin, had already put him on the map as a major soloist; the free contrapuntal interplay of his trio, which can be heard in Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time,” recorded live at New York’s Village Vanguard in 1961, definitively established him as the most significant jazz pianist after Bud Powell.

“Some Other Time” is on Waltz for Debby (Riverside/Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-210-2).



58. Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz
All About Rosie

Simultaneously with the emergence of modal improvisation and free jazz, several musicians sought to import compositional techniques derived from classical music into a jazz context. Among them was George Russell (1923- ), whose best pieces display a formal control and harmonic complexity comparable to that of modern classical music; in his “All About Rosie” (1957), composition and improvisation are fully integrated, but the results are still jazz of the purest and most swinging kind.

Russell later rescored “All About Rosie” for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, a twelve-piece ensemble in which the baritone saxophonist-composer (see Nos. 42 and 45 in the December issue) attempted to combine the drive and textural variety of a big band with the flexibility of his small groups. This ensemble, featuring the arrangements of Bob Brookmeyer, Al Cohn, and Gary McFarland, was the finest big band of its day.

Gerry Mulligan: Jazz Masters 36 (Verve 314 523 342-2) is an excellent anthology of performances by the Concert Jazz Band, including “All About Rosie.”



59. Benny Carter and
His Orchestra
Blue Star

Many major jazz musicians of the swing era were still playing in the 60’s and 70’s, and some remained at the top of their form well into middle age and beyond. Over time, the differences between their playing and that of the beboppers were subsumed into a lingua franca called mainstream jazz. One of the finest examples of this phenomenon is Benny Carter’s suave recording of his own “Blue Star,” in which the alto saxophonist-composer (see No. 27 in the December issue) is accompanied by an octet whose other members included the legendary tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (see Nos. 24 and 27 in the December issue); the second-generation bebop saxophonists Phil Woods and Charlie Rouse; and Jimmy Garrison, John Coltrane’s bassist (see below under No. 60).

“Blue Star” is on Further Definitions (Impulse IMPD-229).



60. John Coltrane Quartet

After Kind of Blue, John Coltrane left Miles Davis to lead his own bands, subsequently becoming the preeminent saxophonist of his generation. Coltrane’s extended solos, based on the repetition and transformation of short musical motifs, reflected the influence of free jazz, though the playing of his “classic” quartet, which also included the pianist McCoy Tyner (1938- ), the bassist Jimmy Garrison (1934-76), and the drummer Elvin Jones (1927- ), remained rooted in modal improvisation. “Crescent,” a Coltrane original that opens with an incantatory, out-of-tempo recitative followed by a series of solos under-pinned by Jones’s churning poly-rhythms, is a typical example of how the quartet played in the studio (the saxophonist’s solos were much longer in public performance).

“Crescent” is the title track of one of the Coltrane Quartet’s most popular albums (Impulse IMPD-200).



61. Miles Davis Quintet

The quintet that Miles Davis led from 1965 to 1968 was less notable for his own playing—marvelous though it was—than for the contributions of his younger sidemen. The tenor saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter (1933- ) wrote many of the striking compositions performed by the group, while the pianist Herbie Hancock (1940- ), the bassist Ron Carter (1937- ), and the drummer Tony Williams (1945-97) forged a startlingly flexible ensemble style that took the innovations of the Bill Evans Trio several steps further. “Footsteps,” a haunting Shorter blues in 6/4 time, shows how the Davis quintet deconstructed the elements of bebop and modal improvisation into an abstract yet accessible style whose echoes continue to be heard in contemporary small-group jazz playing.

“Footprints” is on Miles Smiles (Columbia/Legacy CK-65682).



62. Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett
Moonchild/In Your Quiet Place

Starting in the late 60’s, many younger jazz musicians incorporated aspects of rock and other styles of popular music into their playing. In 1967, Gary Burton (1943- ), a lyrical yet virtuosic vibraharpist who had previously worked as a country-and-western session player in Nashville, formed a quartet whose imaginative recordings were among the earliest examples of this amalgam; three years later, he recorded with the pianist Keith Jarrett (1945- ), whose equally virtuosic playing reflected a comparably wide variety of interests, including gospel music. “Moonchild/In Your Quiet Place,” a graceful ballad by Jarrett, synthesizes these diverse influences with exceptional assurance. Burton pursued a broadly similar approach in his later quartets and quintets, while Jarrett, following a brief stint with Miles Davis, established himself as a hugely (and deservedly) popular solo artist, alternating between jazz of various kinds and classical music.

“Moonchild/In Your Quiet Place” is on Gary Burton & Keith Jarrett (Rhino R2-71594).



63. Stan Getz
500 Miles High

Miles Davis added electric instruments to his band in 1969 and adopted the rock-influenced style soon to be known as fusion jazz; several Davis alumni then started similar groups of their own, and a handful of older musicians also began experimenting with fusion. One of them was the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz (1927-91), a Lester Young disciple who developed into a highly individual soloist in his own right.

Getz had long been interested in new musical styles—he was one of the first American musicians to explore the Brazilian idiom called bossa nova—and in 1972 he hired the pianist-composer Chick Corea (1941- ), who had previously worked for Davis, and put together a quintet to perform Corea’s Latin-style compositions, including the surging “500 Miles High.” Corea played electric piano with the group, which also included Tony Williams on drums and the Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira (1941- ). Corea and Moreira later left Getz to form Return to Forever, one of the best-known fusion bands of the 70’s.

“500 Miles High” is on Captain Marvel (Koch Jazz KOC-CD-7864).



64. Modern Jazz Quartet

Except for Getz and Davis, most older jazz musicians shunned fusion, continuing to work in more traditional styles. A case in point was the Modern Jazz Quartet, the longest-lived small group in jazz, which was playing even better in 1974 than it had been twenty years earlier. Led by the pianist-composer John Lewis (1920- ), the MJQ, as the group was known, sought to bring compositional rigor to bebop, using Lewis’s elegant, classically influenced pieces as vehicles for the billowing vibraharp solos of Milt Jackson (1923-99). “Django,” a swinging minor-key lament written in memory of Django Reinhardt (see No. 16 in the November issue), is Lewis’s most popular composition, and this lively version, recorded at a 1974 Lincoln Center concert, captures the MJQ at something close to its best.

“Django” is on The Complete Last Concert, together with other noteworthy Lewis compositions such as “The Golden Striker” and “Skating in Central Park” (Atlantic 61976-2, two CD’s). An even better version can be heard on the 1960 album European Concert, currently out of print in the U.S.



65. Weather Report

Fusion was in part a response to the proliferating complexity of avant-garde jazz, which many musicians believed was further alienating the fast-shrinking audience of jazz fans. As a result, many of the Miles Davis alumni who started groups of their own chose to play in an overtly popular style (though not Keith jarrett or Davis himself, whose brand of “fusion” was actually less accessible than his earlier work). They included Wayne Shorter and the pianist-composer Joe Zawinul (1932- ), who left Davis to start Weather Report, a group whose synthesizer-dominated albums had a strong rock flavor; indeed, the catchy melody and high-stepping beat of Zawinul’s “Birdland” actually gave it a brief run on the pop-music charts, though the heavily overdubbed instrumental textures are far from simple-minded.

This Is Jazz: Weather Report (Columbia/Legacy CK-64627) contains “Birdland” and eight other performances by Weather Report.




As it happens, the jazz musicians who wholeheartedly embraced fusion could hold on to their popular audiences only by watering down their music to the point of vapidity; though most of the more blatant popularizers eventually backtracked, their later work lacked the focus and concentration that had originally brought them fame. But jazz itself had entered a period of drift and uncertainty by the late 70’s, and the failure of fusion to thrive was but one symptom of this malaise.

Jazz has always been stylistically diverse. Still, at any given moment it has tended to be dominated by a single prevailing style (Dixieland, big-band swing, small-group bebop) as well as by a style-setting giant (Armstrong, Parker, Davis). Moreover, all varieties of jazz prior to 1960 shared a common musical vocabulary that succeeded over time in assimilating such seemingly incompatible idioms as bebop and bossa nova, thus making it possible for Stan Getz to record with Chick Corea, or Benny Goodman with Wardell Gray and Fats Navarro.

But the rise of free jazz and abstract modal improvisation led to a rupture in the ongoing jazz tradition, and soon thereafter to what the critic Max Harrison would describe in 1980 as “a postmodernist phase: all styles, the music of all periods, are, it seems, valid . . . jazz no longer has a lingua franca.” In practice, older mainstream players stopped trying to assimilate post-Coltrane developments, while avant-gardists showed little interest in earlier kinds of jazz; at the same time, listeners began to turn away in large numbers, preferring newer, less demanding styles of popular music.

This latter development led many observers to speculate about the possible death of jazz. As Warren Leight wrote in the last scene of Side Man, his eloquent play about a group of aging jazz musicians:

These guys are not even an endangered species anymore. It’s too late. There are no more big bands, no more territory bands. No more nonets, or tentets. No more 60 weeks a year on the road. . . . When they go, that’ll be it. No one will even understand what they were doing. A 50-year blip on the screen.

But these words, imagined to have been spoken in 1985, have proved premature. What happened instead was that jazz entered a long-overdue neoclassical phase. A new generation of players, many of them following the example of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, chose to embrace earlier, more immediately accessible styles, and the jazz repertory movement, in which big bands perform the music of composers like Duke Ellington in the same way that a symphony orchestra plays Mozart or Stravinsky, simultaneously began to attract the attention of established arts institutions. In New York, for example, both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall now sponsor publicly funded jazz repertory programs.

It remains to be seen whether neoclassicism—especially the fundamentally derivative kind practiced by Marsalis and his followers—can supply sufficient creative energy to sustain jazz’s living tradition, or to inspire new “master innovators” (in Harrison’s phrase). Certainly no such figure has emerged since the death of John Coltrane. But with the decline of interest in free jazz and fusion—a phenomenon not dissimilar to the simultaneous demise of the classical-music avant-garde—it appears possible that the mainstream style, with its unparalleled capacity for assimilation, is now in the process of reasserting its primacy as the lingua franca of jazz.



Whatever the future brings, the invention, efflorescence, and maturing of jazz remain one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena of the century just past. And thanks to the timely invention of the phonograph, the music of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Coltrane and their contemporaries, which would otherwise have been lost, has instead been preserved for all time. But does their music deserve to be so preserved? Is it, in other words, of permanent interest, like the music of Mozart and Stravinsky?

The question is begged by the increasing tendency of journalists and musicians to refer to jazz as “America’s classical music,” a phrase coined by the critic Grover Sales. The words are not without meaning—they properly emphasize the fact that jazz, unlike classical music, is indigenous to America—but their effect on critical discourse has nevertheless been mischievous. For one thing, America already has a classical music of its own—the music of such composers as Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Charles Ives—and to praise jazz at the expense of these composers’ achievements is tendentious at best, invidious at worst. Moreover, the phrase completely slights the large body of American popular song composed in this century, whose claim on our attention is at least as substantial as that of jazz.

Beyond this, it seems to me self-evident that in any direct comparison between the two musics, jazz must necessarily come up short. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who has (surprisingly enough) written penetratingly about jazz, discussed this problem in his 1959 book, The Jazz Scene:

Jazz is little music and not big music, in the same sense as lyrics are little poetry and epics big poetry. . . . Limitation of scope and relative smallness of scale do not make an art less good or true or beautiful. They do, however, put certain artistic achievements out of its reach. . . . If we ask: has jazz produced anything like the Beethoven Ninth, or the Bach B-Minor Mass, or Don Giovanni, the answer must be a flat no.

But it is no less evident that within its admittedly narrow compass, jazz at its best is one of the most expressive forms of music that Western culture has yet produced. And while comparisons with classical music must be made with extreme caution, surely it is safe to say that such recordings as “West End Blues,” “Ko-Ko,” or “Parker’s Mood” embody the profoundest of human emotions no less truly than a Schubert song or a Chopin nocturne. I therefore feel secure in predicting that the recorded masterpieces of jazz’s first century—many of which are to be found in this list—will continue to be heard and enjoyed so long as music itself retains its hold on our hearts and minds.



All of the CD’s mentioned in this article can be purchased on line at


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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