Commentary Magazine

Masterpieces of Jazz: A Critical Guide

Early in the 20th century, a new kind of dance music—a syncopated, semi-improvised hybrid of ragtime, brass-band music, popular song, and the blues—began to be heard in New Orleans and other American cities. It had coalesced into an identifiable style by 1910, and around that time came to be called “jazz,” a term whose etymology is as elusive as the origins of the music itself. In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first recordings of jazz; just 21 years later, the jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman and his orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall, then as now the best-known concert hall in America. By that time, even those who still believed jazz to be vulgar fare fit only for the masses suspected that it was here to stay.

Jazz long ago evolved into an art music, studied in colleges and universities and heard as often in concert halls as in night clubs. One critic has gone so far as to dub it “America’s classical music.” Yet at the same time, it remains an essentially popular music, in keeping with its humble utilitarian origins as an accompaniment to social dancing. (The current revival of swing dancing has introduced a whole new generation of listeners to the big-band jazz of the 30’s.) Perhaps for this reason, it has become one of this country’s chief cultural exports, and is now generally ranked alongside the movies as the most important art form to have originated in the U.S.

Jazz criticism and scholarship, however, have developed more slowly than the music itself, in part because jazz is usually improvised rather than composed, thus making it harder to study formally. To date, there have been no more than a dozen or so jazz critics of genuine stature, while the number of first-rate scholarly biographies can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The only fully effective means of documenting jazz performance styles is through recordings, and the fact that such recordings did not begin to be made in significant numbers until 1923 means there has not yet been sufficient time for a jazz “canon” to win more than tentative acceptance.

Not surprisingly, most attempts to draw up jazz canons have been marred by idiosyncrasy and poor scholarship.1 A case in point is The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a 1973 anthology of 84 recordings selected by the late Martin Williams and issued by the Smithsonian Institution, in which a large number of key figures failed to make the cut, with others receiving token or otherwise misleading representation. More recently, outright historical illiteracy has been at least partly to blame for the exclusionary quasi-canon devised by Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray and promulgated by Wynton Marsalis and “Jazz at Lincoln Center,” in which white musicians of the past play no significant part.2

It is thus in the interest of clarifying our historical understanding of jazz at century’s end that I have drawn up the following list of 65 recorded masterpieces. This list, which I shall present in three installments, is modeled after my “counter-canon” of modern masterpieces of classical music that appeared in COMMENTARY earlier this year.3 In compiling it, I applied broadly similar criteria:

  • Just as my list of modern classical masterpieces (which included no works by living composers) ended in 1969, the time span covered by the present list runs from 1923, when jazz began to be recorded in earnest, to 1972, the year that “fusion,” an amalgam of jazz and rock-and-roll, first won widespread popularity. No subsequent stylistic development has commanded comparable loyalty, and the musicians who have come to prominence since then have mainly been neoclassicists of one sort or another. Meanwhile, virtually all the major exponents of pre-1960 jazz have died or retired, while the leading players of the 60’s and early 70’s are increasingly regarded as elder statesmen, making it possible to discuss their work in something like a definitive manner.
  • Even though it is far shorter, I have consciously sought to make this list more diverse than The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, which gave disproportionate coverage to certain musicians.4 Eight recordings by Duke Ellington, for example, were included in the Smithsonian set; I have chosen instead to represent artists like Ellington and Louis Armstrong by only two performances each, not counting their appearances as sidemen on other recordings.
  • As in my classical list, these recordings were not chosen because they were “influential” (though many have been, some greatly so) or to strike a “balance” of any kind, racial or otherwise. Each one was picked for its musical excellence. Similarly, none is an all-star “catch-all,” included so as to cover the largest possible number of miscellaneous names in one fell swoop. As a result, a number of performers who ought to have been represented—among them the trumpeter Bunny Berigan, the trombonist J. J. Johnson, and the pianist-arranger Mary Lou Williams—are instead conspicuous by their absence, very much to my regret.
  • Except for Louis Armstrong, I have omitted all vocalists (though a number of other instrumentalists are included who also became known, like Armstrong, for their singing). I believe that “jazz singing” is best understood and discussed as a variety of American popular singing, about which I intend to write at a later date.
  • I have listed individual works, not full-length albums, which for the most part did not exist prior to the invention of the LP in 1948. The albums recommended through 1951 are anthologies devoted to individual artists, and in all cases contain other significant recordings not on the list. Thus, anyone who purchases all 65 recommended performances will in the process acquire a wide-ranging “five-foot shelf” of great recorded jazz on CD.

Any list like this one is both provisional and personal. These records are, first and foremost, 65 of my favorites. Some are less familiar than others—I have not felt bound by critical precedent—and a few choices will no doubt seem controversial. Nevertheless, I believe they are all masterpieces, and that, taken together, they paint an accurate sound picture of the first half-century of recorded jazz.

This month’s installment, in chronological order by date of recording, takes us up to 1937 and the dawn of the swing era, the decade when big-band jazz became the lingua franca of American popular music—a convenient resting place.



1. New Orleans Rhythm Kings
Tin Roof Blues

The earliest jazz recordings of permanent musical interest were made by two Chicago-based groups consisting mainly of musicians from New Orleans. Both played in the “classic” New Orleans style in which the contrapuntal interplay of clarinet, cornet, and trombone was emphasized over individual solos—though the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, a quintet of white players who performed in a relaxed, light-textured style, also boasted in Leon Roppolo (1902-43) a strikingly lyrical clarinetist, perhaps the first truly distinguished jazz soloist to be heard on record. “Tin Roof Blues,” which later became a Dixieland staple (and later still a pop song, “Make Love to Me”), features one of Roppolo’s most intensely personal solos.

“Tin Roof Blues” is included on Lost Chords: A Musical Companion, an anthology of 49 performances discussed in Richard M. Sudhalter’s pioneering book, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945, and reproduced in exceptionally clear transfers from issued 78’s (Retrieval RTR 79018, two CD’s).



2. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Dipper Mouth Blues

Joe “King” Oliver (1885-1938) led the first great black jazz ensemble to make records. Several members of his Creole Jazz Band—among them Johnny and Warren “Baby” Dodds on clarinet and drums and a young man from New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, who played second cornet to Oliver’s lead—would become deservedly famous in their own right. But Oliver’s own blues-drenched playing was central to the group’s initial appeal. His three-chorus solo on “Dipper Mouth Blues” (named after Armstrong’s large mouth, which won him the nickname “Satchelmouth,” later shortened to “Satchmo”) became a set piece reproduced verbatim by younger cornetists and trumpeters, Armstrong included, whenever the song was played.

The first of two versions of “Dippermouth Blues” recorded by the Oliver band in 1923 is on Louis Armstrong and King Oliver (Milestone MCD-47017-2).



3. Clarence Williams’s Blue Five
Texas Moaner Blues

Armstrong (1900-71) left the Oliver band in 1924 to pursue his own musical interests, and within months made it clear that he was not merely another talented New Orleans cornetist but a soloist of astonishing force and individuality, whose golden tone and rhythmic poise quickly put him at the forefront of jazz. In this sober yet surgingly vital 1924 performance, he is heard alongside the clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), an equally commanding player who might have become as famous as Armstrong had he not spent much of the 20’s working in Europe.

An Introduction to Sidney Bechet: His Best Recordings, 1923-1941 also contains an excellent selection of later recordings Bechet made with his own small groups (Best of Jazz 4017).



4. Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke
Singin’ the Blues

The white cornetist Bix Beiderbecke (1903-31), who began recording around the same time as Armstrong and Bechet, was a soloist of directly comparable individuality and significance, though his style was as different from theirs as night from day. An elegant melodist with a chime-like tone and an interest in the harmonic techniques of such modern French composers as Debussy and Ravel, Beiderbecke offered a gentler alternative to the bluesy exuberance of Armstrong. “Singin’ the Blues,” which was almost as influential as Armstrong’s “West End Blues” (see below under No. 8), is memorable not only for Beiderbecke’s beautifully organized solo but also for the dryly witty C-melody saxophone playing of Frank Trumbauer, his friend and colleague.

An Introduction to Bix Beiderbecke: His Best Recordings, 1922-1931 includes a good selection of small-group sides by Beiderbecke and Trumbauer, as well as several performances by the orchestras of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman on which the cornetist is featured. The unfairly maligned Whiteman led a remarkable ensemble—among the first large instrumental groups to play jazz—in which Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, and the innovative arranger Bill Challis, who scored the version of “Lonely Melody” heard on this CD, played prominent roles (Best of Jazz 4012).



5, 6. Jelly Roll Morton
The Pearls
Wolverine Blues

Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) was one of the first jazz musicians to win distinction as a composer and arranger. In such ensemble pieces as “The Pearls,” based on an earlier Morton composition for solo piano, the characteristic techniques of ragtime and New Orleans jazz are incorporated into tightly structured, colorfully scored vignettes. Morton’s lively piano playing, however, is better displayed in the informal trio setting of his “Wolverine Blues,” recorded at the same session as “The Pearls,” in which the echt-New Orleans styles of Johnny and Baby Dodds can also be heard to delicious effect.

All nineteen recordings Morton made for Victor in Chicago in 1926 and 1927, including “The Pearls” and “Wolverine Blues,” are on Birth of the Hot (Bluebird 66641-2).



7. Charleston Chasers

The cornetist Red Nichols (1905-65) and the trombonist Miff Mole (1898-1961) led a “New York school” of white jazz musicians whose studio recordings, exactly contemporary with those of Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, aspired to the same kind of formal control. Both men were consummate technicians who, like Beiderbecke, were deeply affected by the harmonic language of the French Impressionists. “Imagination,” an adventurous composition by the largely forgotten saxophonist-arranger Fud Livingston (1906-57), is typical of their approach.

“Imagination” is on Lost Chords (see above under No. 1).



8. Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
West End Blues

Armstrong, who had recently switched from cornet to the brighter-toned trumpet, joined forces in 1928 with the pianist Earl Hines (1903-83) for a series of recordings in which his solo style reached its early maturity. The grandly proclamatory opening cadenza and efflorescent climactic solo of “West End Blues”—the best-known and most influential recording in the history of jazz—epitomize Armstrong’s irreplaceable contribution to the form, as does his wordless, gravel-voiced vocal solo.

Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923-1934, Columbia/Legacy’s four-disc retrospective of Armstrong’s early recordings, is out of print, but can still be found in many record stores and is worth seeking out. This Is Jazz: Louis Armstrong, a single-CD anthology drawn from the larger set, contains “West End Blues” and fifteen other key recordings, including “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Potato Head Blues,” and “Star Dust” (see below under No. 12) (Columbia/ Legacy CK-64613).



9. Earl Hines
Fifty-Seven Varieties

Simultaneously with the Armstrong Hot Fives, Earl Hines recorded a series of piano solos in which his electrifying playing is given still freer rein. Early jazz piano descended directly from the written-out ragtime of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries; the same “striding” left-hand patterns are present in the playing of such Harlem pianists as James P. Johnson and his pupil Fats Waller. “Fifty-Seven Varieties,” a variation on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Tiger Rag,” shows how Hines loosened up the stride style, making it more angular and asymmetrical—as well as more explicitly virtuosic.

Piano Man! (ASV CD AJA 5131) contains “Fifty-Seven Varieties” and other piano solos from the 20’s and 30’s, a few of Hines’s later big-band recordings, and several 1928 performances with Armstrong, including the breathtaking “Weather Bird,” their only unaccompanied duet recording.



10. Duke Ellington Orchestra
Mood Indigo

The big band of Duke Ellington (1899-1974), which he led for a half-century, was a performing unit of unparalleled originality. The band’s idiosyncratic soloists inspired its pianist-leader to write a long series of increasingly complex musical cameos that ultimately won him recognition as jazz’s foremost composer. The justly popular “Mood Indigo,” co-composed by and featuring the clarinetist Barney Bigard, is a particularly attractive example of the young Ellington’s ability to enrich a simple melody with unexpected harmonies and instrumental combinations (in this case, muted solo trumpet and trombone and low-register clarinet).

Beyond Category, an outstanding anthology of performances recorded by Ellington for RCA, contains an early version of “Mood Indigo” (Ellington recorded it many times for many labels), plus 36 other pieces recorded between 1927 and 1967, some composed by or in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn (Buddha 99632-2, two CD’s).



11. Casa Loma Orchestra
White Jazz

Paul Whiteman’s success inspired hundreds of other musicians to start their own large dance bands, a development that would lead to the emergence of the swing era. The Casa Loma Orchestra, which played the imaginative compositions and arrangements of banjoist Gene Gifford (1908-70) with matchless discipline and verve, was the most successful of the early swing bands, and left its mark on virtually every such group that came afterward. Black and white bands alike were influenced by such Casa Loma recordings as “White Jazz,” the first in a series of Gifford originals that also included “Black Jazz” and “Blue Jazz.”

“White Jazz” is on Lost Chords (see above under No. 1).



12. Louis Armstrong Orchestra
Star Dust

In 1929, Louis Armstrong abandoned the small-group format and spent the next eighteen years playing popular ballads and novelty tunes with big bands of varying musical quality. Though the change brought him mass popularity—including a movie career—it did not in any way represent a diminution of his artistic powers. Armstrong’s 1931 recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust” reveals that his trumpet playing had grown freer and more expansive, while his singing had gained in emotional directness. If anything, Armstrong was even more influential among his colleagues in the 30’s; by the end of the decade, he was universally regarded as the greatest of all jazz musicians.

“Star Dust” is on This Is Jazz: Louis Armstrong (see above under No. 9).



13. Billy Banks and His Rhythmmakers
Bugle Call Rag

Armstrong left his mark on innumerable later trumpeters, the best of whom nonetheless forged their own personal styles. Among the best was Henry “Red” Allen (1908-67), whose wonderfully intense playing had a rhythmic flexibility all its own. Allen was among the first black jazz musicians to take part in integrated recording sessions, and his front-line partner on this joyful romp through the jam-session standard “Bugle Call Rag,” the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell (1906-69), was an equally distinctive player noteworthy for his Beiderbecke-like harmonic vocabulary and choked, growling tone. Both men were much admired by later jazz modernists, and “Bugle Call Rag,” improvised on the spot when a singer failed to show up on time, shows off their respective styles to perfection.

“Bugle Call Rag” is on Swing Out, together with other performances recorded by Allen with his own groups and the orchestras of Luis Russell and Fletcher Henderson. Of special interest are the four Henderson sides cut in 1933 and 1934: “King Porter Stomp,” “Hocus Pocus,” “Down South Camp Meeting,” and “Wrappin’ It Up.” No acceptable single-CD collection of Henderson’s best recordings is currently available in this country, but these selections give a clear idea of his prowess as a bandleader and arranger (Topaz Jazz TPZ 1037).



14. Sidney Bechet and His
New Orleans Feetwarmers
Maple Leaf Rag

Sidney Bechet returned home from his European travels to form a New York-based combo, the New Orleans Feetwarmers, that played in a fervid manner ideally suited to Bechet’s own high-voltage style. But audiences of the day were more interested in big bands, and Bechet was temporarily reduced to working as a tailor; it was not until the 40’s that a revival of interest in the “New Orleans style” of collective improvisation would restore his fortunes and lead to his being widely acknowledged as a giant of early jazz. Fortunately, the Feetwarmers left behind six 78 sides, including this ferocious performance of Scott Joplin’s most celebrated rag, a showcase for Bechet’s spectacular playing.

“Maple Leaf Rag” is on An Introduction to Sidney Bechet: His Best Recordings, 1923-1941 (see above under No. 3).



15. Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang Blue Five
Raggin’ the Scale

The violinist Joe Venuti and the guitarist Eddie Lang, the first major jazz musicians to be born outside the United States, were also the first to play jazz on their respective instruments. Between 1927 and Lang’s sudden death in 1933, they recorded extensively, both separately and together, working with such noted white musicians as Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, and the members of the Nichols-Mole “New York school”; they also made a large number of small-group sides on their own. Though Venuti’s playing was hot and extroverted, such Venuti-Lang recordings as “Raggin’ the Scale,” most of which also feature the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Adrian Rollini, are best described as chamber jazz, and their sophisticated musical interplay remains fresh to this day.

Stringin’ the Blues contains fourteen Venuti-Lang recordings (including “Raggin’ the Scale”) and eight small-group sides of similar quality cut by the violinist shortly after his partner’s death (Topaz Jazz TPZ 1015).



16. Le Quintette du Hot Club
de France
Lady Be Good

The first great European jazz soloist did not appear until 1934, when Django Reinhardt (1910-53), a Belgian guitarist of Gypsy parentage, joined forces with the fine French violinist Stephane Grappelli to form a “string band” (violin, three guitars, and bass) known as the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Reinhardt’s rhapsodic yet hard-driving playing, while influenced by the single-string solo style of Eddie Lang, was unconventional to the point of exoticism, inspiring a cultish enthusiasm on the part of his admirers. To this day he remains Europe’s preeminent jazzman and, along with Lang and Charlie Christian, one of the key figures of jazz guitar.

The Quintessential Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli contains a generous selection of recordings by the Hot Club Quintet and other groups featuring Reinhardt and Grappelli (ASV Living Era CD AJA 5267).



17. Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra
Organ Grinder’s Swing

By the mid-30’s, the richly varied orchestrations of such early big-band writers as Challis and Ellington were giving way to a plainer, more direct style, known as “swing,” that would give its name to an era. Though swing eventually became rigid and cliché-ridden, its best practitioners knew how to balance rhythmic vitality and textural complexity—and none more so than Sy Oliver, who wrote for the orchestras of Jimmie Lunceford and Tommy Dorsey. In his arrangement of “Organ Grinder’s Swing,” a novelty tune of 1936, Oliver draws from the Lunceford band a kaleidoscopic range of colors and textures, and the band responds with the irresistibly danceable “two-beat” rhythm that was its trademark.

Eighteen of Lunceford’s best recordings, including such Sy Oliver arrangements as “Organ Grinder’s Swing,” “For Dancers Only,” and “Stomp It Off,” are on Swingsation: Jimmie Lunceford (GRP GRD-992 3).



18. Jones-Smith Incorporated
Lady Be Good

Kansas City was the fountainhead of a unique regional style, at once blues-based and lyrical, that would be central to the development of postwar jazz. Its principal exponents were Count Basie (1904-84), whose spare, sparkling piano style set the tone for his incomparable big band, and the tenor saxophonist Lester Young (1909-59), who eschewed the aggressive approach of Coleman Hawkins (1904-69), the first great jazz saxophonist, in favor of a light-footed, harmonically oblique style based on the playing of Beiderbecke and Trumbauer. Young’s first recording session produced this classic small-group performance, in which he is backed by the buoyant rhythm-section work of Basie, the bassist Walter Page, and the drummer Jo Jones. Countless jazz musicians have learned his two-chorus solo by heart, and its echoes can be heard in the playing of such later masters of the saxophone as Charlie Parker and Stan Getz.

Lester Leaps In (ASV Living Era CD AJA 5176) contains a balanced assortment of recordings made by Young between 1936 and 1944, including performances by the full Basie band (“Swinging the Blues,” “Taxi War Dance”) and small groups drawn from its ranks (“Lester Leaps In,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”). Coleman Hawkins’s early performances of “King Porter Stomp” and “Hocus Pocus” with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra are on Swing Out (see above under No. 13).



19. Red Norvo Orchestra

Red Norvo (1908-99) was the first musician to play jazz on mallet percussion—the xylophone and, later, the vibraharp. His real significance, however, was as a technically impeccable, stylistically forward-looking soloist—he was one of the few jazz musicians prominent in the early 30’s who assimilated the later innovations of the beboppers—and as the leader of a subtle big band that whispered and purred at a time when orchestral jazz was inclined to ebullience and extroversion. This suave performance of Irving Berlin’s “Remember,” which features a deft Norvo solo, was orchestrated by Eddie Sauter (1914-81), whose scores for the bands of Norvo, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Ray McKinley placed him among the most advanced jazz composers of the 30’s and 40’s.

Knockin’ on Wood is a wide-ranging collection of 22 big-band and small-group performances recorded by Norvo between 1933 and 1946 (ASV Living Era CD AJA 5341).



20. Benny Goodman Orchestra
Down South Camp Meeting

In 1934, Benny Goodman, a Chicago clarinetist who had moved to New York to play in studio orchestras and on commercial recording dates, started a big band modeled on the Casa Loma Orchestra. He began purchasing the simple yet swinging arrangements of Fletcher Henderson (some of which had previously been recorded by the Henderson band), and hired such crack players as the trumpeters Bunny Berigan and Harry James, the pianists Jess Stacy and Teddy Wilson, and the drummer Gene Krupa. Goodman’s own playing was notable for its rhythmic drive and exceptional technical finish, and his meticulously rehearsed band soon became one of the finest large ensembles in jazz, playing such numbers as “Down South Camp Meeting” with a fire and precision unmatched in Henderson’s own undisciplined versions. By the end of 1935, the Goodman band had scored a huge success among American teenagers, thereby ushering in the swing era.

Benny Goodman: On the Air (1931-38) contains thrilling live performances of many well-remembered items from the repertoire of the Goodman band, including “Down South Camp Meeting,” “King Porter Stomp,” “Sometimes I’m Happy,” “Bugle Call Rag,” and an incendiary version of Mary Lou Williams’s “Roll ‘Em” recorded just two weeks before Gene Krupa, disillusioned by Goodman’s famously peculiar behavior, left to start his own band. Also included are several excellent numbers by the Goodman Trio and Quartet, the first racially integrated jazz group to perform in public, featuring Wilson on piano, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, and Krupa or Dave Tough on drums (Columbia/Legacy C2K-48836, two CD’s). Fletcher Henderson’s 1934 recording of “Down South Camp Meeting” is on Swing Out (see above under No. 13).



To be continued

All of the CD’s mentioned in this piece can be purchased online at



1 A conspicuous exception to this rule is the annotated list of 250 jazz LP’s compiled by the British critics Max Harrison, Charles Fox, and Eric Thacker, and published in 1984 as The Essential Jazz Records: Volume One, Ragtime to Swing. A second volume is about to be published in England.

2 The Crouch-Murray-Marsalis “canon” is discussed in my article, “The Color of Jazz,” COMMENTARY, September 1995.

3 The three-part series was published in the April, May, and June issues.

4 In 1987, an expanded and revised second edition containing 95 recordings was released, but only some of the failings of the original version were remedied in the process.


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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