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100 Essential Jazz Albums

By David Remnick
May 12, 2008
Photograph by William Gottlieb / Redferns / Getty
While finishing “Bird-Watcher,” a Profile of the jazz
broadcaster and expert Phil Schaap, I thought it might be
useful to compile a list of a hundred essential jazz albums,
more as a guide for the uninitiated than as a source of
quarrelling for the collector. First, I asked Schaap to assemble
the list, but, after a couple of false starts, he balked. Such
attempts, he said, have been going on for a long time, but
“who remembers the lists and do they really succeed in driving
people to the source?” Add to that, he said, “the dilemma of
the current situation,” in which music is often bought and
downloaded from dubious sources. Schaap bemoaned the loss
of authoritative discographies and the “troubles” of the digital
age, particularly the loss of informative aids like liner notes
and booklets. In the end, he provided a few basic titles from
Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis,
and other classics and admitted to a “pyrrhic victory.”

What follows is a list compiled with the help of my New

Yorker colleague Richard Brody. These hundred titles are
meant to provide a broad sampling of jazz classics and
wonders across the music’s century-long history. Early New
Orleans jazz, swing, bebop, cool jazz, modal jazz, hard bop,
free jazz, third stream, and fusion are all represented, though
not equally. We have tried not to overdo it with expensive
boxed sets and obscure imports; sometimes it couldn’t be
helped. We have also tried to strike a balance between healthy
samplings of the innovative giants (Armstrong, Ellington,
Parker, Davis, Coltrane, etc.) and the greater range of talents
and performances.

Since the nineteen-seventies, jazz has been branching out in

so many directions that you would need to list at least another
hundred recordings, by the likes of Steve Coleman, Stanley
Jordan, Joe Lovano, Jacky Terrasson, John Zorn, David
Murray, Avishai Cohen, Béla Fleck, Eliane Elias, Roy
Hargrove, Dave Douglas, Matthew Shipp, Gonzalo Rubalcaba,
Fat Kid Wednesdays, and many, many others. There is a
suggestion below of the dazzling scope of contemporary jazz,
but the focus is on the classic jazz that is Schaap’s specialty.
1. Fats Waller, “Handful of Keys” (Proper, 2004; tracks recorded 1922-
2. King Oliver, “King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band: The Complete Set”
(Challenge, 1997; tracks recorded 1923).
3. Louis Armstrong, “The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings”
(Sony, 2006; tracks recorded 1925-29).
4. Louis Armstrong, “The Complete RCA Victor Recordings” (RCA, 2001;
tracks recorded 1932-33 and 1946-47).
5. Louis Armstrong, “Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy” (Columbia,
6. Fletcher Henderson, “Tidal Wave” (Verve, 1994; tracks recorded 1931-
7. Bessie Smith, “The Essential Bessie Smith” (Sony, 1997; tracks
recorded 1923-33).
8. Bix Beiderbecke, “The Bix Beiderbecke Story” (Proper, 2003; tracks
recorded 1924-30).
9. Django Reinhardt, “The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological
Order” (JSP, 2000; tracks recorded 1934-39).
10.Jelly Roll Morton, “Jelly Roll Morton: 1926-1930” (JSP, 2000).
11. Sidney Bechet, “The Sidney Bechet Story” (Proper, 2001; tracks
recorded 1923-50).
12. Duke Ellington, “The OKeh Ellington” (Sony, 1991—tracks recorded
13. Duke Ellington, “Golden Greats” (Disky, 2002; tracks recorded 1927-
14. Duke Ellington, “Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band”
(RCA, 2003; tracks recorded 1940-42).
15. Duke Ellington, “Ellington at Newport 1956” (Sony, 1999).
16. Duke Ellington, “Money Jungle” (Blue Note Records, 1962).
17. Coleman Hawkins, “The Essential Sides Remastered, 1929-39” (JSP,
18. Coleman Hawkins, “The Bebop Years” (Proper, 2001; tracks recorded
19. Billie Holiday, “Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles” (Sony, 2007;
tracks recorded 1933-44).
20. Teddy Wilson, “The Noble Art of Teddy Wilson” (ASV Living Era,
2002; tracks recorded 1933-46).
21. Lester Young, “The Lester Young/Count Basie Sessions 1936-40”
(Mosaic, 2008; available direct through Mosaic).
22. Lester Young, “Kansas City Swing” (Definitive, 2004; tracks
recorded 1938-44).
23. Count Basie, “The Complete Decca Recordings” (Verve, 1992; tracks
recorded 1937-39).
24. Count Basie, “The Complete Atomic Basie” (Blue Note, 1994; tracks
recorded 1958).
25. Benny Goodman, “At Carnegie Hall—1938—Complete” (Columbia,
26. John Kirby Sextet, “Night Whispers: 1938-46” (Jazz Legends,
27.Chick Webb, “Stomping at the Savoy” (Proper, 2006; tracks recorded
28. Benny Carter, “3, 4, 5: The Verve Small Group Sessions” (Polygram,
1991; tracks recorded 1954).
29. Charlie Christian, “The Genius of the Electric Guitar” (Definitive,
2005; tracks recorded 1939-41).
30. James P. Johnson, “The Original James P. Johnson: 1942-1945
Piano Solos” (Smithsonian Folkways, 1996).
31. The Nat King Cole Trio, “The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio: The Vocal
Classics, Vol. 1, 1942-1946” (Blue Note, 1995).
32. Charlie Parker, “The Complete Savoy and Dial Sessions” (Uptown
Jazz, 2005; tracks recorded 1944-48).
33. Charlie Parker, “Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve”
(Polygram, 1988; tracks recorded 1946-54).
34. Charlie Parker, “Best of the Complete Live Performances on Savoy”
(Savoy, 2002; tracks recorded 1948-49).
35. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, “Town Hall, New York City,
June 22, 1945” (Uptown Jazz, 2005).
36. Dizzy Gillespie, “The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, 1947-49”
(RCA, 1995).
37.Thelonious Monk, “Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1” (Blue Note, 2001;
tracks recorded 1947).
38. Thelonious Monk, “Live at the It Club, 1964” (Sony, 1998).
39. Thelonious Monk, “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane: The
Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings” (Riverside, 2006).
40. Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, “Intuition” (Blue Note, 1996;
tracks recorded 1949 and 1956).
41. Miles Davis, “The Complete Birth of the Cool” (Blue Note, 1998; tracks
recorded 1948-50).
42. Miles Davis, “Bags’ Groove” (Prestige, 1954).
43. Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue” (Sony, 1959).
44. Miles Davis, “Highlights from the Plugged Nickel” (Sony, 1995;
tracks recorded 1965).
45. Miles Davis, “Bitches Brew” (Columbia, 1969).
46. Bud Powell, “The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1” (Blue Note, 2001;
tracks recorded 1949-1951), Vol. 2 (Blue Note, 2001; tracks recorded
47. Gerry Mulligan, “The Original Quartet with Chet Baker” (Blue Note,
1998; tracks recorded 1952-53).
48. Modern Jazz Quartet, “Django” (Prestige, 1953).
49. Art Tatum, “The Best of the Pablo Solo Masterpieces” (Pablo, 2003;
tracks recorded 1953-56).
50. Clifford Brown and Max Roach, “Clifford Brown & Max Roach”
(EmArcy, 1954).
51. Sarah Vaughan, “Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown” (EmArcy,
52. Charles Mingus, “Mingus at the Bohemia (Debut, 1955).
53. Charles Mingus, “Mingus Ah Um” (Columbia, 1959).
54. Charles Mingus Sextet, “Cornell 1964” (Blue Note, 2007).
55.Ella Fitzgerald, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook”
(Verve, 1956).
56. Sonny Rollins, “Saxophone Colossus” (Prestige, 1956).
57.Sonny Rollins, “Night at the Village Vanguard” (Blue Note, 1957).
58. Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, “Sonny Meets Hawk!” (RCA,
59. Tito Puente, “King of Kings: The Very Best of Tito Puente” (RCA,
2002; tracks recorded 1956-60).
60. Sun Ra, “Greatest Hits—Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel”
(Evidence, 2000; tracks recorded 1956-73).
61. Abbey Lincoln, “That’s Him” (Riverside, 1957).
62. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, “Moanin’” (Blue Note, 1958).
63. Ahmad Jamal Trio, “Cross Country Tour: 1958-1961” (Verve, 1998).
64. The Dave Brubeck Quartet, “Time Out” (Sony, 1959).
65. Jimmy Witherspoon, “The ’Spoon Concerts” (Fantasy, 1989; tracks
recorded 1959).
66. Ornette Coleman, “Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic
Recordings” (Atlantic, 1993; tracks recorded 1959-61).
67. Ornette Coleman, “Dancing in Your Head” (Horizon, 1973).
68. Freddie Hubbard, “Open Sesame” (Blue Note, 1960).
69. Jimmy Smith, “Back at the Chicken Shack” (Blue Note, 2007; tracks
recorded in 1960).
70. Dinah Washington, “First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story”
(Polygram, 1993; tracks recorded 1943-61).
71. John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things” (Atlantic, 1960).
72.John Coltrane, “The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings”
(GRP, 1997; tracks recorded 1961).
73.John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme” (Impulse!, 1964).
74. John Coltrane, “Ascension” (Impulse!, 1965).
75.Eric Dolphy, “Out There” (New Jazz, 1960).
76. Eric Dolphy, “Out to Lunch!” (Blue Note, 1964).
77. Bill Evans, “The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961”
(Riverside, 2005).
78. Jackie McLean, “A Fickle Sonance” (Blue Note, 1961).
79. Stan Getz and João Gilberto, “Getz/Gilberto” (Verve, 1963).
80. Dexter Gordon, “Our Man in Paris” (Blue Note, 1963).
81. Andrew Hill, “Smokestack” (Blue Note, 1963).
82. Lee Morgan, “The Sidewinder” (Blue Note, 1963).
83. Albert Ayler, “Spiritual Unity” (ESP, 1964).
84. Archie Shepp, “Four for Trane” (Impulse!, 1964).
85. Horace Silver, “Song for My Father” (Blue Note, 1964).
86. Wes Montgomery, “Smokin’ at the Half Note” (Verve, 2005; tracks
recorded 1965).
87. Cecil Taylor, “Conquistador!” (Blue Note, 1966).
88. Betty Carter, “Betty Carter’s Finest Hour” (Verve, 2003; tracks
recorded 1958-92).
89. Frank Sinatra, “Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie & the
Orchestra” (Reprise, 1966).
90. Frank Sinatra, “The Capitol Years” (Capitol, 1990; tracks recorded
91. Nina Simone, “Sugar in My Bowl: The Very Best of Nina Simone,
1967-1972” (RCA, 1998).
92. Pharoah Sanders, “Karma” (Impulse!, 1969).
93. Chick Corea, “Return to Forever” (ECM, 1972).
94. Keith Jarrett, “The Köln Concert, 1975” (ECM, 1999).
95. World Saxophone Quartet, “World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke
Ellington” (Nonesuch, 1986).
96. Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, “Steal Away” (Polygram, 1995).
97. Joshua Redman Quartet, “Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village
Vanguard” (Warner Bros., 1995).
98. Cassandra Wilson, “Traveling Miles” (Blue Note, 1999).
99. Wynton Marsalis Septet, “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Sony,
100. The Bill Charlap Trio, “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Blue Note,

This article appears in the print edition of the May 19, 2008,

 David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998
and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge:
The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”

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 Jazz Music