April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM)! Celebrated in honor of the history and heritage of this soul-stirring genre, JAM aims to recognize the impeccable influence and legacy of jazz music and artists. This genre sets apart with its outstanding improvisations and leading talent that paved way for expressional civil rights music to flourish. This month we encourage music lovers to embrace and participate in appreciating the evolution of jazz while commemorating the birthdays of many famous greats that were born this month, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and many more.
As music and audio enthusiasts ourselves, we want to recognize and share with you some of the most admired and significant jazz vinyl albums in history. Compiling a list of best vinyl albums is always a near-impossible task… so we chose albums that were dubbed as groundbreaking, career-defining, and influential with a lasting legacy of inspiration among jazz enthusiasts and musicians.
- Miles Davis – ‘Kind of Blue’
- John Coltrane – ‘A Love Supreme’
- Duke Ellington – ‘Ellington at Newport’
- Charles Mingus – ‘Mingus Ah Um’
- 'Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book'
- Eric Dolphy – ‘Out to Lunch!’
- Thelonious Monk – ‘Genius Of Modern Music Vols.1 & 2’
- Sonny Rollins - 'A Night at the Village Vanguard'
- Charlie Parker - 'Charlie Parker with Strings'
- Wayne Shorter - 'Speak No Evil'
- Louis Armstrong - 'The Best of the Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings'
- Bill Evans - 'The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961'
- Ornette Coleman - 'The Shape of Jazz to Come'
- The Quintet- 'Jazz at Massey Hall'
- Herbie Hancock - 'Maiden Voyage'
- Billie Holiday - 'Strange Fruit'
- Frank Sinatra - 'In The Wee Small Hours'
- Anthony Braxton - 'The Montreaux/Berlin Concerts'
Miles Davis – ‘Kind of Blue’
Among the most influential figures in the history of jazz, Davis released ‘Kind of Blue’ in 1959 that led to become universally acknowledged as one of the greatest, must-have albums for those beginning their journey into jazz. Widely regarded as a masterpiece, ‘Kind of Blue’ challenged the status quo of jazz and came to be accepted as a standard of excellence. After writing down a few chords, the entire band improvised this performance, making it extraordinarily entertaining and innovative. This album continues to find its way into the collections of vinyl enthusiasts, making No. 5 on the list of top selling vinyl albums in 2015 and holding a dedicated spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
John Coltrane – ‘A Love Supreme’
An avant-garde masterpiece you will fall in love with. This album is recognized for its unique declaration of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s spiritual journey and liberation of love that will touch the soul. This 1965 album innovatively challenged the norms of blues music, playing in all 12 keys and following a great message of spiritual awakening in sequence, from self-forgiveness to love supreme. It was much more than just another recording; it held personal significance and growth for Coltrane, and has become recognized for its deep, thought-provoking effect of self-reflection. Coltrane continues to be highly respected and admitted among jazz enthusiasts.
Other popular John Coltrane must-have albums include Live at the Village Vanguard, Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and John Coltrane And Thelonious Monk At Carnegie Hall.
Duke Ellington – ‘Ellington at Newport’
Ellington was recognized as one of the most high profile jazz orchestra leaders and composers of the 20th century. Amongst the top great moments in jazz history, this recording is a three-part documentation of his band’s performance at the famous “Newport Jazz Festival” in 1956. Although re-recorded before release for sound quality and balance due to thunderstorms, this outstanding performance brought the audience to their feet in standing ovation; truly a must-have album to add to your vinyl collection.
Charles Mingus – ‘Mingus Ah Um’
Mingus, also known as “The Angry Man of Jazz”, had exceptionally high standards and ear for talent that broke jazz norms and brought bass to life. Although routinely placed on top charts, his style is an acquired taste for many listeners in the jazz community, but nonetheless exceptional. His complex and abstract instrumentals were intriguing and unique compared to other artists of the era, with ‘Mingus Ah Um’ becoming one of the most emotionally varied compositions of his career that you won’t want to leave out of your jazz vinyl collection.
'Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book'
Dubbed the ‘First Lady of Song’ and ‘Queen of Jazz’, Ella Fitzgerald collaborated with many fellow legendary jazz artists who noted her exceptionally pure and heavenly vocal ability. Her immense popularity and talent landed her top female jazz singer for decades, and the first African American woman to win a Grammy award for best individual jazz and female vocal performance. This album was the first recorded in Fitzgerald’s Songbook series, and we must say…this legendary material is definitely an essential classic to any vinyl collection.
Eric Dolphy – ‘Out to Lunch!’
This 1964 album is one of Dophy’s signature albums, also described as a ‘timeless masterpiece’. He broke away from clichés of post–bop jazz with unconventional chaotic solos that pushed the standard harmony of the era, leaving the time signature aside to enjoy utter freedom in his tracks. His extraordinary gift as a composer was hard to ignore, and therefore respected for its individualistic expansion. Although it may take some listeners years to appreciate the rhythmic complexity of his work, Out To Lunch! is a core album to introduce into your jazz collection.
Thelonious Monk – ‘Genius Of Modern Music Vols.1 & 2’
Monk is well known for his compositions and unique playing style as a jazz pianist in the 40’s-50’s. Music he was involved with, whether big band, orchestra, or small combos, had a dash of ‘Monk-ness’ to it that flourished his improvisational style. This album is a highly recommended must-have for beginner jazz enthusiasts that is easy to digest, but still contains Monk’s unorthodox and genius greatest hits of the era.
Sonny Rollins - 'A Night at the Village Vanguard'
Played by one of jazz’s great tenor saxophonists, this live album was recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York City in 1957. At a young age, Rollins was taken under the wing of Thelonious Monk, who became his musical mentor and motivation into the professional jazz world. This album brilliantly captures Rollins’ boppish and creative music style, bringing an upbeat and harmonic contour that has inspired generations of saxophonists to this day.
Charlie Parker - 'Charlie Parker with Strings'
Leaving his mark as one of the most significant figures in the development of jazz, Parker’s photographic memory and master improvisation skills paved the way for bebop jazz to blossom after challenging the norms of jazz rhythm. This classical string album was the first recording Parker did for Norman Granz’s Clef Records after persuading Granz to let him record with string arrangements. After much criticism, this masterpiece is arguably one of the top influential records to bridge the gap between jazz and classical music, transforming sax-playing with his unique approach to rhythm and melody.
Wayne Shorter - 'Speak No Evil'
This masterpiece often turns up on top jazz album recommendations, and for good reason. ‘Speak No Evil’ is subjectively Shorter’s gateway into compositional excellence in the jazz community, and recognized as his greatest tenor solo ever recorded. Shorter was already a member of Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, and though complex, there is delicacy in the way he mixes gothic romance and hard bop with a gentle folk quality. You won’t want to leave out one of the most forthcoming records of Shorter’s career.
Louis Armstrong - 'The Best of the Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings'
Known to be the first great jazz soloist, Armstrong’s influence traces back to his days as a big band trumpeter in the 1920’s. He was valued for his improviser spirit, captivating expressiveness, and unique innovation that set the standard for musicians to come. These recordings played a key role in altering the focus of jazz, bringing prominence to trumpet solos that carried the melody, compared to usual early band solos that were short. Armstrong stretched the comfort zone of the era, leaving a lasting legacy. Keep in mind when listening to these solos, technology was not advanced enough to correct flaws in the studio, therefore you’ll hear a few cracks and botched notes.
Bill Evans - 'The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961'
Ranked in the top as one of the best live jazz recording sessions in history, this box set holds all the recordings from Evan’s Trio (Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian) June 1961 Village Vanguard performance. The equilibrium and complete unison between these three instrumentalists allegedly elevated the way jazz trios were perceived moving forward, holding an iconic moment in jazz history. Additional material from the performance was included in the box set, making it the ultimate collectable for any jazz fan.
Ornette Coleman - 'The Shape of Jazz to Come'
Although Coleman’s unique and challenging approach to jazz had him frequently met with hostility from jazz enthusiasts, this groundbreaking post-bop album was set apart from other releases in 1959. The scarcity of chordal structure and strong focus on the soloist is unlike other music at the time, often described as a harsh beauty. You won’t want to miss adding this creative and influential record on your list of must-have albums.
The Quintet- 'Jazz at Massey Hall'
What do you get when you put five brilliant musical improvisors in the same room? One of the greatest live shows recorded in the history of jazz. This album features a performance by “The Quintet” at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada. The quintet was composed of five leading ‘modern’ players of the day: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. This exhilarating bebop record contains emotional intensity, relaxation, and uninterrupted solos all in one. Whether you are familiar already with this performance or not, it will leave a lasting impression.
Herbie Hancock - 'Maiden Voyage'
This jazz composition is one of Hancock’s best-known recordings as a pianist, capturing his finest elements as a leader, soloist and composer. The album, created with Miles Davis Quintet and Freddie Hubbard, aimed to create a soothing, oceanic atmosphere of calm repose and harmony by stretching instrumental techniques past their fluent limits. Hancock masterfully conveys a creative soundscape of both soft relaxation, confusion, and chaotic tempo variation; conveying the feelings and mentality during the 1960’s political tension. This experimental emotional rollercoaster is an asset to any vinyl collection.
Billie Holiday - 'Strange Fruit'
Originally a poem based off tragic stories of racism and violence, this work of art was declared a jazz legacy for its deeply moving lyrics and expression of political protest. It brought painful memories for Holiday, but she continued to perform this ‘song of the century’ to inspire and advocate against the terrible treatment and injustice of African American’s. The overwhelming, yet imperative lyrics left most audiences silent and chilled, and remains one of her bestselling records.
Frank Sinatra - 'In The Wee Small Hours'
Singer, actor, and producer, Sinatra was a popular and influential legend of 20th century American music. Although it’s debatable on whether he was a true jazz singer or pop swing music, his romantic swagger and sensational vocals swooned the crowds. Sinatra was hesitant on releasing this album due to its focus on themes of loneliness, despair and troubled love, but is now recognized as one of his highest rated albums. In addition, this album was the first pop music 12″ record LP released; we wonder what the original pressing is worth now?
Anthony Braxton - 'The Montreaux/Berlin Concerts'
This album is very avant-garde and praised for being the first live record focused entirely on saxophone solos. As a multi-instrumentalist and experimenter of free-jazz sound, Braxton had a reputation for playing lengthy woodwind and alto saxophone improvisations. Although it is said that Braxton is best heard in live performance, this is a classic record you won’t want to leave out of your jazz collection.