Jazz: Where to begin…

Destructive or redemptive, degenerate or transformative? Jazz is a phenomenon, a true world music that came of age over a hundred years ago


Somehow it’s impossible to feel neutral about jazz. Whether you love it or hate it, it always seems to provoke strong emotions. Depending on your viewpoint it can be destructive ot redemptive, degenerate or transformative; and it’s been that way since the turn of the 20th century, when an outraged Ladies Home Journal demanded: ‘Does Jazz Put The Sin In Syncopation?’


Even its acceptance into the cloisters of academie has not quelled its subversive allure.

At its best, jazz is a collaborative endeavour supporting individual expression. Beginning as a provincial music in America’s Southern states, it was captured by the recording machine and spread around the world.

By 1919 the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had appeared at Buckingham Palace, and in the Thirties Adi Rosner was leading the State Jazz Orchestra of the Belorussian Republic in Stalin’s Russia.

Today, more than ever, jazz is a global phenomenon, a true world music that came of age over a hundred years. It was a real ‘Jazz Age’.

How did jazz music start?

From slavery and Minstrels to ragtime, the roots of jazz go back more than 300 years.

Where to start listening…

Classic Ragtime
Various artists
RCA 09026 63206 2

The Entertainer: The Very Best of Scott Joplin
Joshua Rifkin (piano)
Nonesuch 7559-79449-2

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings
CBS 467 246-2

New Orleans

With its cosmopolitan culture, New Orleans was a breeding ground for the first jazz stars…

Where to start listening…

The Defnitive Sidney Bechet
Sony 501 031-2

Louis Armstrong and King Oliver
Milestone MCD 47017-2

Original Dixieland Jazz Band
RCA Bluebird 07863 61098 2


King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong were among the key New Orleans musicians who moved to Chicago…

Where to start listening…

Louis Armstrong – The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
Columbia/Legacy C4K 63527

King Oliver – I’ll Still Be King
ABM MCD 1004

Jelly Roll Morton – Birth of the Hot
RCA Bluebird 07863 66641 2

New York

While pianists partied in Harlem, bands were expanding to fill the huge halls where young people did the turkey-trot and the Charleston…

Where to start listening…

Harlem Jazz: The 20s
Various artists
ABM MCD 1153

Paul Whiteman – Music for Moderns
Naxos Nostalgia 8.120505

Fats Waller – Ain’t Misbehavin’
Giants of Jazz CD 53078

Swing Era

Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie were pioneers of the increasingly popular big band music…

Where to start listening…

The Definitive Benny Goodman
Sony Jazz 501 035-2

The World of Swing
Various artists
Sony Jazz CK 66080

Glenn Miller – The American Band of the AEF
Delta CD 53288

Bebop to Free

With the arrival of a rhythmically and harmonically experimental style, jazz moved out of the dance hall and into the club…

Where to start listening…

The Definitive Charlie Parker
Verve 314 549 084-2

Ornette Coleman – Free Jazz
Atlantic 8122-72397-2

Miles Davis – The Complete Birth of the Cool
Capital Jazz 494 550-2


As rock took over from jazz in popular culture, young jazz musicians experimented by integrating the two styles to create new sounds…

Where to start listening…

The Definitive Miles Davis
Sony Jazz 501 033-2

Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire
Sony Jazz CK 66081

Weather Report – Heavy Weather
Sony Jazz CK 65108


The startling eclecticism of the postmodern era…

Where to start listening…

John Scofield – Blue Matter
Gramavision GCD 79403

Joe Lovano – Rush Hour
EMI Blue Note CDP 8 29269

Wynton Marsalis – Live at Blues Alley
Sony Jazz 487 323-2



Original text by Stuart Nicholson