Rhythm Planet’s Jazz Appreciation Playlist

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April is Jazz Appreciation Month (aka “JAM”), which was established in 2002 by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to celebrate the history of jazz and to encourage engagement with jazz through study and listening and more. I’ve loved jazz all my life, so in honor of this worthy initiative, I hereby present my personal selection of what I feel are some of the greatest jazz recordings ever made.  This is a short list, and there are many other recordings I love that aren’t here.

  1. My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane: Only a musical genius like Coltrane could turn a classic Broadway song into a work of art.  Nobody had ever heard a soprano sax sound like this before.
  1. On Green Dolphin Street” by Miles Davis: The muted trumpet of Miles, followed by Coltrane’s, Cannonball’s, and Bill Evans’s solos, makes this one of Miles’s greatest improvisations. The song was written by Bronislaw Kaper, a Polish writer who came to Hollywood at the behest of Louis B. Mayer. Few remember the film this song was written for; but no need, because this recording made the song title famous anyway. (Q: Isn’t it a strange name for a street?)
  1. You’ve Changed” by Billie Holiday: Heartrending ballad from Billie’s very last album, Lady in Satin. Ray Ellis wrote the charts for the orchestra, but Billie was so sick at this point that she had to overdub her vocals later. This is one of the saddest and greatest of all torch songs, sure to make tears flow for anybody coming out from under the heel of love.
  1. Lush Life” by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman: Coltrane only made one record with a vocalist, and that singer was baritone Johnny Hartman. It was an improbable date.  Hartman didn’t think his voice would work with Coltrane’s tenor sound. Impulse Records producer Bob Thiele had Hartman visit the set at Birdland where Coltrane was playing, and together McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, and Hartman practiced some songs after the last set, then agreed to record together. Clint Eastwood’s film Bridges of Madison County is filled with songs from it. Somebody once called this the “ultimate make-out record.” Anybody out there ever tested this hypothesis?
  1. Perdido” by Charlie Parker: “Perdido” was written by Juan Tizol, trombonist with the Ellington band. This jam session was recorded in 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto. The band contained bebop’s best: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, and Max Roach. The band is on fire and having a great time, and so is the audience.
  1. Well, You Needn’t” by Thelonious Monk: One of Monk’s great tunes, adored by jazz musicians. At one point, Monk screams, “Coltrane! Coltrane!!” There is a myth around this, that Coltrane, still using drugs in 1957, had nodded out on a fix and Monk yelled to wake him up for his solo. The solo that comes out is just amazing. Even Ray Copeland, the trumpet player on the date, thought Coltrane had nodded. As Robin Kelley points out in his masterful, dense biography of Monk, however, “the truth is a little more mundane: Monk had not planned out the sequence of soloists, so he was merely letting ‘Trane know that he was next.” Nevertheless, like Miles Davis a few years before, Monk fired Coltrane shortly after this; Coltrane managed to quit using shortly thereafter. After cleaning up, he rejoined Miles Davis, producing the great 1958-9 dates for Columbia, including Kind of Blue.
  1. Two Different Worlds” by Jaki Byard: Byard, famous for his work with Charles Mingus, wrote this lovely ballad for the 1962 album Out There. I find it stunning. My thanks to Robert Mora for turning me onto this gem.
  1. Old Devil Moon” by Anita O’Day: O’Day scored a hit with trumpet player Roy Eldridge in the early 1940’s with “Let Me Off Uptown” (check out the video below with the jitterbuggers). O’Day was also a jitterbugger in dance marathons before she become a great jazz singer.
  1. Requiem” by Lennie Tristano: Pianist Lennie Tristano wrote this sad song just after Charlie Parker died. It is a beguiling work, filled with despair and a feeling of absurdity as well.
  1. Sun Down” by Wes Montgomery: A sweet song from Wes’s Verve album California Dreaming, with arrangements and orchestrations by Don Sebesky. Hearing Montgomery’s improvisations, it is hard to believe that he never learned how to read music.
  1. Midnight Sun” by Nancy Wilson: A song by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. This song lyrics include a genius triple rhyme in “red and ruby chalice, alabaster palace, aurora borealis.” With the Fancy Miss Nancy’s vocals, it doesn’t get any better than this. The arrangements are by Oliver Nelson and Billy May.
  1. Afro Blue (Live)” by Mongo Santamaria: A great live track from New York City’s Village Gate recorded in the early 1960’s.  The star of this cut is a young Hubert Laws, then studying flute with Julius Baker at Juilliard by day, gigging with Latin bands like Mongo’s at night. He circular-breathes on the piccolo mid-song (not easy), and the lively crowd goes wild. Hubert Laws found fame and commercial success later on Creed Taylor’s CTI label.
  1. Patterns” by Gerald Wilson: Gerald Wilson is a personal hero of mine. He was a jazz educator (his classes at Cal State Northridge and UCLA were always full), radio host, big band arranger and conductor, trumpet player. I lobbied hard to get him a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, but found little support. I did succeed in helping him get a plaque from the City of Los Angeles, which I personally presented to him at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival just days before his unexpected death at the ripe young age of 96.
  1. Bo-Bi My Boy” by Lucky Thompson: A superb trio cut with Clifton “Skeeter” Best on guitar and the great Oscar Pettiford on bass. Thompson was a superb tenor player and an enigmatic artist; he disappeared from the jazz arena for a long time after this and his early recordings.  Thompson came up during the bebop era, but played more in the swing style. He moved to Paris and later to Switzerland, returned to the U.S. to teach at Dartmouth, then, soured by the record business, made no further recordings.
  1. The Midnight Sun Will Never Set” by Sarah Vaughan: Not to be confused with the Nancy Wilson cut above. This song was written by French chansonnier Henri Salvador, and it was his friend Quincy Jones who brought the song back to the U.S. after an European tour and gave it to Sarah Vaughan.  Hear the result in this track.
  1. Straighten Up and Fly Right” by Yusef Lateef: The late Yusef Lateef was a talented multi-instrumentalist—flute, oboe, tenor sax. He even improvised with a 7-Up bottle once (in the song “Love and Humor”). He played in Detroit with big bands in late 1930’s, and had a big sound on tenor. Hear this and believe.
  1. I Remember You” by Ella Fitzgerald: 2017 is the centennial of Fitzgerald’s birth.  This love song shows her at her best, from the Johnny Mercer Songbook album.
  1. Rainbow” by Keith Jarrett: I couldn’t find any ECM titles from him on Spotify, so I chose an earlier track from his Impulse days with Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, and Paul Motian. The late French graphic artist and jazz aficionado Francis Paudras shared this song with me in 1987 at his country home in Antigny, France. I fell in love with it. I also liked it because there was a notable absence of the distracting grunting and other vocalizations typical of Keith Jarrett’s later live concerts. (As a side note, Paudras was the model for Francois Cluzet’s character in the Bertrand Tavernier film Round Midnight, starring Dexter Gordon. Paudras befriended Bud Powell during the latter’s time in early 60’s Paris, and saved his life, for a while. Powell died not long after returning to the U.S.)
  1. Violets for Your Furs” by Shirley Horn: Horn was a wonderful pianist and ballad artist. This is from an earlier album on the Danish Steeplechase label.
  1. A Love Supreme, Pt. 1 – Acknowledgement” by John Coltrane: A masterpiece of modern music, a tour-de-force, and a work of art. Coltrane stayed upstairs in his bedroom for weeks contemplating this 1964 recording. His wife, Alice Coltrane, would bring meals upstairs while he meditated on it.  When he finally descended the staircase, she told me that it was like Moses walking down from the mountain. She says the same thing in John Scheinfeld’s new film Chasing Trane.

Here is fun clip of Anita O’Day singing and dancing in “Let Me Off Uptown”: