A Beginner's Guide to Jazz
Updated: Sep 12
Jazz is one of the greatest genres in music, but for newcomers, it isn't the easiest genre to get into. With the dozens of sub-genres within jazz -- from hard bop to free jazz to third stream to jazz fusion -- it's difficult to know where to start. In this list, I'll discuss sixteen incredible jazz albums to ease beginners into the vast and diverse genre.
1. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (1959)
Arguably the most iconic album in the genre, Kind of Blue is an excellent starting point for any beginner. It was revolutionary for the time, being one of the finest examples of modal jazz. The songs here are cool and relaxed, with each musician bringing their all. The brass instruments bring so much life to each song, with triumphant and elegant solos from Miles, Coltrane, and Adderley. The basslines are incredibly catchy as well, making this an album as accessible as it is important in jazz.
2. John Coltrane - My Favourite Things (1961)
While this album is under the same genre as Kind of Blue, modal jazz, this record is far more energetic with swift and fiery moments where Coltrane's skill as a saxophonist shines. The title track, 'My Favourite Things', is an impactful opener, adapting the classic song into one of the greatest intros in jazz. Following this, the rest of the album is so soft and gentle, creating a languid atmosphere. It's one of Coltrane's many classics, and a great introduction to his work.
3. Herbie Hancock - Head Hunters (1973)
In stark contrast to the previous records, Head Hunters is a jazz-funk album. It's arguably the catchiest album in the genre, with such funky use of piano and synths from Herbie that would make even the biggest sceptic of jazz bob their head. The grooves on this album are unforgettable, and the layering of synths, sax, and bass come together into such a wild and colourful experience. It forms a wall of sound encapsulating everything great about funk and jazz, combining both genres into a flawless fusion.
4. Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
This album could be described as 'third stream', incorporating elements of classical music with jazz. The Black Saint is loud and abrasive, with blaring trombone and tuba which hook the listener in, as well as chattering drums and piano, guitar, and far more. There is such a diverse range of sounds on this album; it sounds busy and complex, but never messy. Even the tempo changes, again and again, keeping the listener engaged as the songs speed up and slow down, with each musician working in perfect harmony.
5. Cannonball Adderley - Somethin' Else (1958)
Somethin' Else is an excellent hard bop album with a cool and laid-back atmosphere. With Art Blakey on drums and Miles Davis on trumpet, a host of talents were involved in the making of this classic. For those who liked Kind of Blue, this album has a similar sound but with a less complex framework. Nevertheless, with Somethin' Else, Adderley sharpened every aspect of the genre and perfected the sound of hard bop, making this an essential listen as it encapsulates what made jazz so magical before it began to branch out into dozens of experimental sub-genres.
6. Miles Davis - In a Silent Way (1969)
As the 1960s came to a close, Miles Davis abandoned his more traditional style of jazz in favour of jazz-fusion. In only two tracks, Miles made another masterpiece. The scattered use of organs and electric guitar on this album make it a far more spacious and unpredictable listen. The instrumentation can be so dark and quiet, then so triumphant and loud, with each track being a slow-burn with elements ebbing and flowing in and out of earshot like echoes in a cave. It's a magical album with such a unique sound, and a brilliant gateway into jazz-fusion.
7. Nina Simone - Pastel Blues (1965)
Pastel Blues is a vocal jazz and soul album. Nina Simone provides vocals on each track, bringing such a strong presence with her powerful, raspy voice. Her singing is divine over the smooth jazz instrumentation. The instrumentation alone is incredible, but with Nina's voice over it, the two elements work together perfectly. A great example of this is the climactic closer, 'Sinnerman', where the quick instrumentation builds and builds as Nina yells her words like a hypnotic chant.
8. Art Blakey - Moanin' (1959)
One of my personal favourites, Moanin' hooked me within the first minute of the album, and I'd be surprised if it didn't hook every listener. It's another hard bop classic with a greater emphasis on drums, with Art Blakey giving an incredible performance from song to song. Each musician has their chance to shine, with every instrument having such a punch and leaving a profound impact. It sounds grand and confident, making for some of the most uplifting songs I've heard in jazz.
9. John Coltrane - Ascension (1966)
Ascension is the definition of free jazz. It's John Coltrane's attempt to break down the conventions of jazz and invent something new. The result is a storm of messy and fragmented sounds which join together into an equally overwhelming and intricately detailed experience. Each instrument moves of its own accord, with the rigid and neat structure of his older material nowhere to be heard. While this shouldn't be your first jazz album, it's not a bad choice for your first try at free jazz.
10. Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
This album is one of the most important in free jazz, and another essential for the genre. It's a defining moment in jazz history, with its title foreshadowing the true impact this album would have on the genre. It's a wild and unpredictable free jazz album with moments of calm followed by sporadic, nonsensical passages. Charles Mingus, in response to the album, summed it up nicely: "It’s like organized disorganization or playing wrong right. It gets to you emotionally like a drummer."
11. Alice Coltrane - Journey in Satchidananda (1970)
While John Coltrane gravitated more towards modal and free jazz, Alice embraced the sound of spiritual jazz. I would describe its sound as ethereal and lavish, with the instrumentation almost hypnotic. Making use of the harp and tanpura on top of the traditional double bass, piano and saxophone, it's such a soothing blend of different elements. For those who like jazz to relax and offer a soothing background noise, I highly recommend this.
12. Sun Ra - Lanquidity (1978)
This album is one of the most accessible in jazz-fusion, coming from one of the greatest legends in the genre. Lanquidity is aptly named, because the soft and funky sound of this album is so calming to the listener. There's an emphasis on funk elements here, resulting in some of the catchiest melodies and most memorable songs in jazz. A plethora of instruments are used on Lanquidity -- from the guitar, to the oboe, to the trumpet, to congas -- giving it such a rich and summery feel.
13. The Mahavishnu Orchestra - The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
This is an incredible jazz-rock album which may appeal to fans of progressive rock such as King Crimson. With heavy use of guitar, bass, and violin, The Inner Mounting Flame is unlike any other album mentioned here, with quick, jittery solos and long, chaotic passages. It may not appeal to everyone, but I love how urgent this album feels, with each song passing by so quickly as each musician works fast to contribute to the brilliant mess of sound.
14. Thelonious Monk - Straight, No Chaser (1967)
This is a fantastic post-bop album fusing elements of the more traditional hard-bop with avant-garde jazz. The instrumentation is so crisp and light, capturing that same summery feeling as Lanquidity. With only four musicians involved, each one can be heard vividly, with fantastic piano, sax, bass, and drums across the entire album. For those who want a more upbeat and energetic album compared to '50s classics like Kind of Blue and Somethin' Else, give this a try.
15. Pharoah Sanders - Karma (1969)
Karma should not be your first jazz album, nor should it even be your tenth. While there are more inaccessible albums in the genre, I would only recommend this when you are familiar enough with jazz to fully appreciate the nuances of the dense instrumentation. Karma is a masterpiece in spiritual jazz, with most of the album taken up by the track 'The Creator Has a Master Plan', which many believe to be the best jazz song of all time. The song changes from such a serene sound to a harsh and chaotic one, contrasting the soundscape of paradise to calamity.
16. Kamasi Washington - The Epic (2015)
I didn't want this list to comprise only of jazz from the '50s to the '70s, so for a modern addition, The Epic is a brilliant entry point into today's jazz landscape. It sounds cinematic with its crashing drums and screeching saxophone from Kamasi, running for an incredible two hours and fifty-three minutes. Don't let its length to put you off - listen in segments if it's easier, but this is a wonderful album you don't want to miss out on. It's not all too experimental either, so even if free jazz and spiritual jazz aren't for you, you might love this.
These are only sixteen albums in a genre full of hundreds of classics. Many people don't know how diverse jazz truly is, so don't give up on the genre if you happen to dislike one of these albums. Jazz, unlike a lot of music, isn't always praised for its catchy melodies and moments that stick in your head. It's the atmosphere it builds, the intricacies of each musician bouncing off one another, and the sheer emotion they can get out of an instrument. With this list, I hope newcomers can ease themselves into jazz, and begin to appreciate one of the greatest genres in music.