From Dixieland Fields to Lincoln Center

While working on my latest post, I discovered that there’s another genre of music out there that I love but don’t talk about much on here: jazz. I largely ignored jazz music in my earlier years, not because I didn’t like it, but because I hadn’t really been exposed to it. But in my first year at the UVA, I took a class called The History of Jazz Music, because I’d heard the professor was good and the course was interesting and low-pressure. All of those turned out to be true. You know you’re going to love a course where half the homework involves listening to music. Thus, I was exposed to a slew of jazz standards, and fell in love with the genre. I grew fascinated with its evolution as an art, starting out as an underground sort of music and evolving into a “high” art form, being performed at famous venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, which now has its own jazz orchestra. It was very difficult for me to narrow this list down to five pieces, so several deserving artists aren’t going to be mentioned here. Maybe I’ll do a “bonus post” at some point and talk about some of the ones who missed the cut for this one but still deserve a mention. Without further ado, let’s get to the countdown.

#5: Chameleon (from the album Head Hunters), by Herbie Hancock (1973)

Chameleon can be thought of as a summation of the career of one of the most innovative figures in the history of jazz. It features the synthesizer, which Herbie Hancock was one of the first to experiment with in jazz music. It also prominently features beats influenced by funk and soul music, another signature of Hancock’s and possibly the result of his playing in the rhythm section of Miles Davis’s band for years. I also like the way in which the piece unfolds, starting with a simple synth beat that the song builds upon layer by layer. While that repeated beat becomes the backbone of the song, the other instruments’ parts echo the improvisational tradition of jazz, keeping this song rooted in the past while looking towards the future.

#4: Doodlin’, by Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (1954)

The beauty of jazz is that many of the songs have a remarkably smooth flow to them, a very natural sound that almost never sounds forced or inauthentic. Doodlin’ is the epitome of that style. The piano, trumpet, and sax trade solos and play off each other very well. Jazz is one of those musical formats that continued to use acoustic basses for awhile as well, resisting the adoption of the electric bass. I think it gives certain songs such as this one an extra dose of character. The Jazz Messengers are another of those groups that developed the talents of many excellent jazz musicians over the years, such as the previously mentioned Horace Silver, but also other such luminaries as Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis.

#3: In the Mood, by Glenn Miller (1939)

Probably my favorite era of jazz music is the Swing era of the 1930s and 40s. All the music is very happy and energetic, and features the powerful sound of the big bands. Given all the great music he made, Glenn Miller’s death aboard an airplane while traveling to entertain US troops in WWII in 1944 stings all the more. I like this piece primarily because of its smooth flow and danceable beat. It’s one of those tunes that’s so infectious that you almost can’t help swaying to the beat when you hear it.

#2: Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing), originally by Louis Prima, covered by Benny Goodman (1936)

Another swing piece checks in here at #2. This one has a more frenetic pace than In the Mood, which suits it well. This one also has the same happy and upbeat style that characterized the Swing era. Sing, Sing, Sing was described by Goodman as the crown jewel of his band’s repertoire, and “no one-nighter was complete without it.” When Goodman became the first-ever jazz bandleader to play Carnegie Hall in 1938, this piece also formed the backbone of his performance, although the feel of it was a bit different on that particular night.

#1: Rhythm-a-Ning, by Thelonious Monk (1957)

Thelonious Monk was an absolute virtuoso on the piano, and this piece demonstrates some of that talent. Monk could make harmonic substitutions on the fly, improvising on the piano to a degree that few were able to do before or have done since. He also knew how to work within unconventional time signatures, sometimes swapping between different ones within the same piece, as he does here. Rhythm-a-Ning also carries over some of the peppy and happy nature of the Swing music that came before it, which is perhaps why I’m partial to it. The main musical idea of the piece (that starts it off) is very infectious and sticks in your head.

Five more picks (in no particular order):

Watermelon Man (from the album Takin’ Off), by Herbie Hancock (1962)

So What (from the album Kind of Blue), by Miles Davis (1959)

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (from the album Mercy, Mercy Mercy! Live at “The Club”), by Cannonball Adderley (1966)

Stompin’ at the Savoy, originally by Edgar Sampson, most famously covered by Benny Goodman (1934)

Blood Count, by Billy Strayhorn for Duke Ellington (1967)


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