Read an Excerpt
From the Preface
Jazz is hard to define in a few words because it takes so many forms, and it’s this difficulty to categorize it easily that allows so many to enjoy it, whether listening to a new discovery or an old favourite. To me, jazz is appealing because it represents truth and beauty. To my ears there is nothing more delightful than a swinging blues played by artists in complete accord with one another. There is nothing more exquisite than a solo that explores and extends and bends the melody in a journey to who knows where the first time you hear it. As an art form, jazz has meat on its bones, and it makes for a very rich meal indeed.
One of the most appealing things about jazz is its ability to define who we are, and just as we are constantly redefining ourselves, so too is jazz. It’s an art form that spanned the most tumultuous century in history, and looks like it will be with us for as long as there are human beings expressing themselves through music. In fact, jazz music’s popularity continues to grow. A number of jazz stations have arisen in the past decade or so; new, exemplary artists continue to arrive on the scene, exploring and innovating in this art form; and jazz continues to enjoy crossover appeal. There are always new listeners who don’t quite know where to start. Despite what some would have you believe, jazz is accessible to everyone, and can be enjoyed by everyone. Once you know what it has to offer, you will know whether you get more pleasure from the swinging tunes of big bands or the more unpredictable sounds of free jazz.
In order to appreciate any jazz, you need a sense of fun, adventure, and a desire to take risks. I crave music that grabs my attention. And every album I recommend in this book does just that. When I hear a great album, the easiest way I can describe it is to say that it feels like Christmas. It gives me a feeling of wonder, appreciation, and, there’s no other way to put it, it makes me feel good. What’s the test of a superior album? Well, to me, if it still sounds terrific years later, and I find I listen to it repeatedly, it’s got to be good.
I was asked recently if I could have any job I wanted, what it would be. The answer was easy — I have it. I think I’ve always had it. I first wrote about jazz for the Winnipeg Free Press, then made documentaries on jazz and pop culture for CBC Radio and Television, and for ten years I hosted CBC Radio Two’s daily national jazz program, Afterhours. Then I was fortunate to be asked to launch CoolTV, Canada’s 24/7 jazz channel, and I am currently the president and CEO of what truly is Canada’s premier jazz station, JAZZ.FM91 in Toronto. In forty years of working as a broadcaster, being a critic and a fan, I’ve listened to twenty-five thousand albums in all genres, and I still go back to listen to many of them. So, it has not been easy to whittle my recommendations down to just 101 essential CDs. There are easily 1001 I might have chosen just because I enjoy them, but I tried to keep in mind that I was looking for essential recordings.
What is an essential jazz collection? To me, essential means something basic, something that’s a necessity in order to achieve a true understanding of, in this case, jazz as an art form. And to truly understand something, you have to know where it came from and what it is becoming. This is especially true for jazz, which is so rich, varied, and in my opinion, limitless. So, I decided to organize the 101 selections I made after hours and hours of difficult deliberation in more or less chronological order, based on the date the album was first recorded or the first date of a compilation album representing an entire era or career. Even if you don’t listen to the CDs in the order I’ve presented them, I hope that I’ve been able to convey in words a sense of how jazz has developed.
I’ve begun with a few albums from the early years of jazz, but there are many more selections from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, known to some as the golden age of jazz. This is when jazz made its sharp turn from dance music, from swing, to listening music, to bebop and hard bop. But during those years, all forms of jazz were alive and kicking, and you will find many of them represented here. Since then, as you’ll see, other forms have arisen: fusion, cool, free, and avant-garde, just to name a few, and you’ll find selections here that represent most of these forms.
Not everyone is going to agree with my selections. (There are jazz snobs, whose attitude I dislike, who hold one form of jazz superior to another.) But I appreciate most of its forms, and the criteria I’ve used is not whether this CD is better than that, this form superior to the other, but whether the music is enjoyable, whether it reveals something about the people who made it, about the form and the era in which it was made, and whether people will want to listen to it repeatedly.
It’s my hope that you will take a chance on many of these recommendations and that each one leads you to another by that musician or that group or by one of the musicians in the group whose sound has impressed you. Use the book as a guide, but also use it as a springboard. You may find, as I have, that jazz is the perfect accompaniment for your life.