Beginner’s Guide To “Modern Jazz”

A chance conversation with a young relative at a wedding prompted the thought: how do you find your way into modern jazz – as a complete beginner? A young man in his late thirties, like many of his generation, aware of the vinyl revival, appreciated the superior sound of vinyl, had a good hi-fi. He thought he “liked jazz” but felt there were so many different artists and styles, it was hard to know where to begin.

The answer is of course that it doesn’t matter where you begin. Any place is the right place, if it gets you started.

If you could map all the possible points of entry, it could look something like Peter Von Bartkowski’s famous and elegant “Tree of Jazz”, all the main styles and leaders of those main styles: Swing, Bebop, Cool, Mainstream, Hard Bop, Free Jazz, Fusion, and “Jazz Today”, not forgetting the side-branches of Blues, Soul, Funk, and Free Funk. Of course Jazz also evolved outside the USA, British and European, African-Township and Japanese jazz, each with their own forms and vocabulary. Did I forget Afro-Cuban, Latin, and SpirituaI Jazz?  I believe I did.

This helicopter view of the evolution of Jazz confirms  the premise: I don’t know where to start, because its all too complicated. At the first point of entry, you don’t know what you like, and you won’t know, until you have built up some awareness of your own like and dislikes, which develops only from listening widely with an open mind.

Take an ice cream analogy. There are many hundreds of flavours of ice cream at the famous Fennochio , Nice,  French Riviera. Statistically the most popular ice cream flavour in the West is Vanilla, but have you tried Cactus or Lavender? Most customers take pleasure in exploration.

Rival glacier Roberto at Arlequin, the Picasso of ice cream, offers far fewer flavours, but mixed more artfully. His triumph is a  blend of seven ingredients, aptly named Sete Veili “Seven Veils”, which gradually reveal themselves on the tongue, finishing with fragments of meringue.

Across the jazz genre, there are dozens of styles, thousands of artists, there is no shortcut, like there is good jazz and bad jazz, just tell me which is the good jazz, I’ll start there.

Essential Records

The Penguin Guide Core Jazz Collection list the 200 essential records to make up a jazz collection. Its a good starting point, though if your preference is original vinyl, you are not going to be able to find copies in this list, as collectors will tend to hold onto their own. Plus you need time and space to develop your taste, one bite at a time. Youtube and streaming services like Spotify make it easy to explore.

There is a group of individual musicians widely regarded as the best of their chosen instrument, (Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane) but  you won’t know why until you have listened to many of the others. You could just buy a 50 Miles Davis LPs  and listen to nothing else. That would impede your learning process, deprive you of the benefits of variety, deprive you of the sound of surprise, and deprive you of 99% of the fun of discovering this great music for yourself.

The truth is that the more you explore, the more you will discover what you like. (And acquire stuff you don’t like)   As you find the styles you get most enjoyment from, be it soul jazz or free jazz or whatever, you are in a better position to seek out the players in that style that you find most interesting or exciting. Your growing map of jazz will begin to allow you to navigate  uncharted waters, and discover even more new pleasures and delights. As you learn, your likes and dislikes will almost certainly change. What you dislike today can turn into the thing you love next year.

This is your journey, and the good or bad news, news, it is a lifelong journey.

However I do have a Modern Jazz Questionnaire, to narrow  and speed up your quest:

Are vocals and lyrics important to you? Then Modern Jazz is not for you, Modern Jazz is 98% instrumental music. Forget the cabaret singer in a cocktail dress, that is something else.

Are you concerned about gender? Modern Jazz was mostly but not exclusively played by men, listened to mostly by men, records are collected largely by men (the collector gene), hi fi is largely man/machine territory. Social Psychologists have observed men tend to be more interested in things (machines, cars) women more interested in relationships (family, friends and celebrities lives), of course always exceptions. Perhaps women have better and more important things to do.

Check and eliminate from your quest the early forms of Modern Jazz – Dixie, Big band Swing, and early  Bebop. Then 1956 is your start point.

How do you feel about electric instrument driven music, amplified instruments, rock oriented, post 1970? That is another cut-off point.

Do your tastes lean toward the groovy rhythmic, dance, boogaloo, organ-trio, soul-jazz and funk end of the spectrum, or the more cerebral, more complex and demanding  Post-Bop and Free Jazz? That is another a big divergence.

 Do you have what it takes to be a “Jazz Collector” – infinite patience and unlimited resources. Are you a “First Pressing Fundamentalist” or will a free Youtube do?

Does hi-fi/audiophile quality vinyl matter to you? Your life will be a lot easier if you are happy listening to Spotify on a computer, but beware the dilemma of infinite choice: permanent indecision. Are you ready to sit and listen to 20 minutes of one piece of music without pumping a remote control in your hand?

If you got this far I think you are ready.