Asking a musician for his favorite songs or recordings is like asking a beach lover her favorite drop of water in the ocean, or his favorite grain of sand on the shore.
In jazz, songs become friends that we musicians visit with, each conversation different from the last, based on how we feel that day, and how our playing and our understanding of the song (and of music itself) has changed or grown.
As a result, the musicians I’ve chosen have performed and recorded some songs many times, each time with a different tempo or feel or arrangement. I offer a suggested disc, to give an idea of what the artist is like, but almost any recording by these people is worth checking out:
Louis is our father. Anyone who claims to sing jazz must come from Pops. Armstrong taught us how to swing, how to scat (wordless vocalizing) and, most importantly, how to express our personalities through our playing. His “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” recordings show his genius in his early career, but for those meeting him for the first time, try “Satch Plays Fats”, a later album where Satchmo performs the music of another pioneer/entertainer, Fats Waller.
Song: “Ain’t Misbehavin'”; notice how his playing and singing styles are so evenly matched
The Duke created a jazz orchestra sound that was unique because it was fashioned around the individual players in his group- he wrote songs and arrangements specifically for them.
A prolific writer, even those who say they know nothing of jazz will recognize some of his melodies. A good disc to start with is “The Blanton-Webster Band”, an especially fertile period for Duke and his gang.
Song: “In A Mellotone”; listen to the ‘duet’ between the brass and woodwinds on the melody, then between the soloists and the band
The patron saint of all non-conformists, of all who choose to live, play or write music their own way. It takes a while for anyone who loves piano music to understand or appreciate how Monk plays, but his songwriting is incredible- so angular, yet with its own logic and design.
Give a listen to “Live at the It Club”; almost all the songs are written by Monk, and his quartet on this date was completely in sync with His Royal Quirkiness.
Song: “Round Midnight”, his most famous composition
Miles was a restless genius. Many of our favorite musicians develop a sound and a style that suits their needs; Miles changed his approach every few years, sometimes subtly, often radically.
Although the ‘cool jazz’ title is usually attached to Miles (with his “Kind of Blue” being the disc people focus on), I would suggest “The Complete Concert 1964”, a benefit performance from Town Hall where he and his quintet, featuring Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, kicked some serious ass.
Song: “Seven Steps To Heaven” takes us through so many moods and feels and tempos.
I end this list with the two biggest influences on my approach to jazz singing. Sarah was formally trained in music, at a time when most singers in jazz were pretty underdeveloped vocally. Her idol was classical singer Marian Anderson, and yet Sass undeniably had the heart of a jazz musician; the style created from these two elements took the jazz scene by surprise.
Sarah came up at a time when record companies chose the songs and arrangements, not the singers. There is a lot of crap under her name, as a result. Avoid most music originally released by Mercury; EmArcy, Roulette, Pablo, are pretty safe bets. My suggested introduction to Sass would be “Live In Japan”, on Mainstream. Her technique is remarkable; her trio is wonderful, her ideas are amazing.
Song: a tie between “Wave”, a beautiful ballad/bossa nova, and her romp through “I’ll Remember April”
The best story I can tell you to introduce Betty: she was hired as a youngster to sing with the Lionel Hampton band. She mentioned how she loved Dizzy Gillespie’s music in front of Hampton, so he asked which band she preferred to sing with. “Are you kidding?? Dizzy’s!!”
Hamp fired her. Hamp’s wife re-hired her. Several times; every time Hamp would ask, he got the same answer…
When her record label pressured Betty to sing pop, she let her contract lapse, and started her own label, Bet-Car Records. Her best stuff is on Bet-Car, and the ideal disc to meet Ms Carter with is “The Audience with Betty Carter”. Unlike most jazz singers of her time, Betty wrote a lot of her own songs and arrangements. Tough, uncompromising, super energy, and very up-front (in one of her love songs, she declares, “I love your smell”). An incredibly innovative vocalist; any new approach in jazz singing has to come to terms with what Betty laid out…
Song: again, a tie: “Tight”, with its clever use of space, and “Sounds (Movin’ On)”, a scat-singing tour de force
There you have it: a small taste of indispensable music by seminal jazz artists. Bear in mind, though: if asked to compile a list tomorrow, I may choose pretty much the same people, but I doubt I’d select the same performances. Like I said, songs are friends, and we tend to enjoy different combinations of friends to change up the dynamic.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned any of my own music. No, it’s not because of modesty: I honestly cannot claim that any recording of mine is representative of my work. I guess you’ll just have to come by wherever I am and listen!