Listening: The History of Jazz

[Sorry for the wrong category, it doesn’t let me post this in: Records, Albums, & Musicians/Jazz category.]

I’ve recently watched a great history of Jazz documentary on Amazon prime (“Ken Burns Jazz”, 10 episodes). It goes from the early beginnings to modern times. I’d like to acquaint myself with the music that was mentioned there so as to have a better idea of how jazz has progressed throughout the decades and learn to distinguish different jazz styles/musicians.

While watching I was taking notes of important jazz musicians/bands and their works for all of the 10 episodes. What I would like to ask is: Is there a suggested listening guide to the history of jazz? Do I start with one musician, listen to 1-2 of their albums and move on? Or do I focus on the most important of their songs only? Of course, it’s impossible to listen to every recording and artist out there so there must be some kind of selection of “most important/revolutionary/distinct” recordings. How do I know which ones to choose and which ones to omit/leave for later. I do have the Ken Burns Jazz suggested list of artists, but I was wondering how others on this forum do it.

Of course, if anyone is interested, I could share my notes from the documentary.

EDIT: Here are my notes. I actually started taking notes with episode 2. The 1st one dealt with minstrel shows and very early attempts with no particular names or it was something that I thought wasn’t of much interest in terms of jazz to me.

Ken Burns Jazz
Ep. 2
Louis Armstrong
Hellfighters - orchestra army band - merged jazz and rag time
“By the great Jehovah we will save it [democracy] in the USA” - W. A. B. Dubois
Historical context:
Bolshevism and Nazisim, uncertainty
Prohibition in the US
King Oliver in Chicago
Duke Ellington
The Austin High Gang - white band
Chicago style jazz
Paul Whiteman - wanted to orchestrate jazz and make it more predictable
George Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue
Fletcher Henderson started to play with Louis Armstrong- that would change jazz forever

Ep. 3
Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters
Armstrong ‘s Heebie Jeebies scat song
Bessie Smith singing blues
Black Swan Records - recording only black artists
Leon Bix - first white jazz musician
Sidney Bechet
Benny Goodman
Ethel Waters
“Jelly Roll” Morton - new orleans style
Harlem’s Speak easies
Duke Ellington
Artie Shaw
By 1927 jazz became a big thing
Armstrong invented swing, he created modern time; affirmed that a fundamental basic of this music was going to be a blues tonality; established that jazz was to be a solo art rather than ensemble music
1928 “West End Blues” - Armstrong the first great solo genius of the music
Armstrong ‘s pianist was Earl Heynes who played trumpet style piano

Ep. 4
1929 stock market crash, great depression
Record sales plummeted, free jazz radio broadcasts for the nation
Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ performed by Armstrong in front of white audience also singing
Fletcher Henderson orchestra
Fats Waller
Sidney Bechet
John Henry Hammond Jr was central to the history of jazz both black and white
Benny Goodman - wanted to play “genuine“ jazz
Art Tatum
Swing era

Ep. 5
Jazz was primarily dance music
1936 swing - jazz came close to being called a popular music
Benny Goodman - the king of swing
Armstrong created jazz vocabulary
Tommy Dorsey band, Frank Sinatra
Tommy made the trombone a singing instrument
Glen Miller band popularised swing music
Dave Brubeck
Artie Shaw clarinet player - Benny Goodman‘s greatest rival
Teddie Wilson - Benny Goodman’s piano player
1935 Billie Holiday starred in a movie singing, was singing just before the beat
Chic Webb the drummer vs Benny Goodman battle
Count Basie

Ep. 6
1937 stock market crashed again - the Roosevelt recession
The saxophone emerged as the main jazz instrument
Coleman Hawkins
Lester Young - Hawkins’ greatest rival
Kansas city musicians - the mecca of the West - 12 bar blues
Count Basie and the Barons of Rhythm, he had the greatest rhythm section in the history of jazz
Harlem stride style 1920’s
Mary Lue Williams, female musician, best pianist in Kansas city
Charlie Christian - guitarist
Ella Fitzgerald played with Chic Webb until his death at 30 y.o., his orchestra started playing with her
In 1938 Ella left Count Basie for Artie Shaw orchestra
Strange Fruit sung by Billid Holiday
1938 first outdoor Jazz Festival in NYC in Randalls Island 24000 people
Body and Soul song
Savoy jazz club

Ep. 7
1939 Charlie Parker created solos not based on melody line but chords
WWII in Europe
Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz playing, Charlie Parker invented the phrasing, he discovered he could play any note of the scale and resolve it within the chord that sounded harmonically right, provided new harmonic and melodic content that was different from the swing
Coleman Hawkins
Nazi staged films of Jews being entertained in death camps
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in Heynes band - they were
American Federation of Musician wanted the record companies to pay musicians for playing their records
Lady Day = Billie Holiday

Ep. 8
Miles Davis
Thelonious Monk
dissonant sounds - the Devil’s interval = flatted 5ths
Charlie Parker heroin addict
Lindy Hopping
Birdland jazz club in NYC
Bill Evans
Jerry Mulligan
Miles Davis
Bud Powell brought intricacies of bebop to the piano
Ella embraced bebop
The Moder Jazz Quartet
Beat Generation poets: Allen Ginsberg
Thellonious Monk
Jerry Mulligan - new movement - cool or west coast jazz
Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond

Ep. 9
Ray Charles soul - blended jazz and blues
Sonny Rollins - “Saxophone Collosus” album
Bud Powell and Coleman Hawkins
Ellington at Newport
Miles Davis
Clifford Brown no drugs smoking or alcohol, played chess
Sarah Vaughan
Art Blakey - drummer
Horace Silver + Blakey created the Jazz Messengers band
They started playing hard bop
1957 the sound of jazz assembly on tv
Lester Young
John Coltrane
Bill Evans
Kind of Blue
Ornette Coleman played free music: not constrained to chords “Free Jazz a collective improvisation”

Ep. 10
Dexter Gordon bebop
1964 Beatlemania made the gap between people and jazz wider
Charles Mingus bass player
Cecil Taylor avant garde
Juao Gilberto bossa nova - new wave
Stan Gets popularized bossa nova, samba too
John Coltrane avant garde
A Love Supreme
Miles Davis had the Quintet: Wane Shorter sax, the best rhythm section in jazz history: Ron Carter bass, Tony Williams drums, Herbie Hancock piano
Miles replaced traditional instruments with electronic ones - the result: fusion (jazz + rock)
In 1975 Miles said “jazz is dead”
Dexter Gordon - Village Vanguard club in NY
Wynton Marsalis 1st jazz composer to win Pulitzer prize
Cassandra Wilson
Nicholas Payton
swing - bebop - avant garde - fusion


Hi Diana,

I switched your post to the “Jazz” category for you :+1:

Firstly, yes, I think this is a fantastic idea.

I’d certainly find it useful and I’m sure many others would too.

I think it’s different for everyone Diana and there is no set way to listen and learn.

Believe it or not, it was the Funk genre that originally piqued my interest in improvised music.

I quickly learnt that I needed a foundation in jazz to understand the concepts, and I then discovered my love for jazz and for exploring complex harmonies. I keep telling myself that I’ll make it through to Funk one day! :grin:

I spent many years studying Bill Evans who’s music immediately resonated with me.

The last few years I’ve been ‘working backwards’ in time by studying players such as Bud Powell, Red Garland, & Wynton Kelly.

There was no logic to this, I’m simply following my ears.

My main advice would be to listen to the players that you admire and that you want to sound like. Listen to them and transcribe their work.

Once you feel like you have absorbed some of their sound, then move on. I also find it interesting to read into the history and backgrounds of the players I like. It gives me more perspective and insight into their music.

Again I don’t think there is a set method for this.

When I particularly like a record, or even a section of a record, I often will study it for many months by listening repeatedly and transcribing from it.

In my opinion, “most important” should be subjective, ie. the songs and artists that you deem to be most important because you like the sound of them.

Ultimately, I think that we have to be somewhat selective in the music we listen to and study. There is such an abundant library of records and albums that it’s virtually impossible to listen to everything.

I’d say make a shortlist of 5 of your favourite musicians - any instrument - and spend a year trying to listen to all of their work. Always be making notes of the songs/albums you like and then put these aside for deeper study and transcription.

That’s just my opinion and how I would approach the task. Hope it helps :grinning:


Hello Diana, Hayden and all,

Yes, I think this is a great question. When I was studying Jazz in School formally, we did do a calculated study of the different era’s of Jazz. But they started with Charlie Parker, and ended with Wayne Shorter. So much focus was spent in school on BeBop and with good reason… since working on the dexterity to play Charlie Parker is can make a lot of other cat’s solos seems easy.
But I find this focus to leave out much of what I consider essential Jazz. I got into jazz because of modern guys like Jackie Terreson, The Bad Plus, Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Ben Allison… Their sound reflects be-bop, but also the evolution of jazz since then which was influenced by many other styles such as rock and classical. Some call this fusion.
Does academia still doesn’t consider Fusion to be jazz?
Regardless, I’m planning to study jazz for the rest of my life, and I’d like to spend time on all of it if I can. But I agree with Hayden, that it’s best to chart your own course, and spend as much time there as you need to get the essence… thru studying transcription, voicings, songs, ect.
I have been working on my solo walking bass so much, that it seems like a good idea to go back to some of the early, early players like Fats Waller. Someone I’ve always loved but haven’t studied to much yet.
By charting our own course thru history, I think we also naturally develop our own unique sound and voice.
I’m curious to hear Where Ken Burns started with - what was his earliest jazz references, as well as his most modern?

  • Lyndol

Hi Diana,

If you haven’t already, I’d recommend checking out some books by Ted Gioia. I’d primarily recommend “The History of Jazz”, which does a pretty nice job of covering jazz from its origins to the present, hitting some major artists/tunes/albums/styles along the way. Now, I’m a bit insane, so while I was reading this book, I actually compiled a Spotify playlist that contains all of the songs and albums (minus those that weren’t on Spotify, which mostly pertains to songs from the 20s/30s) and listened through it. This is a major overkill that I can’t recommend in good faith, but if you are interested, here’s the playlist:

Apart from “The History of Jazz”, I’d also recommend Gioia’s book “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire”. This is more of a reference-y book that has entries on many popular jazz standards, including short histories and selected recordings. I use this when I want to find additional versions of the standards I’m working on to “round out” my listening experience.

But I think Hayden has it right: pick artists/albums that immediately catch your ear first. I think this is a better approach than going in chronological order. To be fair say this mostly as someone who appreciates bebop and modal jazz more than swing and early jazz. I might have given up on jazz if I started with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, or Benny Goodman, but after listening to my preferred Coltrane/Davis/Evans (among others) for a while, I finally got around to those earlier guys and can appreciate them. (I’m currently working my way through a box set of material by Charlie Christian and really enjoying it.) I think it’s good to listen to jazz from all over the spectrum, but I wouldn’t force yourself to dig too deep on stuff you don’t immediately find interesting. You may come around to it eventually!


Wow that’s one heck of a playlist! :astonished:

A seriously impressive resource you’ve compiled there Christian… I’ve saved it to my Spotify library.

@diana - I’d recommend flicking through Christian’s playlist and perhaps listen to a song or 2 from each artist.

Your ears will naturally resonate with artists more than others. Then with the artists you like the sound of, take the time to explore their entire discography - or whatever is easily accessible online through YouTube/Spotify etc…

I agree, but just to reiterate Christian I love what you have compiled here:

To literally be able to scroll through the history of jazz music is amazing.

I’m very much the same in that sense.

My interest in jazz music started purely through Bill Evans. I was captivated by his performances of “My Foolish Heart” & “Blue In Green” and I wanted to learn his voicings and harmonies.

At the time I couldn’t appreciate most of the earlier stuff. Conversely, I now can’t get enough of it!

I’m sure my tastes will wander and change again, but right now I’m hooked on the hard-bob styles of Red Garland, Bud Powell, & Wynton Kelly.

I remember you’ve previously mentioned Coltrane as one of your favourite players…

I’m not sure if I pointed you towards these lessons, but check them out if you haven’t already:

and also applying the same principles from a harmonic standpoint:

It’s not really my style of playing but I enjoyed making the lessons.


Thanks very much for sharing :heart: Love it!

Hi there
For anyone interested there are two playlists on Spotify, they are the following

  1. Ken Burns Jazz
  2. The Real Book (there are a number of playlists with these tunes in them on Spotify)

So lots of listening material


Bill k

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