Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.
Once the long-playing record was introduced in the late 1940s, musicians of all stripes had the freedom to stretch out beyond three-minute singles. Duke Ellington was probably the artist most prepared (and eager) to do just this. After all, at his historic 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, he debuted an ambitious, three-movement jazz symphony, Black, Brown and Beige (which survives in an archival radio broadcast recording).
Some critics of Duke’s Carnegie show thought jazz didn’t have any business stretching out to classical-music lengths, but by the 1950s, nobody cared what those critics thought. That's in part because a well-drilled and crisply recorded Ellington orchestra had recorded ambitious pieces like “The Tattooed Bride” (which contemporary classical-music composer John Adams has conducted) and “Tone Parallel to Harlem” on LP albums that Columbia marketed with such gravitas-heavy titles as Masterpieces by Ellington and Ellington Uptown.
These pieces, rewarding and complex as they are, didn’t exactly burn up the charts. But the LP would also offer Ellington a path back to popularity. By 1956, with his career in a mild slump, his band showed up at the Newport Jazz Festival. Famously, saxophonist Paul Gonsalves took a 27-chorus solo on “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue,” setting off a dance party. Columbia put out the whole performance, and its popularity gave Ellington the needed cachet to go long in the studio again. The next year, he put out Such Sweet Thunder, a suite of tunes inspired by Shakespeare that is one of his tastiest, strutting-est albums of all time. (It begins with the swagger-laden title track.) We didn’t excerpt the long-playing album in the appended playlist, because with this band -- which includes Johnny Hodges on saxophone -- the only way to hear the music is in full, the way Duke conceived it.