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.
Just as big bands competed to distinguish themselves, key members inside those bands pushed every bit as hard to create their own distinct sounds. By the end of the 1930s, there were inimitable voices on many more jazz instruments than there were during the '20s.
They called Lester Young "The Pres" for a reason: His sweetly intoned, melodic and rhythmically nimble tenor sax could support an iconic Billie Holiday performance, or else play a showstopping solo role in Count Basie's band. (Listen for Young's solos in "A Sailboat on the Moonlight" and "Oh, Lady Be Good," respectively, for a hit of each talent.) The post-bop world still mines him for inspiration. The appended playlist highlights some of his breakout moments, in between some of his very best playing alongside Billie, who, along with Ella Fitzgerald, helped bring jazz vocals up to a new level. (Check the rare, live radio recording of Billie singing a fast and furious "Swing Brother Swing" with a Basie band that also features The Pres.)
Around the same time, Coleman Hawkins was forging an altogether huskier approach on the tenor sax, giving it both a sexiness and an authority it hadn't previously had in jazz bands. In 1939, Hawkins cut one of the most iconic improvisations ever, on "Body and Soul." The track cemented his fame (which would have been secure anyway), and led many of the world's emerging improvisers -- like a guitarist named Django Reinhardt -- to collaborate with the saxophonist. Hear all these major players, as well as other great early soloist innovators like Benny Goodman, in the playlist.