Sunday, August 1, 2010

Top Ten Jazz Men 1950-1965

Silly as such lists are, and vane, I can't resist them.  Making them is fun and structures my collecting and listening.  For this one I was thinking of jazz artists who cut such a big figure that one cannot think of jazz in that period without them. One cannot imagine the history of jazz without them.  To some extent, I am guided here by popular awareness.  Are there some who everybody knows, if they know anything about jazz at all?  Are there some who everyone who listens to jazz at all knows?  

With that in mind, the first two places were easy.  
1.  Miles Davis
2.  John Coltrane
Everyone who has ears knows about those two.  Moreover, both had a tremendous influence on the direction of music.  Some would place Trane first (the nickname, like the force of the simple first name "Miles", indicates my point).  I would not.  
I think that number three is almost as easy.
 3.  Thelonious Monk
 Monk straddles two great periods in jazz: the bebop era and the hard bop era.  He is very much a force in the target period, and his most essential recordings are made in that period.  What would jazz be without Brilliant Corners?  But Monk is chiefly important for the astounding influence that his compositions had.  How much of the hardbop corpus would disappear if, Doctor Who style, one could remove him from the picture?  That is even more true of Avant Garde jazz.  Take Monk out, and where would Cecil Taylor, let alone Steve Lacy be?  Monk is an easy third. 
4.  Ornette Coleman
 I have come around to loving a lot of Coleman's music.  It took awhile.  There is no denying his impact on modern jazz.  I remember an interview with rock guitar great Johnny Winter, when the very white guitarists said that he was interested in Ornette Coleman.  I doubt very much whether Winter really listened to Coleman.  The fact that he knew his name nails Coleman for fourth place.  He was the new thing
5.  Charlie Mingus. 
If you don't know Mingus, you don't know modern jazz.  Maybe 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' is enough to get fifth place.  I'll just stick with this: if you don't have Ah Um, and Live at Antibes, you have a big hole in your jazz collection.  

Okay, 1-5 wasn't all that hard.  6-10 is another thing.  Here goes:
6.  Eric Dolphy.
Dolphy's tenure was astonishingly short, but as I have written more than once, he planted his flag on some many jazz continents that it is like he owns the globe.  Who can imagine what Trane's work, or Mingus' work, or Andrew Hill would have been without him.  Easy six.  Easy seven:
7.  Art Blakey. 
Maybe Blakey should have been ranked higher.  His Jazz Messengers band turned into a fundamental institution in modern jazz.  So many great artists cut their teeth with his beat behind them, that you'd need a staff to keep track of them.  The body of work he produced is priceless.  If seventh place is right, it is only because he kept his own personality in check and allowed his proteges to emerge on their own.  God bless Blakey.  
8.  Sonny Rollins. 
 Rollins at the Village Vanguard.  Saxophone Colossus.  Rollins has had staying power.  Like the Rolling Stones, that counts for something.  I just can't imagine a collection, however modest, without him.  

9.  Bill Evans.
Evans is Sui Generis.  Maybe he deeply influence jazz piano players, but mostly what you get from the critics is that this or that guy (say, Brad Mehldau) is like Evans because his style is introspective, and he's white.  Evans was uniquely resistant to the flow of jazz around him.  But his body of work is monumental and irreplaceable. Without the first cascade of notes in 'Gloria's Steps', or the delicious scrabbling of LaFaro's bass, where would we be? 
10.  Joe Henderson. 
Ten was hard.  Henderson is a long way down in terms of influence and documentation from Miles and Trane.  But when I glance at the line of Henderson recordings on my CD rack, I always smile.  Henderson's work is priceless.  If I had 1-9 (box sets where available) to take to a desert Island (guaranteed iPod supply and power), I'd add Joe.  I wouldn't be board.  Make that, I wouldn't be bored.  Ever.  

Well, that's what I got.  Joust if you dare. 


  1. I think it's a fair list! As for Sonny Rollins, you need to add he was the sharpest-dressed jazz musician ever. And in case of Monk, I wouldn't exaggerate Brilliant Corners that much, it's a kinda mistake when looking for Monk's highlight. If he was a matematician, he'd invent a new numeral system. Or something. The special thing he has to be noted for is in every of his compositions, it's just his style.

    I've got all of the Henderson's LPs for Blue Note and I like him a lot (especially as a sideman, though), but the composition's are not swinging. They are not groovy. I don't know. *Browsing through his collection...* What about Horace Silver? Erm no, not a favorite of mine... Rahsaan Roland Kirk? Not well-known but so brilliant. Wayne Shorter? If you say you love Miles, you probably love Wayne, too.

    Oh and by the way, since I really like your taste I can give you a damn little recommendation. Run (!) to the nearest store and get two (he only released two LPs on Blue Note and died) albums by Leo Parker. :)

  2. I think you nailed this list. Can't really think of who else I'd sub in for this list of 10 (and you know how I love to pick things apart on you). Maybe I'd move Rollins up and Dolphy down the list, but that is just nit pickin'. I am surprised that Shorter is not here knowing your love of Shorter, but probably like you, I think of Shorter stepping out on his own, as the Next Generation in jazz... but I just looked up on All Music, and Juju, Night Dreamer and Speak No Evil were all released in 1964-65, so technically he could qualify.

    Nah... keep the list as is. Fine job Ken.

    Ken Laster

  3. I will jump into the jousting pool. I will not question that the 10 men you put on this list are top notch. However, I find it interesting that you have Sonny Rollins AND Joe Henderson ahead of Dexter Gordon. One, sure, but both....

    I know his name was brought up in previous comments, but I think J.J. Johnson should be on your list. Arguably the greatest bop trombonist in the history of jazz. His playing has influenced the next generation of trombone players, and his output during the time frame you selected is his best work.

    I will also vehemently argue that Clifford Brown should be on this list. While is career was cut short, he is smack dab in the middle of your time frame. During this time the group led by Clifford Brown and Max Roach had the jazz world by the tail. The recordings they put out are all top notch, and Clifford's playing is still required for young trumpeters. Not too mention, by all indications, he was a gem of a person.

    The most enjoyment I got from your list, is the fact that is illistrates how intertwined jazz is. My listening tastes are more toward the be-bop and big bands. With regards to your hero Miles Davis, it is hard to imagine him without the influences of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry etc...

  4. I posted a reply to these comments earlier, and somehow it didn't take. Thanks to all.

    Amused: I can't disagree with anything you say. Sharp dressed Sonny Rollins it is. I have to press the case for 'Brilliant Corners'.

    Ken: You have got me figured out. Rollins' fame is certainly greater than Dolphy's. But I think that Dolphy had more influence on Trane, Mingus, etc.

    As for Shorter, I do dearly love him and I would have loved to put him on the list. To my sorrow, he is a very small presence in modern jazz except as a sideman on the very best combos. His compositions are world class. Wake up world! Class is in session.

    Jason: I greatly appreciate J.J. Johnson and Clifford Brown. I just don't think either ranks in the top ten.

    I deliberately defined my list to exclude Parker, Gillespie, etc. I just don't have the grasp of that earlier period in jazz that gives me the (no doubt mistaken) confidence to draw up such a list.

    Thanks to all.