"Jazz to play in the background" sounds vaguely derogatory, though I don't mean it to be. I really mean "jazz that's meant to be enjoyed while sitting and listening." Practically speaking though, that often ends up being while I'm doing the dishes or putzing. Frankly, most of my knowledge about jazz runs dry after about 1950, but I still like listening to music from later periods. Here are some of my personal favorites, with little rhyme or reason behind their mention.
...and are looking for some very accessible jazz albums, just to stick a toe in the water...
- Do you have a copy of the top-selling jazz record of all time (and probably forever to come)? If not, stop reading this and go purchase a copy of the Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue immediately. Listen to it several times and then we can talk some more.
- Do you have a copy of Ella and Louis? What about Ella and Louis Again? The two most recognizable, most loved voices in jazz history (suck it, Sinatra!) sing some of the best popular songs ever written. Many of the songs are actually danceable too, but I mention these albums here because the music is so captivating, it is worth listening to them without any distractions. Plus, the voices are backed by the Oscar Peterson trio, a masterful group in their own right, and amazing in their supporting role here.
...and want some great female vocals...
- It's not a cliche. Billie Holiday is not just for sensitive, wine-drinking romantics. Get yourself some of her music and see why Billie is for everybody. One good starting point is the disc A Musical Romance, which highlights the special musical rapport she shared with saxophonist Lester Young.
- Sarah, for Sarah Vaughan, is often the third name mentioned in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Sarah's style differs from the others because she is a bit younger than Ella and Billie, and never sang with the classic big bands of the 1930's. She came up with a different generation of musicians who were busy inventing bebop, the challenging, sophisticated style of jazz that would really take hold after World War II. The timbre of Sarah's voice (the slight shadings and coloring of the notes she sings) is amazing and unique. Try the album Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, which has many ballads that really highlight her strengths.
- For a completely different sort of vocal, check out Carmen McRae. Like Sarah Vaughan, her style is more related to bebop and later styles than to big band jazz. She is fascinating to listen to because she has a totally original, very personal interpretation of the songs she sings. She breaks the rules and sings just what she wants, even if it is dissonant or intentionally painful or even ugly-sounding. I recommend her albums Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics and Carmen Sings Monk. The latter is interesting because she sings lyrics to many (originally instrumental) tunes by Thelonius Monk, one of the giant figures of modern jazz.
- I also love Anita O'Day, who is a complete original yet again. At a dance, you may have heard her singing "Let Me Off Uptown" with Roy Eldridge and the Gene Krupa Orchestra, but much of her interesting material is less pop and more in-your-face jazz. Her voice, style, and interpretation are like Carmen McRae's in a way, in that they are totally unique and her own--she doesn't actually sound anything like Carmen. I don't have a great album recommendation for Anita O'Day, but you might try a compilation or best-of album like Anita O'Day's Finest Hour. (And if you fall in love with Anita like I did, check out Anita O'Day - The Life Of A Jazz Singer, a documentary about her life. I posted about it here.)
...and want some great male vocals...
- Joe Williams, the main vocalist with the New Testament Count Basie big band, had a warm, dignified, and charming voice. On his album Nothin' But the Blues, he stretches out with a small jazz combo, giving him a chance to show off his mastery of jazz and scat.
- Jack Teagarden was a trombone player and band leader during the big band era. He also happened to have a great baritone voice, with a Texas drawl and a world-weary quality that complemented the voice of his friend Louis Armstrong very well (the two sang together in their later years). His album Mis'ry and the Blues, recorded late in his career, is an intimate and melancholy session. Teagarden's instrumental solos are stunning in their virtuosity, and his vocals are steeped in blues.
- Kevin Mahogany is a contemporary jazz vocalist with an amazingly deep voice, like the Barry White of jazz. I recommend his album Another Time Another Place, and especially the slow, after-hours ballad "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," a tribute to Lester Young. Like the Carmen McRae album I mentioned above, the tune comes from an instrumental modern jazz recording (by Charles Mingus), but with lyrics added to it. Same thing is true of "Parker's Mood," which is from a Charlie Parker record.
...looking for some ivory-ticklers...
- Pianist Junior Mance began his career in the early 1950's, and is still going strong today. He has even played at several lindy hop events in New York City. His album Sweet and Lovely features tunes ranging from blues, to classics from the swing era (including Main Stem and Swingmatism), to bebop standards.
- Ray Bryant is another favorite pianist among lindy hoppers. His most famous tune might be "The Madison Time" (yes, the one that goes with the line dance). I really like his album Alone with the Blues--it's a recording of him alone at the piano, playing a variety of tunes that all have a blues feeling to them.
- Duke Ellington's reputation is largely due to his work as a composer and band leader; serious people who are mostly interested in classical "art" music have nonetheless called him the greatest American composer of the 20th century. But he could also play the piano a bit. The album Live at the Whitney finds Duke without his big band, backed only by bass and drums, playing his own compositions--some well known, some obscure. The album also captures some of his banter with the crowd, giving you a glimpse of his impeccable manners, wit, charm, and aristocratic demeanor.
- Sticklers and snobs would probably classify Dr. John under rhythm and blues, not Jazz, but I don't care. He's an incredible piano player, who knows how to play music that moves and rolls. He plays and sings traditional blues songs, gospel, and rock-and-roll on Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack: The Legendary Sessions, Vol. 2. (The title of the album is a joke--Dr. John's real name is Mac Rebennack.)
Note: Dancers, DJs, and folks searching for music, let me know what you think of these recommendations, and please don't be shy about posting a comment to suggest some of your favorites too.