Man with Bugle.

With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Friday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in February 2020.

Jazz music has an interesting history and a fascinating, multi-layered ethos. But even without knowing all that context and background, people instinctively feel that it’s just plain cool.

Given that most of us would like to be a little more cool, a lot of folks would like to get more into jazz music. But, they don’t really know where to begin. 

If you Google “jazz music for beginners,” up will come myriad lists of jazz albums and tracks for the would-be aficionado to sample.

But here’s the problem: many of these lists get too highfalutin for a beginner. They feature songs and albums that are high on technicality and artistry but aren’t very approachable for someone just getting started with listening to jazz. 

To help me put together a true list of jazz albums for beginners, I tapped two professional jazz enthusiasts that I know, both who happen to live in the Bay Area. The first is a friend, jazz manager, and board member of Living Jazz, Charles Brack. The second is Michelle Hawkins, a jazz vocalist, jazz choir director, professor of music at Skyline College, and music correspondent at the Online Great Books podcast.

The combination of these two sources is actually pretty, well, jazzy. It’s like a call and response duet between Louis and Ella (two artists Charles and Michelle in fact recommended). 

All of these albums are highly accessible for someone who is only used to listening to pop music. Michelle focused on albums that are primarily melodic and have simple improvisations that are easy to follow. Charles picked albums that, in his words, simply “swing.” Both selected albums from iconic jazz musicians from a wide range of jazz’s sub-genres, so you get a nice overview of the different dimensions of this rich music.

Without further ado, here are 10 jazz albums for beginners.

Ellington at Newport by Duke Ellington (1956)

Ellington at Newport by Duke Ellington.
“Duke Ellington is one of the original kings of swing of the Big Band Era in jazz. Ellington at Newport is Duke’s most well-known and revitalized his flagging career in the late 1950s. It’s also considered one of the greatest jazz performances ever. This album is a fantastic introduction to big band music. It really swings.” —Charles

Ella and Louis Again by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (1957)