Name me a more seductive, instrumentally lush genre than jazz. I’ll wait.
Jazz has a certain allure to it – a patina of mystery and sophistication that can be, admittedly, hard to penetrate for newcomers.
It is possessed of a self-assured maturity and a cerebral texture that can feel exclusive or perhaps even exclusionary.
But the truth is anything but. Jazz was born from the tectonic social forces gaining momentum in the 20th century and has proud roots in African American culture, grassroots individualism, and liberation from the status quo.
Jazz is a soundtrack of beauty, but also of sly playfulness and calm introspection.
It is a genre that commands attention and adulation, but it can also take an earnest step back and serve as an atmospheric and ambient background soundtrack.
Here are my picks for the most important and best jazz albums of all time.
Table of Contents
- 1. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959)
- 2. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (1965)
- 3. Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (1959)
- 4. Dave Brubeck – Time Out (1959)
- 5. Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus (1957)
- 6. Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
- 7. Horace Silver – Song For My Father (1965)
- 8. Billie Holiday – Lady In Satin (1958)
- 9. Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else (1958)
- 10. Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1 (1951)
- 11. Ella Fitzgerald – For Sentimental Reasons (1959)
- 12. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Moanin’ (1959)
- 13. Frank Sinatra – Sinatra at the Sands (1966)
- 14. Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong – The Great Reunion (1961)
- 15. Duke Ellington – The Blanton-Webster Band (released in 1986, recorded in 1940-1942)
- 16. Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners (1957)
- 17. John Coltrane – Giant Steps (1960)
- 18. Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (2014)
- 19. Miles Davis – The Birth of The Cool (1957)
- 20. Chet Baker – Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen To You (1958)
- 21. Oscar Peterson – Night Train (1963)
- 22. Louis Armstrong – Complete Hot Fives and Sevens (1926)
- 23. Eric Dolphy – Out To Lunch (1964)
- 24. Sonny Rollins- A Night at the Village Vanguard (1957)
- 25. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970)
- 26. Bud Powell – The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 (1952)
- 27. Chick Corea – Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
- 28. Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert (1975)
- 29. Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder (1964)
- 30. Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973)
- Best Jazz Albums of All Time – Final Thoughts
1. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959)
Sultry, sophisticated, with a dose of the unexpected – no wonder Davis was a legend in his own time.
His songs possess a languid sensuality and a masterful pace.
Flourishes of percussion are baked into the mix for an element of surprise.
Davis knows how to whet the listener’s appetite, never giving away the payoff before he is ready.
The result? His music rewards patience and erudition on the part of the patron, providing a delightful intellectual challenge and a sublime worldly pleasure.
2. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (1965)
Complex, luscious, and heady with a tactile sensibility, A Love Supreme is one of the best albums from one of jazzes preeminent icons.
Inviting saxophone numbers, upmarket piano riffs, and a pacing that carries one along effortlessly, Coltrane’s music was endowed with a preternatural elegance.
His skilled, delicate keys on the piano make the instrument a vehicle of weightless beauty and spatial transcendence.
The perfect soundtrack for a rain-soaked night on the couch with a book in hand, Coltrane will elevate your mind and taste into a sleek and pensive realm.
3. Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Mingus weaves quite a musical yarn, beckoning us forth with zippy, rousing piano riffs and percussion possessed of an unflinching vitality.
Jazz always exists at the boundary between the seductive, the exploratory, and the meditative, and Mingus certainly dabbles like a master in each.
But he never sacrifices the serendipity the genre of jazz so aptly expresses.
Mingus doesn’t even need lyrics to paint a languid, cheeky picture – his instrumental tangents tell us all we need to know.
Song titles like “Self-Portrait in Three Colours”, “Jelly Roll”, and “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” reinforce his irreverent approach.
4. Dave Brubeck – Time Out (1959)
Well, 1959 was quite the year in jazz, wasn’t it? Maybe I’m a touch dramatic, but I’d say it was for jazz what the Summer of Love was for progressive rock.
Time Out immediately grabs you by the shoulders and transports you into a surreal and masterful space – the mid-century version of a fairytale world.
The intricacy of the various tempos, piano riffs, and bite-sized instrumental solos create a tapestry of intellectually adroit proportions.
One can’t listen to the supple, dreamy, and emotive sounds of Brubeck without being changed in some profound way.
“Take Five” might be one of the most famous and enduring jazz tracks of the decade.
5. Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus (1957)
Saxophone Colossus begins with some of the most intriguing, hypnotizing percussion in the genre and descends quickly into a warm and upbeat saxophone riff that will have you melting into your chair.
When you think of gallery opening or upscale cocktail hour music, you’re thinking of Sonny Rollins.
His sound is hearty and self-confident but never intrusive.
Saxophone Colossus makes for easy listening but not lazy listening – Rollins always pushes the boundaries with brazen percussion and startlingly original drum solos.
6. Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
In Coleman’s deft, cheeky, incorrigible hands the saxophone moved beyond the boundaries of form and took on the theatrical aura of a commanding thespian.
His sounds were plucky and completely unexpected, and I always find a certain amusement in listening to his saxophone tangents and strange, delightful rhythms.
The Shape of Jazz to Come was just that – an eclectic, lighthearted exploration of the easygoing side of jazz.
7. Horace Silver – Song For My Father (1965)
Even cursory jazz fans have been exposed to the intimidating, unwavering mastery of Horace Silver.
“Song For My Father” might be one of the most well-paced sensations to come out of the modern jazz canon.
Charming, charismatic, and approachable, Silver brings jazz close to the mainstream and endows it with a patina of effortless elegance.
His music is like sustenance, nourishing our daydreams and secret wishes with entrancing piano and delicious melodies.
8. Billie Holiday – Lady In Satin (1958)
Billie Holiday – a larger-than-life legend whose songs were saturated in a poignant melancholy.
The music allows us to muse and dream and imagine a sultry, shimmering world of cocktail parties and baroque ballrooms.
Her rich, smoky voice envelops the soul and the sweeping, theatrical instrumentals conjure up powerful visions of a bygone era of chivalry and tragic beauty.
“You Don’t Know What Love Is” will haunt you with its candor and aching authenticity.
9. Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else (1958)
Cannonball Adderley’s music moves through the room, waltzing and winking, with the presence of a lingering perfume.
The graceful, richly layered opening track “Autumn Leaves” will have you ready to toss out all of your modern music for the subtle genius of the late fifties.
His sounds allow for a reprieve from the mundanities of the workaday world and allow us to indulge in a reverie, or a bar room flirtation, without inhibition.
His piano riffs are almost sculptural, so meticulously are they crafted.
Don’t believe me? Listen to the mastery and potency of the instrument in “Love For Sale” – you’ll get a thrilling dose of percussion, while you’re at it.
10. Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1 (1951)
A bold and provocative sound that came out right at the tumultuous and transformative mid-point of the 20th century, Monk was an unapologetic genius of modern sound.
His sounds were lavish and indulgent and allow listeners to engage purely with the joy of pure instrumentals.
He struck the perfect blend between unrestrained sax, shimmering percussion, and elegant piano, never allowing us to grow complacent as spectators.
The sumptuous track “Thelonius” will have you bowing down to the king of the genre.
11. Ella Fitzgerald – For Sentimental Reasons (1959)
Not for the historic faint of heart, For Sentimental Reasons will lay you low, dousing you in a heady blend of melancholy and nostalgic reverie.
The result might be almost unbearable for the sensitive among us, but undoubtedly beautiful and captivating.
Fitzgerald was that rare talent who could conjure up an atmosphere and create a sense of place with just the honeyed tenor of her voice.
The album is shamelessly sentimental through and through, with orchestral arrangements that make one long to be transported to the starry-eyed days of the mid-century.
12. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Moanin’ (1959)
Yes, I am about to transport you back to that blessed year 1959.
Endowed with a generosity of spirit and inviting warmth, Moanin’ gives you the feel-good energy of a celebratory dinner with close friends.
It is gregarious and packed with unbridled souls but don’t be fooled, this is not music that needs to be front and center.
Soft percussion and labyrinthine sax rhythms help set the stage for a relaxing and thoughtful day in or a romantic and spirited night out.
13. Frank Sinatra – Sinatra at the Sands (1966)
Sinatra’s deep, velvet voice and unparalleled masculine charm were the sound of a generation, and have come to define not only jazz but mid-century music more generally.
His songs could be cheeky, provocative, and subversive, but they were always unapologetically romantic.
Sinatra talks us down into a soothing, almost hypnotic state, where we are more pliable to his sonic seductions.
It doesn’t hurt that Sinatra at the Sands features some of the most wistful, piercingly resonant piano melodies in the jazz canon.
14. Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong – The Great Reunion (1961)
Two of the giants of the jazz tradition, and indeed of 20th-century sound more generally, Armstrong and Ellington came together to create a rich, warm, soothing sonic tapestry.
This is the ideal soundtrack for an introspective afternoon of romantic aspirations, reflective solitude, and wistful hope.
Armstrong’s gravelly, generous vocal range pairs poetically with Ellington’s thoughtful piano and saxophone riffs, creating a lush and extravagant sound redolent of a well-aged Cabernet.
15. Duke Ellington – The Blanton-Webster Band (released in 1986, recorded in 1940-1942)
Duke Ellington is in possession of a preternatural elegance that defies the ability of many of his competitors.
His mechanical prowess and studied dedication to the craft of sound are apparent in every well-timed note and dreamy synthesis.
Like all the best jazz it piques interest and provokes a certain cerebral approach on the part of the listener.
You are invited to be a spectator and to be charmed, but also to bring your own taste and refinement to the table.
Jazz is nothing if not a well-intentioned exchange and a meeting of minds, as proven masterfully in The Blanton-Webster Band.
16. Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners (1957)
Monk developed and refined his preternatural talent as the fifties progressed, growing more self-assured and incorrigible.
The sounds are rich and homey but also piquant and capable of offering up surprise and temptation.
Monk centered the saxophone like no other, but so too did he center the piano when the time was right.
The instruments were always pared down to their essential strengths and never domineered or overpowered each other.
The intimate piano on “I Surrender, Dear” will have you spirited away to a sublime place.
17. John Coltrane – Giant Steps (1960)
Dizzying, faultlessly immersive as only Coltrane can be, Giant Steps is a foray into the possibilities and innovation inherent in the saxophone’s sleek contours.
It’ll knock your head off if you aren’t careful, with melodies that meander up, down, and all around at a relentless and hot-tempered pace.
Coltrane lives and breathes the sound and nothing but sheer sophistication and mechanical mastery is expressed through his intriguing and enchanting notes
18. Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (2014)
A swinging, rollicking romantic soundscape with a heady touch of sophistication – some could argue that Getz and Gilberto released the quintessential sunset session album of all time.
With soft, inviting saxophone and joyful ambient sound, Getz provides a warm tapestry on which Gilberto can paint his lush and sensual visions.
Most everyone knows “The Girl From Ipanema” but the entire album is a delight that will have you heading to the library to learn a foreign language stat.
19. Miles Davis – The Birth of The Cool (1957)
Some fans and cultists would argue that cool begins and ends with Davis, and perhaps the master knew it all along.
Davis was one of those rare birds who had an unflinching aura of calm and cool oozing from his every pore, and resonating from his every note.
He fully inhabited his sound, never breaking character or deviating from the intellectual vision and sustained focus of his compositions.
His sounds could be serpentine, they could be vitalizing, they could be serene- but they were always academically vigorous and wise beyond words.
20. Chet Baker – Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen To You (1958)
Old fashioned and woefully romantic, this album puts me into an emotional coma, where every sensation and wistful impression becomes a thing of philosophical consideration.
Baker’s voice was possessed of a mid-century boy-next-door innocence, but so too was it reflective of the velvet, elusive knowing of a jaded heart.
When taken together It Could Happen To You becomes something of a literary concept album – a melancholic moving feast of heart-worn pathos.
This is the only album you need for a solo red wine session during a rainstorm.
21. Oscar Peterson – Night Train (1963)
The kind of jazz you need for a zippy, adventurous evening driving down big city highways or in secretive, cloistered underground bars.
Night Train is elevated, dashing, and unflappable.
Peterson tends the piano like a benevolent gardener, allowing the notes to blossom into their full majesty – but never before their time.
This album rewards patience, focused attention, and a willingness to punctuate your own experience with the insights and thrills of a creative giant.
22. Louis Armstrong – Complete Hot Fives and Sevens (1926)
We are going back to the late years of the Gilded Age with this veritable artifact.
Armstrong’s music is wreathed in a rousing nostalgia and allows us to access the romance, mystery, and charm of a world that has since passed into memory.
It is confronting how self-possessed and visionary Armstrong was.
Ahead of his time would be too trite a way to describe his audacious legacy.
Indeed, Armstrong is deservedly considered the father of jazz, and in many ways, his origin story is that of the entire Western musical canon.
23. Eric Dolphy – Out To Lunch (1964)
Saxophone notes that spiral and pivot and sway like dust motes dancing in the wind, that’s Out to Lunch for you!
The saxophone becomes a transmitter of experimentation, anticipation, and earthly delights under Dolphy’s tutelage.
Out to Lunch deviates from the sensuous, romantic conventions of popular jazz and takes a lighter, jauntier, more amiable approach.
This is jazz for people who savor the levity and delight of hearing a familiar genre and instrument rendered strange and unexpected.
24. Sonny Rollins- A Night at the Village Vanguard (1957)
Rollins swinging, hearty melodies are amicable while establishing Rollins’s cultural authority and unbridled charisma.
If we could distill Rollins’s oeuvre into one word it would be this – inventive.
He was nothing if not thrilling, tempting our mind’s eyes just as surely as he tempted and bewitched our ears with delirious and discordant beats and curious melodies.
Percussion is used to great effect in songs like “A Night in Tunisia (Afternoon)”, conjuring up a cheerful cacophony of delightful birds.
25. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970)
Infused with the groovy, rhythmic tenor of a new age, Bitches Brew was classic Davis with a spicy 1970s makeover.
Experimentation guided his hand for this majestic album and allowed him to expand the perception of what jazz could be for a new generation of listeners.
Bitches Brew was penetrating in its strange and surreal vision, and upended all the niceties and conventions that had stuck to jazz so stubbornly since its inception.
If one needs proof that jazz can create its own hypnotic vernacular, and become a terrain of discordant magic; then here it is.
26. Bud Powell – The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 (1952)
With an album title like that, you would expect Powell to be all cocky asides and brash self-aggrandizement but how wrong you’d be.
Powell’s generosity of spirit allows us to access the effortless, unpretentious side of jazz.
He can be alluring, sure, but he can also be a maddeningly clever iconoclast, pushing up against the boundaries of what percussion and piano can do and challenging notions of what jazz should be.
The man named a song “Ornithology” if that isn’t enough to prove his smoky-bar credentials and sonic merit.
27. Chick Corea – Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
Corea cross-fertilizes jazz, blending it with an arthouse sensibility and an intellectual earnestness.
In so doing, he elevates it to a postmodern, elegiac place, a sort of members-only club for the initiated.
I always feel that Corea emancipates some internal register within myself, allowing me to embody a sophisticated and shamelessly cultured self.
This is jazz you’ll want to zone out to at the end of the day, allowing the gratifying and nebulous sounds to fortify your spirit.
28. Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert (1975)
Transcending the boundaries of jazz, we have Jarrett with his serene, ethereal, entrancing renditions.
True to the eclectic cultural environment of the early seventies, Jarrett focuses less on the down-to-earth roots of jazz and focuses more on cultivating a mood of otherworldly transportation.
The mesmerizing piano notes make for easy, pensive listening for relaxed dinners or an introspective journaling session.
29. Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder (1964)
Beguiling and precocious in turn, Morgan brought playful energy to jazz that helped make the genre more accessible for newcomers and skeptics alike.
Morgan was one of those musicians who savored the saxophone.
Allowing the instrument to embody all of its tendencies and whims became his personal raison d’etre.
Morgan had a penchant for infusing his music with a certain levity, making it the perfect soundtrack for cooking on those evenings when you just want to throw a whole bottle of wine in the food.
30. Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973)
With only four tracks on the album, you know these gems are something special.
Indeed, they beat out the litany of other culture-defining albums that could have rounded out this list.
Like Bitches Brew, Head Hunters originated in the intoxicating nexus between mid-century jazz conventions and seventies psychedelic culture.
The album masterfully blended the sultry and technically crafted riffs of classic jazz with a totally dynamic, surreal encounter with a new musical grammar.
The listening experience is delirious and luxuriantly surprising at every turn. You will never see jazz the same way again after imbibing.
Best Jazz Albums of All Time – Final Thoughts
Now that you’ve been exposed to the best jazz albums of all time, how do you feel? Elevated, sophisticated, mature, wise? Transcendent, perhaps?
Jazz is a genre that expands and surprises in proportion to the amount of time you spent charting its sultry waters.
Go light some candles, imbibe in some merlot, and listen to the best offerings the jazz genre has to offer.