Ten Greatest Jazz Albums

From Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis: Kenneth Clarke chooses his ten greatest jazz albums by Kenneth Clarke and York Membery …and not forgetting Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, the Justice Secretary and jazz fan on the music and legends behind it which have inspired him.


Some purists might disagree with me but I believe Hot Fives and Sev-ens captures Louis Armstrong at the peak of his creativity as a musi-cian, when he was transforming the way the music was played
My first choice has to be Louis Armstrong (1901-71), who is always thought of as a traditional New Orleans jazz musician but that’s not to give him his due credit.
This album showcases the music he made as a young man in the mid-Twenties – a real musical leap forward from the old Dixieland trad jazz prevalent at the time.
Listening to this for the first time as a young man made me realise that there was a lot more to trad jazz than banjos and that kind of thing. The tracks he cut at the time show good technical ability applied with real originality and improvisation.
His musicianship is just beyond compare and it moved the music up several notches. Some purists might disagree with me but I believe this captures him at the peak of his creativity as a musician, when he was transforming the way the music was played.
Ironically, for all that he achieved, he always thought of himself pri-marily as a jobbing musician making a living – but this is quality music.



By the time Kind Of Blue came out in 1959, Miles Davis was leading the jazz world – and in this album he moves the music on, so to speak. The record was in every way revolutionary. I could have chosen any number of Miles Davis records but this is perhaps his finest moment. A trumpeter, band leader and composer, he started out with saxophonist Charlie Parker and produced all sorts of quite different music over the years. By the time this came out in 1959, he was leading the jazz world – and in Kind Of Blue he moves the music on, so to speak. The record was in every way revolutionary: it was innovative and hugely influen-tial, and if you take the time to listen to it, you can’t help but be struck by the sheer variety of styles. A great many jazz fans will no doubt have this in their collection and rightly so: it’s often referred to as the greatest album of all time, and easily makes it into my top ten. Incidentally, Davis also worked with another of my jazz heroes, John Coltrane, who is on this list at number 9.



Gerry Mulligan (1927-96) played the baritone sax, and rose to promi-nence during the ‘Cool Jazz’ era. However, the best records he made were with a quartet he had featuring Chet Baker in the early Fifties.
The two were chalk and cheese in some ways. Mulligan was one of jazz’s nice guys – along with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – while Chet Baker managed to get into even more trouble than Art
Pepper. This album (1952/53) was my introduction to modern jazz – I can still remember a friend in sixth form playing me the quartet’s ver-sion of Walkin’ Shoes, which was so unlike the Dixieland-style jazz we’d been listening to up to that point.

4. The Jimmy Blanton era – Duke Ellington

As big bands go, as band leaders go, and as great soloists go, Duke El-lington (1899-1974) epitomises jazz at its very best.
I was lucky enough to see him as a young man when he visited Britain on tour, and he was as brilliant live as on record. For my money, he made his best music in the early Forties, and this album captures him at the pinnacle of his career when he was working with the young Jimmy Blanton on bass.
Later in his career, Ellington produced some rather pretentious stuff but this is timeless, quality jazz.

5. Complete Jazz at Massey Hall – Charlie Parker

I’m a modernist at heart, and I’ve always loved Charlie Parker (1920-55). If there’s one record of his that really stands out, it’s the 1953 al-bum he made at Massey Hall in Toronto, featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and others. This legendary concert was organised by a group of students, but all the jazz musicians fell out with each other, and Parker wouldn’t play until he was paid in advance. The students were left out of pocket. But out of this fiasco emerged one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, on which Parker and his cohorts produced some of the most brilliant live music, featuring amazing virtuoso musicianship. Modern jazz is so much more sophisticated both in terms of its harmonies and melodies than anything that preceded it. And in the case of Parker par-ticularly, it was more emotional and aggressive too. A jazz classic.

6. Mingus Ah Um – Charlie Mingus

Another modernist, Mingus (1922-79) was a wonderful bassist who was great fun even if he was an impossible man in some respects. He led very noisy, distinctive, personable bands who are tremendous fun to listen to, and still sound great. This 1959 album is, in my view, his mas-terpiece. I imagine he gave it such a daft name for a bit of fun but it’s a seriously good record, and the perfect introduction to his music. Some of it sounds chaotically blues-based – but it’s modern jazz played by some of the finest virtuoso musicians, who also had to put up with his rather wild and aggressive temperament. This particular session just came off, and is pure genius. And while I don’t think Mingus himself ever made a vast amount of money or added to the development of jazz, this is simply a wonderful record.

7. Jelly Roll Morton – and His Red Hot Peppers Volume i

027A loveable old scoundrel, Morton (1885-1941) – an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer – liked to claim that he invented jazz. And while he might have been a man of huge self-importance, what he produced was very good ensemble music. He put together a wonderful group called the Red Hot Peppers and he made a series of records with them in the Twenties that were spectacularly good. I’d recommend this album, which features some of the best num-bers he recorded in the mid-Twenties: tracks like Dead Man Blues and Steamboat Stomp. If I wanted to make people who didn’t think they were jazz fans, into fans, I’d recommend this because it cannot fail to turn you on to the music.There’s a tension underlying this 1957 recording which transforms it into something really special.

8. Art Pepper – Meets The Rhythm Section

028A high proportion of jazz greats might have been black – and that’s partly down to the fact that it was race-free music for the most part – even if black and white musicians still had to stay in separate hotels if they were touring the American south up to the Sixties.
One of the best white jazz musicians was Art Pepper (1925-82), a bril-liant, highly emotional, both personally and in his playing, alto saxo-phonist, who died when the drugs finally got to him. A bit of a mess, he was in and out of prison half his life. Women were always rescuing him from himself and trying to get him to go straight. He had a bit of a tem-per, and there’s a tension underlying this 1957 recording which trans-forms it into something really special. One of jazz’s finest moments.

9. Giant Steps – John Coltrane

029Released in 1960, Giant Steps was the first record that John Coltrane really made his own. It also marks the point when he’d achieved an ab-solute mastery of the tenor sax
If anyone wants to know how to play the tenor sax, I’d suggest listen-ing to this classic Coltrane (1926-67) record and Sonny Rollins’ Saxo-phone Colossus. Released in 1960, Giant Steps was the first record that Coltrane really made his own. It also marks the point when he’d achieved an absolute mastery of the instrument. He’d developed the flu-ency, technique and relaxation with it that eventually enabled him to go on and innovate as much as he did later on in his career.
This is an example of hard bop, freeform modern jazz at its best.Saxophone Colossus is an album that displays a complete mastery of the saxophone.

10. Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins

1111Among the mountain of fine records that Sonny Rollins (1930-) has made, Saxophone Colossus (1956) stands out as his greatest achieve-ment. Like Coltrane’s Giant Steps, it’s an album that displays a com-plete mastery of the saxophone, and is just so fluent and innovative.
The great thing about Rollins is that he’s a wonderful innovator and what’s more, unlike some people, when he innovates, he’s always inter-esting, never repeats himself. He is constantly inventive, getting new melodies out of the same essential basic tune. In contrast to Coltrane, he’s an all-round, relaxed individual – and this is reflected in his music. He’s a real entertainer. The last time I saw him in concert was in Wash-ington DC.
Ironically, despite being 81, he’s always touring but whenever he visits Britain, I always seem to miss him, much to my frustration.