What would you say if we asked you to name the best jazz album of all time? How about your top 3? It probably sounds like an impossible task for any serious jazz fan.
After all, when we talk about jazz, we’re really talking about a 100-year movement. Starting from the roots in New Orleans Jazz, through swing, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, free jazz, fusion, and so many more styles.
How could you possibly choose a favorite?
We’re not just relying on our personal preferences for this one. This list of the 20 best jazz albums of all time takes into account the popularity and longevity of the albums in question.
While you won’t find many brand new albums here, you’ll find a mix of classics and landmark genre-defining works from some of the biggest and greatest jazz cats to ever play.
So with no more ado, let’s get started…
20 – The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)
Let’s start our list with a fantasy jazz band. If you could put together a tight 5-piece band of the best jazz players in history, who would it be? How about Dizzy Gillespie blowing the trumpet? On sax? Well, it would have to be Charlie Parker. Bud Powell tickling the ivories, Charles Mingus on the bass, and Max Roach on drums would round things out perfectly.
It turns out that this is the exact supergroup that played a one-off concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, back in 1953 – The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall. And luckily, someone had the presence of mind to not only record it but record it well. For a classic jazz supergroup, this is about as good as it gets.
19 – Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport (1956)
If you don’t know Edward Kennedy Ellington, you surely know Duke Ellington. Adopting this title of jazz royalty was appropriate for Ellington, who played piano, composed countless pieces, and his big band for over 50 years.
Duke Ellington’s swing style had long gone out of style by 1956, and his career was flagging. But as a legend in the jazz scene, he was invited to Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, where his band gave a legendary performance.
Combined with a groundbreaking and marathon-like 27 bar solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and a very enthusiastic crowd, Ellington at Newport revitalized Ellington’s career and fame, too. Although the original recording contained only five tracks, a 1999 release combines the original concert sound with studio recordings with nearly 40 songs.
18 – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Self-Titled / Moanin’ (1958)
If 1959 was the premiere year for jazz, as we’ll soon see, then 1958 was a close second. It was in this year that the supremely talented bandleader and drummer Art Blakey led his band through a self-titled masterpiece of a recording. “Moanin’,” the lead track, soon became the nickname for this hard-bop album.
Full of solid drumming and with some heavy influences from both blues and gospel music, this was a record that truly defined a moment in music history. Blakey deserves much of the credit, but so does his tenor sax player, Benny Golson. His “Along Came Betty” and “Blues March” have become jazz classics.
17 – The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin: The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
As a true departure from the earlier swing, bop, and cool jazz records on or list, this 1971 recording blew everyone’s sock off when it dropped in 1971. On The Inner Mounting Flame, guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin leads the band through jazz, rock, and Indian-influenced fusion as they shoot for the stars.
With Billy Cobham providing thunderous beats and Rick Laird’s bass tying down the rhythm section, the other players are free to solo and explore ridiculous time signatures. Both keyboardist Jan Hammer and flamboyant violinist Jerry Goodman swoop and soar and trade-off unforgettable solos with McLaughlin, producing one of the most original sounds of their time.
16 – Chet Baker: (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen to You (1958)
Chet Baker began his coolest of cool jazz careers as a trumpeter and quite a decent one at that. But when he started singing, he really rose up in jazz. His soft, delicate voice was so different from the raspy and powerful voices of the day that he stood out like a sore thumb.
And while Baker recorded two other albums on which he sang and played trumpet, on (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen to You, he sings and scats and leaves the trumpet on the wayside. The original recording gave ten breezy, light tracks. A 2010 re-master added four more, some of which we still get to hear Baker’s trumpeting on.
15 – Charlie Parker: Charlie Parker with Strings (1949)
Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker is a legendary jazz saxophonist who invented a whole branch of jazz – bebop – on his own. Despite having a long and established background as a traditional jazzman and having started a whole new branch of jazz, he still needed to explore more.
A growing interest in classical music inspired the Bird to play a new record, 1949’s Charlie Parker with Strings. This record, which sees a standard jazz group combined with a string section, harp, and oboe, blends with Parker’s playing beautifully.
His solos sweep and soar like only the Bird can. Plus, the record inspired film soundtrack music well into the future and brought the hardworking Parker the mainstream recognition he deserved.
14 – Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (1970)
Miles Davis is probably the best-known name in jazz ever. His works have always been original, groundbreaking, and boundary-pushing. And 1970’s Bitches Brew is no different.
Influenced by the growing powerful movements of rock and soul music, Davis set out to make a record with an edgier, more aggressive sound. And the double album “Bitches Brew” definitely is that and more. This is arguably the start of jazz-rock fusion.
Davis concentrated more on beats and heavy improvisation on this record while introducing distorted guitars and even post-production effects. On his own, he plays aggressively and usually way up in the high register of his horn, blasting out a sound that would surprise and inspire imitation for decades to come.
13 – Cannonball Adderly: Somethin’ Else (1958)
Another 1958 gem, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderly, was a virtuoso alto sax player and bandleader who spent time in Miles Davis’ band during this same decade. But his 1958 release Somethin’ Else flipped things around and had Davis playing as a sideman for Adderly.
Though it’s only five tracks long, this album has to be one of the best performed and most defining records of the genre hard bop. On the first track, “Autumn Leaves,” in particular, we get to hear a perfect blending of Miles Davis’ brilliant muted trumpet and Adderly’s floating, fluttering sax – two masters of their style.
12 – Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (1956)
If Cannonball Adderly was a brilliant alto, Sonny Rollins might have to take the crown for the tenor sax. Of course, it does help to hype yourself up by nicknaming yourself after your best-known album, the Saxophone Colossus.
On this landmark 1956 album, Rollins shows both his diversity and his legendary improvisational skills. He plays at times smooth at sweet, and aggressive, and wild, showing incredible range and a great instinct for the music.
Notable tracks include his trademark calypso-jazz “St. Thomas,” his own composition “Blues 7”, and a unique cover of the standard “Moritat” (also known as “Mack the Knife”).
11 – Ella Fitzgerald: Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife (1960)
No list of the 20 best jazz albums of all time would be complete without the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. On a very different recording of “Mack the Knife,” the Queen of Jazz shows her pure tone, control, and incredible power as a jazz singer. And she also forgot the words, though you’d never know if she hadn’t told you (“What’s the next verse?”).
Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife gives us another eight songs besides the title track by composers like Cole Porter and the Gershwins. You’ll instantly recognize both the classic tracks and Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic voice that she plays like a trumpet.
10 – Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto: Getz / Gilberto (1963)
A huge change in direction in jazz music came in the early 1960s with both the Pacific Coast cool sound and the influence of Bossa Nova. In fact, that Bossa Nova craze can be credited almost entirely to one record – Getz / Gilberto by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto.
Mixing samba and jazz, plus a whole lot of cool, Getz’s smooth tenor sax combines with Gilberto’s soft voice and tender guitar perfectly. “The Girl from Impanema,” easily the biggest hit on this record, was sung by Gilberto’s wife, Astrid Gilberto. This track became an international hit and is still the most recognizable song in the bossa nova canon.
9 – Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage (1965)
Although Herbie Hancock was just 24 when he released this record, it was his 5th and definitely not his Maiden Voyage. But it was an incredible accomplishment for a 24-year-old pianist who was also playing with Miles Davis at the time.
For this album, Hancock wanted to stick to a marine, nautical theme with sailing, open sea, and waves as the main influences in the soundscape. And he pulls it off beautifully. The piano provides the swells while bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams bring the sturm & drass.
This sweeping, sometimes gentle, sometimes chaotic environment allows a picturesque background for trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist George Coleman to float their solos on and over. This album is the sea for jazz fans.
8 – Thelonious Monk: Thelonious Monk Trio / Monk’s Moods (1954 or 1956?)
We may never know if his unique style was derived from his weird name, or whether he just grew into it, but Thelonius Sphere Monk played the piano like no other. His style was dissonant, intentionally stumbling and clumsy, percussive, and angular. But it worked; it really worked.
We also don’t know when the album Thelonious Monk Trio was released, though it’s debated to have been ’54 or ’56. It has also been re-released under the title Monk’s Moods. In any case, this is one of the greats. Combined with bassist Gary Mapp and both legendary drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, Monk gives ten tracks in his signature style.
This includes Blue Monk, one of his most recognizable songs. Monk sounds like a genius who has sat down at the piano for the first time, but that seems to be his intention – always to explore and experiment.
7 – Billie Holiday: Billie Holiday Sings / Solitude (1952 / 1956)
Billie Holiday lived a tragically short life but still left us with some of the best vocal music in the history of jazz. Her voice was one of a kind. Lady Day managed to mix power and real skill with an emotional expression that was sophisticated beyond her years.
On Billie Holiday Sings, her voice is perfectly matched to timeless jazz standards such as “Blue Moon” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which also include the unforgettable Oscar Peterson on piano.
Though originally released as an eight song 10” record, the album was expanded to 12 tracks and retitled Solitude in 1956. Billie Holiday remains a legendary jazz singer, much like her main influence and sometimes collaborator, Louis Armstrong.
6 – Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars: Satchmo at Symphony Hall (1947 /1951)
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is undoubtedly one of the leading men of jazz. As a New Orleans-style jazzman, Satchmo began his career as a unique and talented trumpeter with a solid tone and an uncanny ability to hit the highest of high notes. As he grew older, we also got to hear more of his unique, gravelly voice as a vocalist.
While he recorded dozens of records on both vocals and trumpet, we had to choose one for our list of the 20 best jazz albums of all time. So we chose Satchmo at Symphony Hall, a live concert he recorded in 1947 and which was released as an album in 1951. For good reason.
Satchmo brings us possibly his most solid performance as trumpeter, vocalist, and leader of a seven-piece band that sounds excellent. This is classic Louis Armstrong at the top of his game, and his popularity, too.
5 – The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Out (1959)
In 1959, bandleader, pianist, and composer Dave Brubeck dropped one of the most legendary jazz albums ever. Time Out was somewhat new and different for the cool jazz composer Brubeck – an experiment in timing. Actually, none of the tracks on this seven song album was written by Brubeck.
Instead, this is a collection of songs played in strange time signatures like “Blue Rond a la Turk” in 9/8. “Take Five” was written by saxophonist Paul Desmond. And has become easily the most recognizable song in jazz played in the quirky 5/4 time signature.
And neither bassist Eugene Wright nor powerhouse drummer Joe Morello miss a beat on this hugely popular record. It was the first jazz album to sell over a million copies.
4 – Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Charles Mingus was sometimes known as the Angry Man of Jazz due to his loud and aggressive temperament. But it might just be that he was a hardworking perfectionist who wanted everything in its place. That certainly happened on 1959’s Mingus Ah Um, an album of much-deserved admiration.
The nine tracks on this much-loved album are all highly thematic and evocative. Many are even specific tributes to jazz greats, like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” for saxophonist Lester Young and “Jelly Roll” for pianist Jelly Roll Morton. As a bass player and composer extraordinaire, Mingus shines on this record while at the same time letting his talented band get some too.
3 – Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
It’s another 1959 record, helping to make that the most legendary year in jazz. This time, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come came down like a prophecy. Coleman’s record pushed jazz to the limit, with experiments in chord sequences, song structures, and tons of improvisation.
Coleman on the sax and Don Cherry on the cornet compete for the most unique and erratic solos in just about every track on this incredible free jazz album. Drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden have an incredible ability to sound like they’re playing completely different songs at points, only to fuse back together seamlessly when needed.
This record did revolutionize jazz, freeing it from established norms and traditions while simultaneously playing respect to them.
2 – John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (1965)
“A Love Supreme” stands out on this list as the only top 5 album that wasn’t put out in 1959. And while Coltrane did drop a superb album in that year, Giant Steps, A Love Supreme is arguably one of his greatest works.
By the time it was recorded in 1964 (released in ’65), Coltrane was on a spiritual journey. And the four parts of the album, “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm,” acknowledge this.
This is modal jazz at its best, with intense rhythms coming from Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Splattering chords from pianist McCoy Tyner help to provide a background for Coletrane’s soaring sax. All of this contributes to a masterpiece that’s a must-have for any jazz collector.
1 – Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (1959)
Back to the legendary year 1959, and the legendary jazz great, Miles Davis. We wrap up our list with the jazz album most cited as the best jazz album ever. Kind of Blue is also an adventure in modal jazz, with the players working playfully around tonal themes.
These players include both John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly on sax, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly taking turns on the keys, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, with the main man himself on trumpet. The band works together seamlessly. Allowing each soloist to get some, then snapping back together like a well-oiled machine.
With its top track, “So What,” Kind of Blue is probably also the best-selling jazz album of all time. It was a move on from hard bop to modality and improvisation. One that would influence Davis’ work and the entire field of jazz for generations to come.
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The 20 Best Jazz Albums of All Time – Final Thoughts
So that’s my list. I know that I can’t make everyone happy, and the order and inclusion of some of these albums might be controversial. But none of them are here without a good reason. All represent highlights in illustrious careers and landmarks in jazz that spurred on innovation and creativity. Isn’t that what jazz is all about?
If you haven’t heard any of these albums yet, what an enviable journey you have ahead of you!
Until next time, stay hip, cats.