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Wynton Marsalis on 12 Essential Jazz Recordings

From Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman, the trumpeter breaks down tracks and albums that exemplify different aspects of a great American art form.

Rolling Stone

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Wynton Marsalis selects and discusses 12 essential jazz recordings, from King Oliver to Charles Mingus and beyond. Photo by Piper Ferguson .

“It’s self-explanatory,” Wynton Marsalis says, pointing toward the papers in front of him. “Basically, if you look at what I wrote, that says everything you need to know.”

The trumpeter had entered only about 30 seconds before, walking into a small conference room at the New York offices of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Impeccably dressed in a gray suit, he leaned in for a quick hug by way of a greeting. If Marsalis seemed a tad impatient, he had a point: The document he’d prepped did in fact speak for itself.

It was a two-page list of essential jazz recordings, containing 50 entries. Marsalis had assembled his choices in conjunction with the release of the 2019 biopic Bolden, which tells the story of Buddy Bolden, the legendary unrecorded first hero of New Orleans jazz, and which Marsalis both executive-produced and contributed music to. Preparing for his meeting with Rolling Stone, he went deep, listing not simply artists and titles, but also characteristics explaining why he’d picked each one: “Insightful integration of the blues with disparate elements,” “Making a horn sound exactly like someone singing” and so on. Marsalis made it clear that his list was an inventory of “recordings” rather than albums, since so many of the early masterpieces of jazz arrived before the LP era.

He may have felt that his work was done in advance, but nevertheless he had plenty to say. For the next 45 minutes, he held forth to RS on 12 of his picks, frequently singing musical passages by way of illustration. Marsalis’ own written descriptions of what sets each recording apart appear in italics before the entries. (For consistency, titles below are listed according to date of recording rather than release.)

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong, “Snake Rag” (1923)

Otherworldly display of flatfooted improvisational skills

To be given an accompanying part and to hear it and play thematic material that fits in with the material that you’re given with that degree of sophistication, insight and nuance is a great display of skill. It’s very uncommon.

Louis Armstrong played second cornet to King Oliver — it means he’s interpreting internal harmony parts which have to resolve a certain way. He’s playing the alto part basically. King Oliver’s playing the melody. So, no written music: He’s improvising on a complex form: “Snake Rag.”

He makes up an unbelievable part. When you listen to it, how clear and logical it is and how beautiful the resolutions are of internal harmony, and he also improvises a second harmony part to King Oliver’s improvised trumpet breaks. That’s an unbelievable display of reflexes, musical understanding and ability to hear.

So, you’re making up something and I’m accompanying you while you’re making it up and I’m also playing an internal part to a part that you’re improvising. The accuracy of his parts and the clarity that he plays with in an accompaniment role is still astounding after all these years.

The speed and the quickness and the reflexes, it’s not believable. But it’s what he could do and that’s why he’s Louis Armstrong.

Duke Ellington, “Daybreak Express” (1933)

All-time baddest MF

All-time baddest motherfucker. OK? That’s reserved for somebody like Bach. I could’ve picked anything, but I picked train pieces, because I love trains. [Note: Marsalis’ list also included four other train-themed pieces by Ellington: “Choo Choo” from 1924, “Happy Go Lucky Local” from 1946, “Track 360” from 1959 and “Loco Madi” from 1972.] I tried to get one from each decade. We’ve played most of these [with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra].

That level of sustained engagement, that level of technical achievement, the sophistication of what he’s doing, the way he gets the harmonies to sound like trains, the conception of different grooves and moods, the intelligent use of form, the playfulness of it, the diversity of ideas, the understanding of the instruments in their registers.

Young musicians in your band are gonna work hard enough to play stuff that’s that difficult accurately, [like] “Day Break Express” and the early-Thirties stuff? [Exhales for emphasis] Fantastic.

Mary Lou Williams with Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, “Walkin’ and Swingin'” (1936)

Manifestation of genius and unparalleled set of unique achievements (playing, composing, arranging, mentoring)

[Marsalis cited examples of each of the above, but he says this piece shows off Williams’ composing and arranging.]

“Walkin’ and Swingin'” — she writes unbelievable soli with trumpet leading the reed section. Unusual voicing, unusual pairing. One trumpet with reeds [ sings]. It’s so lyrical and beautiful that the bridge becomes the basis of one of Monk’s songs: “Rhythm-A-Ning.” [ Sings] That part is so hard to play. Man, every time I have to play it, I look at it like, “Shit.”

It’s unbelievably difficult to play. We laugh in our trumpet section. We go back and forth on who’s gonna play it [laughs]. ‘Cause when you play it, you can’t help but look at it because it has the beginnings of bebop, it’s in the Swing Era — you could go on and on about it.

The diversity in that arrangement, the call and response. She was very forward-thinking at all times. She was a mentor to the bebop players. Her house was like a salon. “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” is an example of bebop music she wrote that Dizzy [Gillespie] recorded.

They would go to her house, Dizzy, Bird [Charlie Parker], all the heavyweights talked to Mary Lou. Monk, they loved her. She taught them about arranging, she had concepts, she was very philosophical. She’s unsung as a person who really influenced them and when you talk to them — I talked to Dizzy, any musicians from that time — they always say, “Man, Mary Lou, she taught us a lot.”

Benny Goodman, The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert

Most meaningful concert

[In this concert] Benny Goodman is setting out his concept of what we need to do as a country. He plays his music; he deals with the history of his band; he features virtuosic playing. He brings all the people of different races together at a time of segregation and deep ignorance.

He brings members of Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s band out, he does American popular song, he does original jazz songs. He has a section that covers the history of jazz. He plays the hell out of the clarinet. He has a small group; he has a big band. He covered a lot of ground on that one concert.

That’s also the most meaningful concert because he made Carnegie Hall give him rehearsal time. He was like, “No, no. I have to rehearse this much to get my music right.” It was in America’s premiere concert hall at that time. It signaled a movement away from a type of prejudice that, at that time, there was no way to remove it because prejudice survives all evidence. But at that time, it was a very strong statement from someone. Very powerful to make that statement.

You get your space in the premier concert hall and you make that type of encompassing statement — it’s very powerful.

Dizzy Gillespie with Charlie Parker, “Shaw ‘Nuff” (1945)

Two people who did a lot of practicing (individually and together)

Charlie Parker and Dizzy. It’s one thing to practice yourself; it’s another thing to practice with somebody else. To be able to play parts with that type of clarity and togetherness. Dizzy always said Bird was the other side of his heartbeat. To this day, I don’t know if two horns have equaled that degree of complexity, nuance, sophistication and absolute togetherness. Fire, virtuosity.

When it happened, people knew it was something spectacular. Time has proven to us, yes.

Ornette Coleman, “Peace” (1959)

Uncommon psychological complexity while maintaining a lyrical intention

I was very close with Ornette. Ornette was a shaman. Man, I’d go to Ornette’s house at 1 o’clock in the morning. He said, [imitates Coleman’s reedy voice] “Hey man, pull your horn out, man,” and literally, I would sit across from him and play, with no talk, for two, three hours. Just playing phrases back and forth. Then when he’d tell you stuff, it was always something so insightful about human beings.

This solo, “Peace,” it’s like, you know how you be talking and you raise your eyes, and you have many gestures, you go up and down, you have a landscape of emotions and thoughts and feelings? It’s hard to do that improvising. That’s in that solo.

[Sings] Just the areas he’s gonna take you in and the psychological complexity of his phrasing and what he’s saying and his ability to change the mood and intention in his sound — very complex.

Ben Webster and Harry “Sweets” Edison, “Better Go” (1962)

Destination: Soul

The cover of that album [ Ben and “Sweets”] is so soulful, that’s all you need to know. You just put that up as a poster, it just says it all. That’s a swingin’ record. It’s just blues they’re playing. Veterans playing some blues at grown folks’ tempo. That’s about being grown. Kids, stay at home, suck your thumb, play with some video games. This is grown folks.

Charles Mingus, “Meditations on Integration” (1964)

Great consolidator of all past and present (after bebop)

What happens with people is they generally fall into the misconception of their generation. Like, when [Giovanni Pierluigi da] Palestrina was writing music, he’s writing a lot of really thick counterpoint. Five-voice counterpoint, very complex. The next generation wrote very simply, and then that style becomes old-fashioned because you wanna compete with the style. Now, who can come in the era of simplification and add complexity from the past? That’s the question.

Now you’re in America during the middle of the youth movement, the first time you’re able to sell stuff to kids that’s for adults. You’re making a lot of money and you’re going as far away from anything adult as you can go. But you also have the Civil Rights Movement going on at the same time and you are engaged with a lot of stuff in your generation that’s real that did not happen before that because it could not happen. Why would you, in the middle of that, reach back into something that is being discredited, was a source of pain and shame for a lot of people who didn’t know what it was, and bring that into your sound, as you also reach further in the direction that your generation is going in? That’s two reaches. That’s a yoga position.

That’s what Charles Mingus did with all those records he made in the mid-to-late Fifties into the Sixties and Seventies. He has the avant-garde with people talking and playing music; it was considered to be free. He has New Orleans musical pieces like “My Jelly Roll Soul.” He has ballads of unbelievable depth and complexity.

He has long-form pieces like “Meditation on Integration” that gives you the African 6/8. He has traditional bebop songs, he has ironic songs, “Gunslinging Birds.” He has church music. All these elements, folk elements, everything he’s putting in his music. Theatrical elements, and he’s not segregating himself from the music.

Wayne Shorter, “Infant Eyes” (1964)

Extremely sophisticated, yet lyrical melody/harmony combination

What does that mean? That means the harmonic progression is as sophisticated as the melody. Very difficult. Sometimes you have a really great melody and the harmonies are not up to the melody.

“Infant Eyes”: haunting melody. It’s almost like it’s written on one mode. It’s not, but it sounds like that — like something you would sing to a child, like a lullaby. Harmony, very sophisticated.

When you look at the harmonic progression, where he goes, he’s a master of harmony anyway, but he goes to places in the harmony and the harmony is cyclical. It’s the way that the cycle works. I could explain it, but it’s not gonna translate on the page.

But just suffice to say that, if you’re looking at a math equation that’s beautiful as an equation, since math can be lyrical and beautiful, and you look at it and say, “Damn, that’s how the math of this works?” That’s how these songs all are.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (1964)

Unprecedented improvised development with least amount of thematic material

Trane set out with A Love Supreme to give as a little thematic material as possible and improvise. So most of what’s on A Love Supreme is like cells, like a minor third and a whole step. So you invert it as a fourth, as a fifth; it covers a lot of different intervals. [ Sings themes] Out of the kind of pentatonic sound that connects you to the East.

The exception is the second part. But even that eight-bar form, an unusual form for blues, went back to an earlier form. By then, people were playing 12-bar blues, 14-bar blues, blues with longer forms. Trane went back to the earlier folk form of eight-bar blues on A Love Supreme.

That’s a tremendous achievement not just for the depth of engagement that it’s known for but how little thematic material it is, how much improvisation goes on.

Eddie Harris, “1974 Blues” (1969)

A boogaloo church shuffle in a funky 7 — damn!

It’s a boogaloo church shuffle but it’s in seven [7/4 time]. Not only are you playing a boogaloo — which is a rhythm in four — you’re playing it in a church shuffle feel, so you got the secular and the church, and then you’re playing it in seven but the seven is funky. It’s not a kind of awkward beat drop in seven, or a seven that’s like you’re trying to be Eastern European music but you’re always failing because you didn’t grow up dancing to it. It’s like an organic seven. He understood something.

The way that they do it is slick too because the same riff recurs. A groove is based on repetition, so the question of the repetition is when do you go away from it? It’s kind of like what Louis Armstrong does with King Oliver. The key to the syncopation is when they decide to syncopate phrases.

So it’s like the balance of when you’re going to not repeat. This has a brilliant use of repetition in the groove. It accounts for the fact that the seven is an odd meter, so the seven itself is something that will create turmoil in the repetition. You can repeat a lot more without becoming boring.

Betty Carter, “Bridges” (1992)

Sounds of protest throughout time

[Note: Marsalis also cited Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Max Roach’s We Insist! and several other recordings in this category.]

This is the sound of protest for our time. [These are] people who decided they were gonna make a statement of protest in music and how the different forms of protest were formed. Louis Armstrong did “Black and Blue”, but the bridge says “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case.”

[Betty Carter’s “Bridges” is] only scat singing, but the power, the virtuosity of it, the diversity of what she’s singing, it speaks for itself. It speaks on the power of instrumental music. It’s extremely virtuosic in a very free and strong and progressive way.

At one point, she goes into an African 6/8, she’s in four [sings]. The way she spells out the rhythms. So she’s taking us on a journey through different rhythms, and it’s the force of her sound. It is a statement. Because when I say protest, it’s also sounds of freedom.

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This post originally appeared on Rolling Stone and was published April 29, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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