Making a list called “The Three Greatest Jazz Albums of All Time” can raise the question, “Why three? Why not five, 10, or 50?”
It is because these three records are so good, so evidently beautiful, and are forever the foundation of jazz as we know it. If we were to add two, seven, or 47 albums for a more in-depth list (which we will soon do in another post), we would underemphasize how important the three following records were, are, and will be for many decades and maybe centuries to come.
You may also ask, “Who considers these to be the greatest albums?”
The answer is almost anyone with an opinion on jazz—and even those without! Even if you don’t know jazz, and you don’t listen to jazz, you are still more familiar with the music on these specific albums than you think.
You may also ask, “What criteria were used to choose these albums?”
The answer is that one was the first jazz album to sell 1M+ copies; another was the first to sell 5M+ copies. They are the favorite albums and inspiration of most of today’s jazz musicians—and even musicians from other genres. All three have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and are preserved in the National Recording Registry, which is the list of sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”
Finally, if you are already familiar with these records, then you know they are music at its best. We are thankful to these artists for giving us such an exceptional experience.
If you are part of the group that is not yet familiar with them, then just start playing all three. You are about to be lucky enough to discover marvels for the first time, and the more you play them, the more you will invest in an incredibly emotional and possibly even spiritual experience.
Kind Of Blue
Miles Davis is regarded as one of the greatest musicians of his generation, having played an important role in the development of jazz. He was born in Illinois in 1926 and moved to New York City at the age of 18 to pursue music. Throughout his life, he was at the helm of jazz. As a trumpeter during the 1950s, Miles Davis recorded several albums with his sextet, including Porgy and Bess and Kind of Blue, which was his final album of the decade and was released by Columbia Records on August 17, 1959.
Kind of Blue is now regarded as one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded, and it is also the best-selling jazz album of all time, as it has sold 5M+ copies. Due to its influence on several genres of music (e.g., jazz, rock, and classical), music historians have named it one of the most influential albums ever recorded.
Seven now-legendary musicians in the prime of their careers came together for Kind of Blue: tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and, of course, Miles Davis.
Despite the hurried and improvisational nature of its composition and recording, Kind of Blue has become one of jazz’s blueprints. It is frequently cited as a good introduction to jazz because it is extremely beautiful and listenable, while still adhering to the principles of experimental free jazz and introducing what is now known as modal jazz.
Miles Davis, an eight-time Grammy winner, died in 1991 from respiratory distress in Santa Monica, California.
Kind Of Blue was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2002, it was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Miles Davis: trumpet; Julian “Cannonball” Adderley: alto saxophone; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Bill Evans: piano; Wynton Kelly: piano (2); Paul Chambers: double bass; James Cobb: drums
Release date August 17, 1959
A Love Supreme
During the 1940s and 1950s, John Coltrane honed his skills as a saxophonist and composer by working with legendary musicians (e.g., Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis). With a technically marvellous and innovative style that was thrillingly dense and fluid in his understanding of the genre, Coltrane turned the jazz world on its head.
A Love Supreme (1965) is arguably John Coltrane’s most widely recognized album. The succinct, four-suite album—which went gold decades later, along with My Favorite Things—is notable not only for Coltrane’s astounding technical vision but also for its nuanced spiritual explorations and ultimate transcendence. The album was nominated for two Grammys and is regarded as a classic by jazz historians worldwide.
The album was presented as a spiritual declaration that Coltrane’s musical devotion had become entwined with his faith in God. In many ways, the album reflects Coltrane’s spiritual quest, which arose from his personal difficulties, including a long battle with drug and alcohol addiction.
A Love Supreme has a lyrical and emotional quality to it. The suite swells ecstatically before abruptly falling silent. It has prayer-like cadences, but the transcendent quality of a dream. A four-note bassline emerges from beneath the sound of the opening gong and flutter of the tenor saxophone. The rich improvisations that makeup John Coltrane’s 33-minute musical journey are built around this simple riff.
The record was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2016, it was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Read our full review of A Love Supreme.
John Coltrane: vocals, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Garrison: double bass; Elvin Jones: drums, gong, timpani; McCoy Tyner: piano
Release date January 1965
The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Time Out is a studio album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which was released on Columbia Records in 1959. The album is a delicate mix of cool and West Coast jazz. Time Out was included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, alongside, of course, A Love Supreme and Kind of Blue.
This album is still regarded as one of jazz’s most acclaimed, and it was the first jazz album to sell 0.5M copies. The release of the record coincided with the growing Civil Rights Movement in the United States, accessible jet travel that opened the world to new cultures, and a competitive yet fertile scene of jazz artists pushing one another to reimagine the genre and its direction.
Time Out is based on the use of out-of-the-ordinary jazz tempo, as the band experimented with unusual, non-traditional time signatures, written compositions that went beyond 3/4 and 4/4, and experimentation with polyrhythms within each song.
Time Out’s legacy continues to resonate six decades later as a testament to open-mindedness and a willingness to draw inspiration from all corners of the globe. In other words, it’s timeless. And of course, it is also part of “1959 – The Best Year In Jazz History.“
Time Out was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1996, and in 2005, it was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Dave Brubeck: piano; Paul Desmond: alto saxophone; Eugene Wright: bass; Joe Morello: drums.
Release date December 14, 1959
Discover next: The Greatest Blues Albums of All Time
The 3 Greatest Jazz Albums Of All Time:
- Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (Columbia)
- John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (Impulse!)
- The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out (Columbia)
After publishing this article, I received many comments challenging Time Out as #3. Even though there is a clear consensus on Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, it is still up for debate which album should be third on the list.
Many suggested Mingus Ah Um. Yes, this is an amazing album, but what it is not clear for many is which album was Mingus’ best: Mingus Ah Um or The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.
Thanks to what readers shared, it seems like what fans missed with Time Out is an emotional connection. Maybe it is easier to have an emotional connection with Mingus Ah Um or The Shape of Jazz to Come than with Time Out, and as fans, we naturally want to promote our favorite albums. Based on this, I agree. I certainly have albums with which I have more of an emotional connection than Time Out, but so far, I stand with these three albums, based on how important, universal, ground-breaking, and popular—in a good way—these three were.
Thanks to all who shared their criticism, whether approving of or challenging the selection. Your comments are always highly appreciated, as well as your interest in the blog!