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The gramophone spoke, and we listened.
What I'm about to do is here incredibly unscientific. There are many flaws in the methodology, it's about 13 sample sizes too small and the data itself isn't particularly reliable.
Nonetheless, I proceed.
Some time ago, NPR Arts editor Tom Cole — who does a lot with jazz both in and out of this building — penned an interesting segment for our Take Five listening series. Basically, he wrote about the first five jazz records he ever bought. And he also talked to Tell Me More's Michel Martin about the story behind those purchases. Here's that feature: The First Five: One Man's Introduction To Jazz
That launched a discussion in the comments: We asked readers to post their own first five jazz albums or singles. Many of you did, in fact, write in — as of now, the tally shows 85 comments. Not everyone actually listed five records — gogosian2001 basically told the entire history of his jazz listening in 10 comments — and there were plenty of misremembered facts or titles. (**See footnote on methodology if you're curious to see how I got around this.) But that was a substantial enough tally to do a little experimental data collecting.
Here are our commenters'
2021 most mentioned artists:
T-17. Louis Armstrong (5)
T-17. Chick Corea/Return To Forever (5)
T-17. John Lewis/Modern Jazz Quartet (5)
data reflects leaders/co-leaders of albums or subjects of compilations, and does not count sideman appearances
And even with this inexact polling, some of the contrasts were salient enough to remark on.
—The Primacy Of Miles: In sheer numbers, Miles Davis blew everybody else out of the water, registering 53 places in the final count. John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck and Charlie Parker were a distant second (23), third (21) and fourth (18). The ceaseless efforts of Columbia/Sony to reissue Miles' great albums, the fact that he made so many records under his own name, and his general stardom would explain it, sure. But still: does this feel a bit off to anyone else?
—The Long Tail: Even if Miles mades your first five, the other four varied widely. There were 119 groups or ensembles that made the final tally; out of that number, 85 were mentioned only once or twice (sometimes by the same person). Those 85 spanned everywhere from Count Basie and Sonny Rollins to relatively obscure acts like the BYU Jazz Faculty, Boyd Raeburn or "forgettable mid-'70s fusion, with some Pablos mixed in" as one listener wrote. (Pablo being a record label known for recording jazz stars in their later careers, often live.) That means that beyond Miles and a handful of other artists, first jazz experiences were remarkably diverse.
Two more observations, plus conclusions, after the jump.
—People Like Weather Report: The fusion band (8) and George Benson (6) appeared on more peoples' first fives than Louis Armstrong (5) did. Probably not surprising, since this dealt largely with full-length albums as opposed to 78 rpm singles, and because people who know Miles and 'Trane won't necessarily know "Potato Head Blues." The age of the demographic who responded probably had something to do with it too — one man's treasure is another era's embarrassment. But it does remain striking to me how powerful fusion/sort-of smooth jazz was as a gateway drug. (Not that "Birdland" wasn't the 9th grade Jazz Ensemble jam.)
—The Album Format: It has seriously colored the popular imagination of what jazz is. Recordings made before 1950, around when the LP format came into common use, see very little shine in the tally. Pre-1950 jazz suffers plenty of problems with its popularity: it hasn't been reissued as aggressively, it's only available in relatively lower-fidelity recording, it isn't taught to beginning jazz students as much as it should be, it's got that approbatory stamp of Old Person stodginess to it. (*Cough* "Carolina Shout" controversy.) But I would proffer one more reason: people have come to see, even fetishize full-length album statements as the definitive artistic format of music, rendering jazz recorded before then as footnotes to the basic canon. (This is literally the case in Amazon.com's 100 Greatest Jazz Albums of All Time — check out the right-hand sidebar.) Charlie Parker bucks this trend somewhat, in appearing 18 times in the count. But his is a special case: he's the figurehead of bebop, his anthology compilations tend to be digestible and besides, many of his tally marks are accounted for by LP releases. The 1953 Massey Hall recording of "The Quintet," for example, cropped up four times, and there were several mentions of the Bird and Diz album (rec. 1950) or the Charlie Parker with Strings collections (first released as an LP in 1950).
(We're plenty guilty in abetting this phenomenon, I realize, in framing the question as "your first five albums" rather than "your first five jazz recordings." A few commenters also pointed this out — their first fives were 78s. So if there's any lesson to be derived from here, it's that the medium has shaped the message more than we thought — and that we ought to be conscious of that in considering jazz history.)
Anyway, that's the data analysis as I see it. What remains to be seen is its greater significance to broadening the jazz church. Will relying on the appeal of "crossover" records, or counting on the backbone of Miles Davis' popularity, actually ensure the growth of the jazz audience? Or is that ultimately a detriment to remembering that a full spectrum of jazz exists? How shall we keep jazz history alive and relevant when many of its greatest and most important recordings predate the LP? Inviting all thoughts and musings now.
**A note on methodology: I looked at all the relevant submissions, counting how many times a particular artist appears as the leader of a "first five" album. This is problematic: what about the compilations, or multiple-leader situations (e.g. "The Quintet" recording of Jazz At Massey Hall), or errors? And how should I deal with sidemen who appear on other folks' record dates? Accepting that there would be no perfect solution, I relied on discretion and familiarity with the great jazz recordings to resolve cataloging dilemmas or incomplete information. I'll explain to anyone who's that curious how exactly I dealt with tricky situations individually.