Jazz is one of the most complex and influential genres in music history. These jazz albums helped shape the genre as we know it today—though it remains continually changing.
1. Somethin’ Else – Cannonball Adderley
Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley was everywhere during the mid-century as a sideman for Miles Davis and other leaders; but the 1958 album Somethin’ Else is the rare opportunity to hear Adderley as a frontman. It is no surprise, therefore, that the album is a standard addition to “best of” lists.
2. Getz/Gilberto – Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto
Brazilian bossa nova meets American jazz in 1963’s Getz/Gilberto. Bossa nova was becoming increasingly popular at the time, but a collaboration like this had never been attempted. Most famous was the album’s English-language cover of The Girl From Ipanema, performed by Gilberto’s wife. The song was a hit and has become one of the most famous jazz standards of the 1960s.
3. Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus
1959 was a great year for jazz, as evidenced partly by Charles Mingus’ legendary album. It showcased Mingus’ classic desire for concept; he often chose themes for his works as a tribute to a certain person, place, or even emotion. Mingus Ah Um was a tribute to several other jazz greats, most notably saxophonist Lester Young, who died earlier in the year.
4. Afro – Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie played a major role in popularizing Afro-Cuban music in the wider genre of jazz. His 1954 album Afro went down in history as one of Gillespie’s most influential albums. It was undoubtedly the biggest record in the Cubop subgenre of the time, a fusion of Cubano music and bebop. Though the term didn’t stick, Gillespie’s influence on jazz did, resulting in the multicultural fusion genre as we know it today.
5. At the pershing: But Not For Me – Ahmad Jamal
Amazingly, Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 album But Not For Me initially received negative reviews from critics. It is now considered one of the best jazz albums of all time. Despite critical reviews, the album sold extremely well, in no small part due to the popular single Poinciana.
The song became a jazz standard and popular dance song. Jamal’s signature minimalism is at its best on But Not For Me, mixing strong Latin-influenced rhythms behind mesmerizing hooks.
6. Song For My Father – Horace Silver
Horace Silver released many great works throughout his career, but 1965’s Song For My Father was unmistakably one of his best. The music was strongly influenced by Silver’s experiences in Brazil as well as his cultural heritage. The album is most famous for its titular track, but every song is a great work on its own, including the rhythmic The Kicker. Song For My Father puts Silver’s talent as a pioneer of hard bop on display.
7. Head Hunters – Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock’s innovative musical exploration of the 1960s introduced electronic elements into jazz. But he rose to widespread fame in the early 1970s when he formed his group The Headhunters. Their first album, released in 1973, made a massive impression for its combination of jazz with R&B and funk, all supported by heavy synthesizers. Head Hunters is perhaps best known for its single Watermelon Man.
8. Journey in Satchidananda – Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane may not have been as well-known in her day as her husband John Coltrane, but she was a stunningly talented jazz artist in her own right. She came into her own in the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of experimental jazz. Her 1970 album Journey in Satchidananda may well be called her magnum opus, a breathtaking foray into modern jazz fused with the traditional music of Southeast Asia.
9. Destination…Out! – Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean was an explorer when it came to jazz, pushing the limits of bebop in a way they had never been pushed before. The saxophonist became widely known in the 1960s, as he experimented with progressive jazz and bebop in increasingly ambitious albums. His most impressive was Destination… Out! An album so adventurous that jazz is only one category it falls into—yet it remains unmistakably jazz.
10. Bright Size Life – Pat Metheny
Amazingly, Pat Metheny’s 1976 album Bright Size Life didn’t do well when it was first released. In fact, it largely escaped notice altogether. These days, it is widely considered one of the best examples of post-bop, made even more impressive by Metheny’s young age. Though Metheny would record more mature albums throughout his career, Bright Size Life remains impressive for its natural skill, energy, and spontaneity.
11. Giant Steps – John Coltrane
John Coltrane was one of the biggest players on the jazz scene of the 1950s. His 1959 album Giant Steps made waves for its innovative use of both playing techniques and unique harmonies, the kind of musicality that the saxophonist would become known for. The album is so well-known that it has become an elementary study material for all aspiring jazz musicians.
12. Lady in Satin – Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday’s voice changed dramatically toward the end of her life, largely due to her long struggle with drug addiction. Her 1958 album Lady in Satin is Holiday with a more limited vocal range, but it is still counted among her greatest albums. This comes down, perhaps, to her performance; full of intense emotion, Holiday’s voice is utterly mesmerizing, despite not having the strength and range of her earlier performances.
13. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
Miles Davis is one of the most famous names of mid-century jazz. But the legendary bandleader outdid himself with his 1959 album Kind of Blue. It became one of the best-selling albums in jazz history and is known by jazz enthusiastics and mainstream listeners alike. Davis made an impression with his universal appeal, which helped popularize jazz in mainstream music.
14. The Real McCoy – McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner was highly active throughout the 1960s as part of the John Coltrane Quartet. But his first album as a frontman, released in 1967, set him apart from the other jazz musicians of the day. Tyner was a master of jazz piano, pioneering new techniques such as inside-outside playing and static harmony. The Real McCoy is best known for Passion Dance, which has become a jazz piano standard.
15. Tales From The Hudson – Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker wasn’t just an astoundingly talented jazz musician. He was also one of the most innovative and versatile jazz players of his time. Throughout his career, Brecker would experiment with genres ranging from classic jazz to jazz-pop and jazz-rock. He spent many years accompanying some of the greatest jazz masters of the industry before.
16. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs – Chick Corea
Chick Corea produced his second album as a bandleader in 1968, leading to what would become his most famous. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs was a meeting of old and new styles, featuring a changing lineup with some of the most well-known bebop instrumentalists of the day. Most impressively, the album combined jazz classics with the kind of skilled improvisation that only Chick Corea could accomplish.
17. A Night at The Village Vanguard – Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins was a jack-of-all-trades in the 1950s, playing with a variety of groups. His 1957 album reflects his eclectic nature and musical style. A Night At The Village Vanguard is a recording of a live performance, giving an authentic experience of what it was like to hear Rollins perform in person. The album is characterized by innovative playing and even improvisation.
18. Karma – Pharoah Sanders
Saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders played with John Coltrane for several years during the 1960s before branching off into a solo career. He was one of the leaders of the spiritual jazz subgenre, which drew on inspiration from eastern religions as well as Afro-fusion and spiritualism. Karma was undoubtedly his best album, featuring poetic, half-hour-long tracks with chanted mantras.
19. Sonny Side Up – Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, & Sonny Stitt
Three jazz greats came together in 1957’s Sonny Side Up, resulting in one of the greatest bebop collaborations of the decade. Dizzy Gillespie leads the ensemble, though Rollins and Stitt hold their own throughout. The album has a battle feel, with each musician vying for their time, though they also come together in exquisite harmony.
20. Data Lords – Maria Schneider Orchestra
Maria Schneider is one of the biggest names of 21st-century jazz, though she had been working professionally since the 1970s. Schneider has won seven Grammy Awards over the course of her career, but her 2020 double album Data Lords stands out among the accolades. A daring concept album, Data Lords is an exploration of modern big band music with a focus on technology, digitalization, surveillance, and individualism.
21. Concert By The Sea – Erroll Garner
As a jazz pianist, Erroll Garner was totally unique. His style could only be described as opulent, featuring an over the top playing method that drew inspiration from the likes of Fat Waller and Earl Hines. Concert By The Sea was recorded in 1955, constructed from live performances for the US army radio. It was never intended to be an album—until Garner’s manager reworked the tapes into a cohesive, and highly successful, record.
22. Moanin’ – Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
Moanin’ was released in 1959 and is widely considered to be one of Art Blakey’s best albums. A paragon of the hard bop era, it features some of the biggest and best jazz instrumentalists of the time, including Lee Morgan on trumpet and Bobby Timmons on piano. Moanin’ perfectly showcased the blues-heavy hard bop that was popular on the East Coast.
23. A Love Supreme – John Coltrane
John Coltrane was one of the most innovative and progressive jazz musicians of all time. His 1965 album A Love Supreme is a masterpiece of free jazz, arranged in a suite in four parts. Often called a concept album, the album was strongly influenced by Coltrane’s view of spirituality; the four parts use modal jazz, including chanting and rhythm, to construct a prayer of gratitude.
24. Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock got his start in the early 1960s and gained a reputation for his technical skill in playing acoustic jazz. He later became known for his ability to fuse genres that came later, drawing inspiration from electronic music and funk. In 1964, he released Maiden Voyage, a concept album themed around the ocean.
25. Inner Urge – Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson’s work as a saxophonist had him working with many of the most famous jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, including Dizzy Gillespie and Horace Silver. But he didn’t get his big break until 1966 when he released his own album, Inner Urge. The album perfectly showcased Henderson’s technical skill that had made him one of the most popular sidemen in jazz.
26. Changes One – Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus’ career dwindled in the mid-1960s, when he encountered health problems. In 1974, he returned to the jazz scene with a new music ensemble. Their albums, Changes One and Changes Two, were released in 1975; they received universal praise and marked a career comeback for Mingus. The albums included odes to the late Duke Ellington as well as Mingus’ wife.
27. Tristano – Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano was a controversial figure in the world of jazz. Some music historians think that he was a virtuoso, while others think his playing was too flat and devoid of feeling to be counted among the greats. What isn’t up for debate, however, is the influence he had on the development of jazz in the mid-20th century; his 1956 album set the stage for jazz throughout the following decades.
28. Dreams & Daggers – Cécile McLorin salvant
Cecile McLorin Salvant is a modern jazz singer known for her rich, emotive voice and her unique approach to composition; rather than isolated songs, her albums tell a cohesive story that progresses from track to track. Her 2017 album Dreams & Daggers alternated live performances with string-accompanied studio recordings. Salvant won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocals for the album.
29. Conference of The Birds – Dave Holland Quartet
Dave Holland was a successful bassist for Miles Davis through the late 1960s, but he formed his own group in the early 1970s and quickly found success. The Dave Holland Quartet made waves for its innovative exploration of free jazz. Their 1973 album Conference of The Birds explored post-pop to soulful ballads and playful improvisation.
30. Piano Starts Here – Art Tatum
Art Tatum is one of the most legendary names in jazz piano, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a list of jazz greats that didn’t include his name. Similarly, it is almost impossible to choose Tatum’s best work. But the 1968 album Piano Starts Here deserves a nod; it includes tracks that were already retro at the time, including live recordings from the late 1940s. The album showcases Tatum’s technical skill to perfection.
31. Ellington at Newport – Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington is one of the most legendary names in the world of jazz, but even he had his career ups and downs. In 1956, he performed live at the Newport Jazz Festival. The concert was recorded and made into an album, which just happened to save his career. Ellington at Newport features the improvisation (and the crowd reactions) of the live concert, which resulted in a record-breaking ovation.
32. Time Out – Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck studied classical piano before turning to jazz, becoming one of the most famous and successful jazz pianists of all time. He was known for favoring lesser-known time signatures in his own work, a preference that he showcased extensive on 1959’s Time Out. Most amazing was the album’s commercial success, which eventually earned its induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
33. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Song book – Ella Fitzgerald
Two jazz greats come together in 1957’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook. It was just one in a line of collaborative albums that Fitzgerald released between the 1950s and 1960s, but it was one of the most spectacular. Accompanied by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, Fitzgerald breathes new life into jazz standards such as Take The A Train and Perdido.
34. Idle Moments – Grant Green
Grant Green’s incredibly versatile career saw the guitarist record in many settings, with many ensembles, and with many influences. But it is hard to beat his 1963 album Idle Moments, which features him at the forefront of a sextet. He was accompanied by other jazz greats of the day, including Duke Pearson and Joe Henderson. Idle Moments showcases the type of deliberate composition and playing that defined Green’s career.
35. Charlie Parker With Strings – Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker may have been a bebop musician, but his presiding interest was always in classical music. In 1949, he achieved his goal of recording a jazz album accompanied by an orchestral ensemble. The result was one of the most innovative jazz recordings of the era, a work that propelled Charlie Parker to stardom.
36. Clifford Brown & Max Roach – Clifford Brown & Max Roach
Sadly, Clifford Brown’s life and career were cut short when he was killed in a car crash at the age of 25. His talent as a hard bop musician and trumpeter was put on elegant display with his 1954 collaboration with drummer Max Roach. It was widely considered one of Brown’s greatest albums, featuring both original compositions and covers of jazz standards.
37. The Sidewinder – Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan’s album The Sidewinder remains so famous that its titular song is known far and wide as a jazz standard. The entire album is a classic, featuring a stellar ensemble (including saxophonist Joe Henderson). Morgan’s electrifying album is layered and complex, with jazz tracks that are heavily underlined by blues and soul.
38. When The Heart Emerges Glistening – Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the most talented trumpeters in jazz. His 2011 album is a triumph of classical and contemporary jazz, featuring both old standards and original compositions. Akinmusire’s technical skill on the trumpet is mesmerizing, as is his commentary on social issues of the modern era.
39. Lonely Woman – The Modern Jazz Quartet
The Modern Jazz Quartet was one of the best jazz fusion groups of the 1960s, presenting a subgenre known as chamber jazz. Heavily influenced by classical music, it also played with elements of the free jazz that was becoming more popular in the early 1960s. Their 1962 album Lonely Woman is a perfect example of this eclectic musical style.
40. Brilliant Corners – Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk was a maverick of the jazz genre, often unappreciated in his time. By the mid-1950s, however, Monk was beginning to be recognized for the genius he truly was. Brilliant Corners has been said to be his breakthrough, solidifying him as one of the greatest jazz pianists and composers of the era.
41. Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
Miles Davis was remarkable not just for his immense musical talent, but also for his ability to adapt to new musical genres. By the late 1960s, Davis had drawn inspiration from rock and funk artists such as James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. The result was the subgenre of jazz fusion, which Davis helped pioneer. Bitches Brew was also remarkable for its innovative use of electronic instruments.
42. Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins
Saxophonist Sonny Rollins wasn’t just known for his technical talent; he was also one of the most skilled improvisers of the 1950s. His 1956 album Saxophone Colossus became his magnum opus, featuring Caribbean and blues-influenced jazz that would make Rollins famous. Though he didn’t compose all the songs on the album, Rollins applied his one of a kind improvising talent to each track.
43. Satchmo at Symphony Hall – Louis Armstrong
No list of jazz greatness is complete without mentioning Louis Armstrong. The jazz trumpeter and singer was one of the greatest musicians of midcentury jazz, though his career covered many subgenres throughout his time. The 1947 album Satchmo at Symphony Hall was Armstrong at his trumpeting best, performing alongside a small Dixieland ensemble.
44. The Atomic Mr. Basie – Count Basie
Count Basie was undoubtedly one of the most influential jazz musicians of the big band era. Both as a pianist and as a bandleader, he made a mark with music that drew on influences of swing, becoming some of the best standards of the time. His 1958 album The Atomic Mr. Basie was considered extremely ahead of its time, a bold statement from an already bold artist.
45. Ella & Louis – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
There may never have been a more powerful collaboration—at least in jazz—than Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1956, they teamed up for a vocal album that put their famous voices in perfect contrast. Despite their different styles, their collaboration was so popular that they would reunite for several more albums in the following years.
46. Sinatra at The Sands – Frank Sinatra
Sinatra was one of the most famous singers of the mid-20th century, but purists may have called him a pop artist rather than a jazz artist. In 1966, when his career was beginning to wane, Sinatra recorded his live album Sinatra at The Sands. He was supported by the Count Basie Orchestra in singing some of the best big band songs of his career.
47. Night Train – Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson was one of the most talented and versatile jazz pianists of all time. Over the course of his seven-decade career, he won seven Grammy awards. His 1963 album Night Train is one of his most famous. Featuring heavy swing rhythms, the album was made to be universally appealing, a challenge it met with almost no effort.
48. Midnight Blue – Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell was one of the most popular sidemen of the 1950s jazz scene; his skill as a guitar accompanist to Dizzy Gillespie put him in high demand. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s that he got the chance to record an album as a frontman. His 1963 work Midnight Blue alternated between bluesy ballads and high-energy, Latin-infused tunes, proving that his musical talent was as versatile as it was technical.
49. Red Clay – Freddie Hubbard
Freddie Hubbard was one of the most skilled trumpeters and performers of the 1960s, known for his over the top playing style. But it wasn’t until 1970 that Hubbard made it big as a frontman. His album Red Clay saw him teaming up with other jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson.
50. Anything Goes – Brad Mehldau Trio
Brad Mehldau is one of the most talented and innovative jazz pianists of the modern era. He was particularly prolific during his time with the Brad Mehldau Trio, which included drummer Jorge Rossy and bassist Larry Grenadier. The trio released Anything Goes in 2004. The album is a masterpiece in jazz-pop fusion, deconstructing jazz standards and even modern rock songs.
51. Soul Station – Hank Mobley
Look for an album with the highest number of jazz standards and you might just find Soul Station. Though Hank Mobley was never counted among the most pivotal jazz musicians, he provided some of the most consistent, high-quality music during the peak of hard bop. Released in 1960, Soul Station is widely considered to be Mobley’s best album.
52. Out To Lunch! – Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy was a significant player on the 1960s free jazz scene, and never was his vision better displayed than in 1964’s Out To Lunch! The album, which was applauded as Dolphy’s greatest work, was recorded mere months before the musician died from undiagnosed diabetes at the age of 36. It has been noted for its unique sound elements and progressive techniques, which were far ahead of their time.
53. Smokin’ at The Half Note – Wes Montgomery
Many of the best jazz albums of all time were recorded live, making them even more impressive. One of these was Wes Montgomery’s 1965 album Smokin’ at The Half Note, recorded during one performance in New York. The album showcases the technical skill and musical elements that had become Montgomery’s signatures during his career.
54. Universal Consciousness – Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane was one of the finest musicians in the free jazz and avant-garde jazz movements that took hold during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, she released Universal Consciousness, an experiment in modal jazz and improvisation. Coltrane herself played strings, harp, and organ; her combination of composition and improvisation was a work of art that has been called one of the most influential albums of all time.
55. Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen to You – Chet Baker
Chet Baker was first and foremost a jazz trumpeter, but in the 1950s when his career was already established, he began singing as well. He made waves for his unusual voice, which was softer and gentler than most of his contemporaries’. Nevertheless, he was highly successful; his 1958 album Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen To You was a skillful collection of vocal and trumpet performances that have gone down in history as jazz standards.
56. The Birth of The Cool – Miles Davis
It is inevitable that Miles Davis show up on any list of jazz greats. His technical skill combined with his ability seemingly to see into the future of music made him one of the great jazz pioneers of his day. The Birth of The Cool was released in 1949 and introduced the subgenre of cool jazz. Davis was clearly ahead of his time with the nine-man ensemble, which included a French horn and tuba.
57. Point Of Departure – Andrew Hill
It is difficult to choose Andrew Hill’s best album. The prolific pianist recorded a grand total of 13 albums between 1963 and 1970. Point Of Departure is one of the best, featuring an ensemble of jazz royalty—including Joe Henderson and Eric Dolphy. Hill’s music is complex and high-energetic, full of unique meters and discordant, avant-garde tunes. Yet despite the complexity, it is not chaotic. Every note is deliberate, and the ensemble plays it to perfection.
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.