Building a Survey of Jazz: A Brief Summary of the Larger Jazz-Related Collections in My Library

I have a decent starter-collection of jazz vinyl, focusing primarily on Miles Davis’ catalog including the 6LP Miles at the Fillmore box set, as well as a selection of the better quality big band box sets on wax. But I’ve been working on building the digital portion of my jazz collection, the larger box sets of which total 1,626 albums. These highlights help me add a sense of order to the 22,000 jazz recordings in my digital library.

To date, my focus has been on essential classics, vocal jazz standards, the crooners, tin pan alley, jazz pop (1920-1960), highlights of avant-garde jazz, the big bands, swing, a bit of ECM, future jazz (in the electronic realm), film noir scores, gypsy jazz / jazz manouche, and their related subgenres. I’ve been in the mood to explore The Great American Songbook, (jazz vocal standards by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Ellington, etc), so I started doing some research.

I’m no jazz expert, but some preliminary Google searches, list-generators, and review surveys provided me with sufficient information to begin building a respectable personal library. One intriguing release offered for sale on Toronto’s JazzFM website was an astonishingly large 500 CD box set called, The World’s Greatest Jazz Collection. Of course, due to licensing restrictions, the set lacks some of the classic milestone recordings which come to mind when such a title is raised, but the sound quality and sheer volume of the collection warranted its addition to my library.

The 500-CD World’s Greatest Jazz Collection comprises five 100-disc sub sets:

100-CD Bebop Story box set

100-CD The Big Bands box set

100-CD Classic Jazz box set

100-CD Modern Jazz box set

100-CD Swing Time box set

Next I tackled building discographic archives of key figures in the history of classic and modern jazz. Larger jazz artist discographies in my archive include but are not limited to the following:

156-CD Thelonious Monk discography

135-CD Keith Jarrett discography

100-CD RateYourMusic.com’s Top 100 Future Jazz LPs

98-CD Miles Davis discography

78-CD Jimmy Smith discography

75-CD Sun Ra discography

61-CD Ornette Coleman discography

52-CD Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers discography

43-CD Herbie Hancock discography

43-CD Jimmy McGriff discography

40-CD Duke Ellington discography

35-CD Charles Mingus discography

30-CD John Coltrane discography

22-CD Dave Brubeck discography

16-CD Future Sounds of Jazz box set

as well as the 16-CD Diana Krall discography. (My late father was a fan and sparked my interest in her catalog when I was starting college.)

And as I’ve discussed in former features, I worked hard to build analog and digital archives of the finest big band collections ever issued to the public. Some of these were exclusively available from mail order subscription services on vinyl and later on compact disc, but thankfully, archivists around the world have painstakingly digitized the vinyl-exclusive volumes and produced complete digital libraries of these sets at professional archival quality.

In my Big Band Archive I have:

30-LP box set of Time Life: The Big Bands

27-CD Ken Burns Jazz Series and Jazz: The Story of America’s Music (22-CD + 5CD)

11-LP box set of The Great Band Era

10-volume Benny Goodman Collection

7-volume The Big Bands box set

4-CD Smithsonian Big Band Jazz archive

2-disc Glenn Miller Gold Collection

1-CD The Glenn Miller Orchestra Collection

Other smaller and more precisely-focused jazz collections in my library include:

8 CDs from the Jazz Moods series 

6 of the essential albums by The Bill Evans Trio

6-CD Gypsy Jazz / Jazz Manouche box set

5-CD 100 Hits American Songbook box set which includes one hundred standards recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Shirley Bassey, Sammy Davis Jr, and more.

5-CD Film Noir jazz series collection

3-CD Complete Recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong 

and the single-disc Complete Recordings of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong

My collection is leagues away from exhaustive or complete in the vast scope of the world of jazz – an insurmountable task for certain, but I’ve done my best to construct a modest library showcasing the key subgenres I enjoy most. These will provide me with years of listening enjoyment on lazy Sundays and on my afternoon drives queued up in the car from my personal media server.

In an effort to determine the best recordings to sample first, I began compiling various “best-of” lists. Rateyourmusic user erikfish found 22 “top jazz albums of all time” lists in books, magazines and web sites and combined them into one meta-list here. And TheJazzResource.com compiled a similar list of the Top 25 Jazz Albums of All Time. Spinditty published a feature on Ten Coltrane Albums Every Jazz Fan Should Own and NPR put together a similar roster called The Cocktail Party Guide To John Coltrane. I also assembled some of my own lists including Modal Jazz Essentials, Recordings of the First Great Quintet (Davis and Trane in ‘56), as well as 17 Essential Hard Bop Recordings courtesy of critic Scott Yanow and a Top Ten Essentials list of Thelonious Monk LPs.

I would love to hear your recommendations for your favorite titles from the collections mentioned above which deserve priority listening, or your suggestions for other collections which would complement my current library. If I’ve any glaring omissions, please let me know! I’m always eager to learn.

Time Life: The Big Bands Collection

I’ve always had a soft spot for 1930s big band music, born out of my fond memories of my late father taping FM rebroadcasts during the 1990s of original Your Hit Parade transmissions from 1935 to 1953. I touched upon this in July of 2018 in a feature titled, Gettin’ Sentimental Over You when I acquired my first big band vinyl box set.

At the time my big band library also included 181 LP-rips and broadcast archives I’d compiled into a playlist affectionately dubbed, Shirt Tail Stomp: Swing & The Big Bands. This collection includes a chronology of Benny Goodman’s complete discographic catalog spanning 1928-1949, a library of 89 radio performance broadcasts, the six-volume big bands series from Archive.org, both the Glenn Miller and Glenn Miller Gold Collection releases, as well as the four-disc Smithsonian – Big Band Jazz: From the Beginnings to the 50s box set.

Hungry for more great sounds, I performed some additional research this week and was overjoyed to discover a colossal archive of some of the best-mastered big band music ever issued. It began when my search led me to a discussion on the Steve Hoffman audiophile forum where a member inquired about a big band mail order series of LPs issued by Time Life in the 1980s. A few members chimed in that it was one of the best series available for the genre and provided a brief history of the releases. A detailed summary of the complete 29-volume series and tracklists is available here.

Here is the original television advert for the series:

I was absolutely floored to discover than an independent archivist calling himself gary34 had set himself to the task of compiling a digital lossless archival hybrid of the complete analog and digital releases from this Time Life series, complete with uniform tagging, album artwork, and transcription details in an accompanying document. He wrote:

In 1991 Time-Life issued a subscription set of (Mono) CDs, using material which had already been transcribed for their original ‘Big Bands’ LP series almost a decade earlier. One of the first commercial DSP noise removal systems was used in the production of the CDs, to remove the worst of the imperfections inherent on the original mechanical media, (as captured on the master tapes used to make the LPs).

Unfortunately for subscribers, the CD set wasn’t quite as complete as the original LP series. True, tracks were the same as those on the LPs, but the CD booklets had less information about the artist and the music than the excellent liner sheet included with each of the original LP sets. As well, only the big name bands made it to CD. The seven excellent compilations of less well-known material and groups did not.

This library comprises not only the 29 original volumes, but also includes the compact disc given out as a bonus from Time Life under catalog #TCD-134 which was a variation with an alternate track list from the original cat #STBB-28 titled, The Big Bands: World War II.

This hybrid collection brings together 100% of the recordings issued by Time Life in all formats which have been out of print and unavailable commercially for nearly 40 years and is a magnificent specimen for anyone who appreciates big band music and quality sound.

Gettin’ Sentimental Over You: Diving into Classics of The Big Band Era

Lately, I’ve found myself with a considerable amount of quiet and reflective time which has been profoundly enjoyable. It’s afforded me the opportunity to explore thousands of albums in my library that I’d not previously had the time to experience. Recently I recalled a Tupperware storage box of cassettes that I have from my late father containing archives of big band radio broadcasts which he’d taped off the FM dial in the early 1990s, and I remembered his fondness for swing and standards.

Feeling inspired, (and admittedly a bit sentimental and nostalgic), I researched vinyl collections of big band and jazz classics and discovered a 10-volume box set issued by Reader’s Digest produced by RCA Victor in 1964 which did a magnificent job of showcasing the most beloved standards called, The Great Band Era (1936-1945). All of my favorites are here, from “The Music Goes Round and Round” to “Serenade in Blue.”

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I was also delighted to see that the set includes the beloved Glenn Miller classic, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” which had been a favorite of mine ever since I saw the live rehearsal segment of the track from the 1941 film, Sun Valley Serenade.

Annie Van Auken of Amazon remarked of the collection’s sonic merit:

Every one of its 120 tracks are original recordings, dubbed from restored 78 rpm master plates or archived discs. RCA’s simulated stereo effect has been sparingly used and filtration is minimal. The result: sparkling tracks that sound better over speakers than the shellac records.

She also made note of the exquisite quality of the packaging:

Each album has a stock paper sleeve, all of different colors and finely illustrated. The ten LPs are stored in an incredibly strong box with a drop-down door to make access a snap. This box slides into an outer case of similar thickness. It’s an set seemingly built to last centuries!

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Also included is a 24-page 12″×12″ booklet containing notes for each song, synopses of events for individual years, an essay on the Big Band era and a layman’s description of how transfers from record to tape was accomplished. There’s also bios for 36 band leaders and two contents list breakdowns: by bands, by songs.

From the musical selections (offered chronologically) to the quality of the mastery and packaging, The Great Band Era seemed like the perfect keepsake for any fan of 1930s standards.

Only one other set appeared to compare to the Reader’s Digest release. Time-Life Recordings issued a 29-volume half-speed mastered big band series on vinyl between 1983 and 1986, and later on compact disc between 1992-94. These were mail order subscription releases and as such are quite costly if one wishes to assemble the complete catalog. Each volume included an illustrated portrait of the band leader and accompanying liner notes. But as each individual set of the 29 Time-Life volumes command a price of ~$20, and as the Reader’s Digest set is readily available any day of the week for only $5, ordering the 10-volume collection was clearly the more sensible choice.

I also remembered that I have a sizable collection of yet-unplayed big band classics in my digital library. I’d previously assembled a 72-hour playlist titled, Shirt Tail Stomp: Swing & The Big Bands comprising 181 LPs and broadcast archives. This collection includes a chronology of Benny Goodman’s complete discographic catalog spanning 1928-1949, a library of 89 radio performance broadcasts, the six-volume big bands series from Archive.org, both the Glenn Miller and Glenn Miller Gold Collection releases, and the four-disc Smithsonian – Big Band Jazz: From the Beginnings to the 50s box set. This library will prove useful for mobile listening, but for my quiet evenings, dropping the needle on the Reader’s Digest box set will fill my home with the warm sounds of the golden age of swing for an experience that no digital playlist can match.