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The 10 Best Jazz Albums of the 1930s: Critics’ Picks

The second of five decades’ worth of top-10 lists celebrating jazz's golden age

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In 2020, to celebrate JazzTimes’ 50th anniversary, we made a bold (some would say foolhardy) call: the top 50 jazz albums of the past 50 years, according to our critics. It turns out that JazzTimes readers like lists a whole lot, possibly even more than we do. The “JT 50” list drew a record number of visitors to our website.

Great news, but what can you do to follow up a success like that? The answer, once we thought about it for a while, was actually pretty clear: a second list, this time of the top 50 jazz albums from the 50 years before our magazine was published, 1920 through 1969, a period often considered to be the Golden Age (or several Golden Ages, depending on how you look at it) of Jazz.

Such a list, however, presents a problem that the original JT 50 did not. Because the long-playing vinyl record wasn’t introduced to the global marketplace until 1948, a large chunk of the era we were surveying—including all of the ’20s and ’30s—didn’t have albums, at least not albums as we know them today.

And so we decided (yes, we’ll freely admit it) to play a little fast and loose with the definition of what constitutes an album in the early going of our “Pre-JT 50.” Most of our critics’ picks for the pre-album era are groups of songs that were recorded and released within the same timeframe but only compiled in a single package many years later; on some of them, the music goes beyond the confines of a given decade, but the selections from the decade for which we chose them were so strong that we felt that couldn’t be helped. In a few cases, we’ve picked only one track, either because it’s singularly significant in itself or because we believed that including a whole compilation by the same artist—Paul Whiteman, for example—would dilute that track’s impact. Once we reach the ’50s, it’s albums all the way.

As with the original JT 50, we stuck to a few basic ground rules. The most important:

1) Ten albums (or, if you will, “albums”) for each decade.

2) No more than one album per decade by any single “headline” artist.

3) No ranking. Chronology, based on the release date of the original recordings, is the only determinant for our final order.

We’re rolling out our list online just as we did the last one: beginning Monday, July 18, with the first 10 (the 1920s) and continuing on, a decade per day, through Friday, July 22 (the 1960s). For the ’20s, go here; for the ’40s, go here; for the ’50s, go here; and for the ’60s, go here.

In closing, we’ll say the same thing we said in 2020: You can (and probably will) disagree with much of what we’ve picked and what we haven’t, but you certainly can’t go wrong listening to any of the recordings listed here, which contain some of the best music ever made on this planet.

And now … let the arguments begin! –Mac Randall