If La La Land made you want to know more about Jazz, this playlist is for you.
La La Land is getting a lot of people to think about jazz for the first time in their lives. But this movie doesn’t have a ton of jazz music in it. So if you’re looking for more, here’s a little playlist that can give you some good starting points for the big, wonderful world of jazz.
Please enjoy listening to this playlist on Spotify or on YouTube! You can listen to the songs in any order and come up with your own opinion. Each track relates to a different theme in the movie La La Land, but it’s absolutely great if you just want to experience the music yourself without any commentary — that is one of the many things that jazz is all about!
1. “Ko Ko” Charlie Parker Quintet 1945
Let’s start you off with a track where Charlie Parker plays the saxophone. In the movie, Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian is completely obsessed with Charlie Parker.
Listen to the energy and intensity when Charlie Parker launches into his saxophone parts. Whether it’s a rip-roaring solo or just a short melodic phrase, he plays every note like his life depends on it.
This track was recorded in 1945 at a time when jazz music really focused on virtuosity (the ability to play like a mo fo) and intensity.
The “conflict and compromise” that Seb refers to when he’s jazzsplaining to Mia is really typical of this era of jazz that can also be called bebop.
As soon as the track starts, Dizzie and Charlie are going back and forth between trumpet and alto sax. It’s the kind of give and take that Sebastian loves.
The track is full of virtuoso moments where the musicians really get to show that they know how to play their instruments. At 2:08, checkout that back-breaking drum solo and how the band seamlessly picks up when Roach is done showing off. This is the kind of expert musicianship that Seb and a lot of people love about jazz of this era.
For context, this time period in jazz was forgoing a lot of things that were common in commercially successful jazz music (more of this later in the list!). This is within 10 years of Frank Lloyd Wright building a house in a waterfall and Pablo Picasso painting Guernica. So jazz was breaking some rules too.
What had previously been a really popular genre that tended to have an easy to find swing rhythm was suddenly very daring and unconventional. Soloists would veer off unexpectedly and improvise playing notes they had never planned to play with a speed and nuance that boggled the mind.
It’s the perfect era for a character like Sebastian who sort of gets off on being old school (he goes to see black and white movies at old-fashioned theaters that go out of business, and he wants to hear old jazz played in historic clubs).
And when you hear how good Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Max Roach, and Curly Russell are in this performance of Ko Ko you get why Seb is infatuated.
2. Part of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” Miles Davis 1969
The playlist quickly jumps forward in time to a track by Miles Davis from a record called Bitches Brew. This song is in the playlist to represent the kind of music that John Legend’s character Keith symbolizes for me.
When you listen to this song, it’s going to sound very different than the Charlier Parker track. But that’s what the Keith character is all about.
Some people like Sebastian relish fast and furious virtuoso musicianship, even at the risk of alienating the audience (or angering the restaurant manager!) Other people like Keith find ways to expand the boundaries of jazz to include other genres and other ways of thinking about music.
This Miles Davis snippet (the full song is like 14 minutes long) comes from an album that redefined jazz music. It showed what jazz musicians could do when they applied their talent to interpreting rock music.
Jazz musicians steadily pushed the boundaries in every direction. Some musicians like Charlie Parker created intense masterpieces led by visceral solos (actually Miles Davis played with Charlie Parker on the SAME ALBUM that had Ko Ko on it). Other musicians pushed boundaries by applying the improvisation and phrasing of jazz to other contemporary genres like rock.
You listen to this track and you can hear the rock influence, the rock tone, and even the electric bass (gasp), but the music doesn’t follow the tight constraints of a rock single.
You hear the improvisation that is key to jazz, and it’s jacked up to 11. You hear the “conflict and compromise” that made bebop famous (there are 2 or 3 drummers on this track!) You hear the skill of the musicians who can express complicated emotions with just a few notes.
And the more you listen to this, the more you’ll hear and the more you’ll enjoy. That’s what makes this jazz to my ears.
3. “The Transport Bridge” Michel Legrand 1968
Okay, let’s shelf the jazz history for a second and acknowledge that “Another Day of Sun” is a good song even if you don’t like jazz.
A lot of the music in La La Land pays homage to musical film. The guy who composed most of the original music in this movie, Justin Hurwitz, explicitly names Les Demoiselles de Rochefort as an influence on this movie and its score. Take a listen and I think you’ll hear why — that moment around the 1:01 mark sound familiar?
This track is a classic example of how jazz influences other genres and media. Legrand made amazing musicals (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) and the music was heavily inspired by jazz.
Right out of the gate on this track, you have super jazzy piano with a nice syncopated rhythm section and these quiet jazz club drums. If anything this piece is jazzier than most of the big numbers in La La Land.
There’s an awesome article at Billboard about the close relationship of jazz and musicals.
4. “Lil’ Darlin’” Count Basie’s Orchestra 1957
This playlist needs some Big Band love. While the jazz Sebastian loves tends to be pretty small groups with 3–5 musicians, there’s a long tradition of big bands in jazz.
When jazz was America’s most popular music genre, it was big bands like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman that were making the whole country get up on their feet and dance.
And big bands have their influence on musicals in general and La La Land in particular. “Another Day of Sun” has a 95 piece orchestra so… y’know… really big band.
This track is a bit of an oddball, because it doesn’t SOUND like a giant band. Actually, it reminds me a lot of the pared down and heart-breaking “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”. Sometimes, music is most powerful when it’s smaller and vulnerable.
This track features amazing playing from 16 or so people, but it feels intimate and effortless. That’s good musicianship.
5. “Japanese Folk Song” Thelonious Monk 1967
Gosh, I didn’t know where to fit this beauty in.
It’s literally in the movie. Part of it anyway. Ryan Gosling’s character rewinds the cassette tape in his car over and over to listen to one string of piano keys.
Then later he’s at home trying to hammer out those notes himself. He’s trying to get the phrasing just right. Trying to match the magic sound on that tape.
It’s the hypnotizing playing of Thelonious Monk.
Guys like Thelonious break all the rules. For example, I try to picture how all this jazz history fits together, and I imagine that there was a Bebop Movement followed by Cool Jazz followed by Blue Note followed by… you get the idea?
But the truth is that all this stuff was happening all at once. These guys were listening to each other and influencing each other. And they were listening to other musicians outside jazz and soaking it all in.
Thelonious is a great example of somebody who played in almost every era included on this playlist and his daring piano parts often defy categorization.
The way he’s soloing and then dancing with the alto sax… the simple phrases repeated with slightly different expressions or endings… the way he drifts slightly off the simple drum part when he wants to… the quiet moments when he lets the other musicians take the lead…
I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s beautiful.
To be honest, I don’t love Sebastian. He’s sort of mean. And he has a pretty narrow view of jazz. And he’s super preachy. But we have a few things in common…
We dream about things that weren’t in our heads or our hearts until the moment we heard a few notes played just the right way at just the right time.
That’s just the beginning!
Wow, it took me weeks to pick just 5 songs. There are sooo many more to listen to!
Hopefully you liked them. And they give you a starting point. You have youtube and spotify and all kinds of tools at your disposal to go find more of the music that you liked most.
I also highly recommend the book How to Listen to Jazz. Ted Gioia is super smart, and he also knows that he doesn’t know everything. The book is very easy to read and has a heavy focus on recommending tracks like the ones in this article by both historic and contemporary jazz musicians.
And of course go and listen to live jazz! You’ll love it. Or you won’t. But you’ll remember the experience either way. :)