Art Works Blog

Jazz Appreciation Month's No Joke

To help you kick off Jazz Appreciation Month, here are some listening suggestions from rising star jazz pianist Helen Sung and former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine.

Almost anything by Wayne Shorter, definitely one of my all-time favorites! It’s hard to pick only one tune from his album Atlantis. Thelonious Monk’s ballads are gems: "Reflections" or "Ask Me Now" are a couple of my favorites. I’ve been fortunate to play with the Mingus Big Band and I am in awe of the breadth of Mingus’ artistic range and achievements –- I think one of his most beautiful tunes is "Sweet Sucker Dance." I can’t leave out the master Herbie Hancock. It’s so hard to choose from his vast catalogue. The album Maiden Voyage…or Mr. Hands…Flood…I could go on and on. I’ve been getting into Joe Zawinul, and his "A Remark You Made" is a profound composition. ---Helen Sung

Philip Levine. Photo by Geoffrey Berliner

Well, “Body and Soul” would be the first, because of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and Charlie Parker. And Sonny Stitt has a fabulous solo on tenor sax. I love “Lover Man.” Great, poignant tune. The Charlie Parker “Lover Man.” One of the records, which is an absolute essential record, is terrible, because he’s having a nervous breakdown, right then and there, and you can hear it. He’s not playing as well as he should, but there’s something so poignant about it, so moving. It’s phenomenal. There’s a Louis Armstrong thing called “Weather Bird,” an old tune, and “West End Blues.” Oh my god. It’s fabulous stuff. [John] Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”—beautiful, even though McCoy Tyner hits the wrong note somewhere. It doesn’t matter. They just go on. It’s beautiful. “A Child is Born,” written by Thad Jones, who was a guy who played in Detroit. He’s one of the Jones Brothers—HankElvin and Thad were brothers. They’re actually from Pontiac, Michigan, about 20 miles away, but they all played in Detroit. And he wrote a thing called “A Child is Born.” About a year ago, I found it on Kenny Burrell, piano and guitar. And it is beautiful. You had the feeling this wasn’t rehearsed; they just did it. It’s a live performance. It’s sensational. Thad was a hell of a musician, because he was also an arranger for a lot of big bands. He played in Detroit a lot. My favorite musician is Lester Young. If I could play like anybody in the world, it would have been Lester Young. --- Philip Levine, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2011-2012

Read our full interview with Helen Sung here, and with Phil Levine here. And visit our NEA Jazz Masters page to learn more about the music and the people who make it.

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