An Introduction to Jazz and Classical for the Mainstream Music Lover

At some point, mysterious forces convinced you these two genres were hopelessly lame. Let us de-program you.

Somewhere along the road of our musical acculturation, we were set upon by various forces, both sinister and benign.

They told us what to like and what to shun, lest we lose standing in whatever playground social circle we occupied. Various sub-genres of hip-hop, r&b, and rock were cool, while country music meant permanent exile.

But jazz and classical were so far down the musical food chain that there wasn't even a need to be warned away from them by your supposed betters: there was an unspoken understanding that these genres were simply not up for consideration.

But it didn't use to be this way: swing jazz was the EDM of its day, and on the cobblestones of 19th Century London and Paris, wigged, saber-carrying fops could often be seen listening through their carved ivory headphones to Chopin, Schumann, Bach. But somewhere along our collective cultural evolution, a shift took place.

Perhaps, as you grew older, you even recognized the importance jazz and classical music once had and saw that it influenced modern music in inextricable ways, but having shunned it your whole life, simply didn't know where to begin listening. To help you finally access these two woefully neglected genres, we've created an introduction guide to classical and jazz music for the modern music lover.

Stage One:

It's best to approach jazz and classical music like a novice outdoorsman: eager, but wary in the face of the unknown. So, let's start with a metaphorical stroll across a sunlit field before we try to scale any musical mountains.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may seem like an obvious suggestion, being one of a small handful of classical composers almost everybody can name, but the genius from Salzburg can't be matched for immediate accessibility and fun — especially his 27 piano concertos, the musical equivalent of quiet meadow strolls. Among his best are the 9th, 20th-24th and 27th. Runners-up: Ludwig Van Beethoven (symphonies 3, 7, 9), Frederic Chopin (piano works, especially the Ballades).

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major, K. 271, 'Jeunehomme' (Murray Perahia)


Likewise, the music of New York saxophone legend Sonny Rollins is the perfect jazz counterpart to Mozart: ebullient, personable, and a seemingly endless fount of melodic invention. Career highlights include Newk's Time, A Night at the Village Vanguard, The Bridge and Saxophone Colossus. Runners-up: Charlie Parker (assorted recordings for the Verve label), Clifford Brown (recordings co-led with drummer Max Roach), Bill Evans (Live at the Village Vanguard, Waltz For Debby).

Tune Up - Sonny Rollins

Stage Two:

Discarding the hiking analogy, let's pretend you're a tattoo artist who has just graduated from inking pig hides and moved on to his foolhardy friends eager to score a free tattoo, no matter how bad the result.


In jazz terms, this step could reasonably be embodied by several artists, but the one that springs most readily to mind is Charles Mingus. The composer/bass player's music, influenced by the giants of both swing and bebop, is wooly, unpredictable, and irascible - but with feet planted firmly in tradition. Essential Mingus includes Mingus Ah Um, Pithecanthropus Erectus and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Runners-up: Eric Dolphy (Iron Man, Out To Lunch), mid-60s Miles Davis (E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Miles in the Sky), Roland Kirk (Rip, Rig, and Panic, The Inflated Tear).

Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Full Album)


We're dealing here with rough equivalencies, and candidates for Mingus' classical counterpart for the novice listener are legion, but you'll struggle to find better than Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Putting aside his most famous work, a mega-hit (by classical standards) called Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev updates the emotionally turbulent Romantic-era (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, etc.) classical model, adding to it dissonance, extreme dynamic shifts, and almost jazzy rhythmic complexity. Major works include his five piano concertos, a violin concerto, symphonies 1 and 3 and Romeo & Juliet. Runners-up: Claude Debussy (piano works, La Mer, Maurice Ravel (Bolero, piano concertos, his string quartet in F major), Gustav Mahler (symphonies 5 and 9), Benjamin Britten (piano concerto), Samuel Barber (Adagio For Strings).

Prokofiev-Romeo and Juliet

Stage Three:

Shifting analogies yet again, now imagine that you've spent a few years cage-diving with enormous, blood-thirsty great white sharks and you're getting bored. You ask yourself, "Why not venture outside the cage?"


The classical music equivalent of swimming with sharks is Hungarian Bela Bartok, a bona fide modern genius. His output was scary and disquieting - and highly original. As points of entry into his extraordinary, but difficult, body of work, look no further than Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Runners-up: Igor Stravinsky (Rite of Spring, Firebird Suite), Dmitri Shostakovich (piano concerto no. 2, symphonies 5, 10). Alberto Ginastera (piano concertos).

Béla Bartók - Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta


The late 1950s and 1960s were, to put it lightly, a turbulent time for America. That instability was reflected in the music of the day, particularly jazz. Several figures emerged as leaders of the music's new wave, but Ornette Coleman is probably the best example. The Texas-born alto saxophonist shares at least one trait with Bartok: both mined and mutated traditional folk idioms from their respective countries. Coleman leaped right out of the gate: his first handful of recordings were like clarion calls, announcing the coming of a new order to a world thoroughly taken by surprise. These include The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Free Jazz, The Art Of The Improvisers, Ornette! and Ornette On Tenor, all recorded between 1959 and 1961. Runners-up: John Coltrane (A Love Supreme, Sun Ship, Transitions), Cecil Taylor (Unit Structures). Circle (Paris Concert). Dave Holland (Conference of the Birds).

The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet - Free Jazz

And with Coleman and Bartok ends this brief detour off the crowded highway of popular music and down the winding side road of jazz-and-classical. If you found it instructive, consider sharing your new wisdom with others, or simply be content to luxuriate in your newly expanded musical universe.

Matt Fink lives and works in Brooklyn. Go to for more of his work.

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