Kane Mathis: Kora Meets Jazz

AAJ Staff By

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We're adapting the way the kora and the oud are played...using contemporary choices within traditional forms.
Seattle's Kane Mathis is one of the world's leading performers on the kora, the distinctive (usually) 21-stringed West African harp instrument that is the major instrument of the Mandinka people of Mali; the Malian equivalent of the Western keyboard. Mathis has studied the instrument since the age of twenty, making several trips to The Gambia to learn from the hereditary musicians of the area. Now, he is the kora instrumentalist in Seattle's The Kora Band, a five piece jazz group that is integrating West African traditional sounds with jazz arrangements and instruments. The band is currently touring the West Coast, in support of Cascades (Origin, 2010).

Mathis played Brooklyn's famous Ninth Street jazz and world venue, Barbes, in July, with percussionist Timothy Quigley, and premiered a number or two from The Kora Band's then-forthcoming album.

Chapter Index
  1. The Kora Band
  2. The Trek To Africa
  3. Aspects Of West African Music
  4. The Future

The Kora Band

The Kora Band's leader and co-arranger is pianist Andrew Oliver, of Portland, Oregon. The band used to be under Oliver's name, but Mathis says the name was leading to some confusion. He says, "It was the Andrew Oliver Kora Band, and now we've changed it to The Kora Band due to confusion about the title. People were thinking that it was an ensemble of koras or that the band leader Andrew Oliver's name was Andrew Oliver Kora. We're putting out an album [Cascades] in September, for Origin."

To set the record straight, the band is a jazz trumpet quartet with the melodious addition of the kora, and is is made up of Mathis, Oliver, trumpeter Chad McCullough, bassist Brady Millard-Kish, and drummer/percussionist Marc DiFlorio.

The Kora Band is not Mathis' only project. He also has a series of solo albums, featuring his kora alongside African musicians, as well as his electric bass/drum/percussion-driven Sahel Band: "All of my CDs are available at KaneMathis.bandcamp.com, and I've [also] got a solo CD. I have my electric ensemble, The Sahel Band, and I have an album called 2005 (Self Produced, 2005), which is a collection of live in the studio recordings, some of which I've done with Guinean musicians. It's kind of a hodgepodge of different ensembles for the kora, some solo and some live stuff. [With The Sahel Band] I play guitar and kora, then there's percussion, electric bass."

The Sahel Band is, in contrast to the wholly acoustic Kora Band, an electric band: in the world of the agrarian kora, it is an interesting aspect of West African music that both during and after the colonial era vanished (during and after the 1960s), many local African musicians went electric. The electric guitar provides a good approximation of traditional instruments.

Of The Kora Band, Mathis says: "Andrew arranges all of the music, and sometimes I arrange some of the music when there are traditional songs involved. But Andrew and I both contribute repertoire. Some of it is traditional and some of it is original compositions."

Trumpet is a lead instrument in the band. The instrument is often a good foil for solo vocalists as well: illustrations come freely from avant-garde jazz, and, even with the recent release by trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, which has vocalist Hilary Kole on one track. The instrument is, of course, also a good substitute for voice, and, as Mathis will readily confirm, African music is strongly vocal. Mathis says, "I like trumpet a lot as a choice for that ensemble, because where we don't have vocals singing the main, strong melody lines, we have trumpet in that position. On some of the Congolese pieces we do, we have Andrew [the pianist] and Chad the trumpet player covering the harmonies that the two or three vocalists would play. So we can do essentially repertory versions of Cameroonian music and Congolese music, and all of the orchestration elements are intact because the trumpet can step in as that lead, strong melody, like a singer.

"A lot of arrangements center around the vocalists, like how many verses they sing, what kinds of verses they sing, the ways that the other instruments in the ensemble interact with that voice, [and these] are all choices that we're examining. [It's] our love of post-Colonial African pop records, essentially."

Much African music is vocal, and there is always a strong focus on melody. To the suggestion that all African music may be vocal, Mathis says, "I think it depends on the region, but certainly the Mandinka music and most of the music in Africa can be played with one vocalist and one or a few percussionists, because there is that strong melody and there's that strong rhythm that's associated with it, and in some cases in the kora repertoire the rhythm that the melody is played to is the only thing that distinguishes it from another song. Because it might have a similar melodic trajectory, but the rhythm will be different and the accent schemes will be different and that's how it's possible to differentiate one dance from another. And that's one of the interesting things about African music: there's not quite as much functional harmony as there are strong parts in a single melody.

"So in that way," Mathis continues, "a lot of the kora tunes can be reduced to a melodic line. And that melodic line is referenced in the tune's development in a very similar way to how that chord changes, and harmonies are a reference point of jazz standards and things like that.

"When you listen to a kora player play a version of a tune, the variations that they choose are extrapolations of single melody, and with kora players, when they're creating variations, they're always referring to a melody as opposed to chord changes. So, the development is how they bring that strong melody in and out of focus.

"In Mandinka music and kora performance, traditionally it depended on the singer's virtuosity with regard to the history associated with that particular piece. So if you were a Malian or Guinean radio singer, and you were on a radio program singing a history, you could easily sing a song for twenty or thirty minutes; by the time you go into all the families associated with the song, talking about how those seated in the region, the regions, all of the descendants of that family. That song could be really long.

"In another way, if you had to do a short version of the song, you could do a version of the song that only uses the main refrain, and that could be the most compact version of the song you could do. You could choose to do it either way.

The first track on the new album, "Sinyaro," features Mathis singing as well as playing kora: "That's me singing, yeah. That's a traditional song that's mainly praising a patron who is very generous to musicians, and that song is a distinctly western Mandinka tune. You see it a lot in Gambia and Senegal, you see it a lot in the Western territories. And that style of kora playing is not seen as much in Mali. It's more typical of Senegal.

"The kora is played in most of the territories that were the former Mandinka Empire, those countries being modern day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and a little bit in northern Burkinafaso.

"[The Mandinka Empire] had its height in the thirteenth century. It was kind of downhill from there, 'cause there were a lot of other empires that were vying for influence. There was the Ghana Empire... and there's still a very strong presence of Mandinkas in the former Mandinka territories. Generally, you [can] see the emphasis on agriculture, and the fact that you see a lot of main villages around trade routes. [That is] a legacy of the strong Mandinka influence. The Mali Empire was from the middle of Mali to west, south of the Sahara."

Other ethnic groups focused on less agrarian economies: "The Fulani are known for raising cattle rather than farming. And the Wolof Empire was based more on commerce. But it's generally believed that the Mandinkas were the first people to really farm the lands that they settled west of Mali, because at the time those areas were thoroughly unsettled, to the extent that they would just name a town after the first thing that they saw, for example 'Bantamnyimma,' which means 'the beautiful tree,' and they would just keep going from there."

And so evolved the environment of the kora.

Mathis says, "Kora is definitely very unique. You see the other instruments that are the ngonis, the hunters' ngonis. Those hunters' ngonis are also played by Mandinka hunters.

"But the kora is a harp," he continues. "It is a harp that is twenty two strings [most koras have twenty-one strings but Mathis' has twenty-two and] is unique to the Mandinkas. It's unique to the Mandinka professional musicians, meaning musicians that play not for religious or incantatory purposes but actually for a wage."

In the context of jazz, the kora may, in its majestic forward moving sonic beauty, provide its own challenges to the attainment of more typical jazz legato-style solos. "That's interesting," says Mathis. "That style of soloing is quite free. That kind of solo is very Gambian, in idioms and (it's) very developmental—that is, departing from the strong melody, a lot of upper pedal tones, a lot of rhythmic rather than melodic phrasing ideas, some right thumb pattern in the chord that goes I-V-I-I-V-I-V leaves a lot of room for the soloist to show their virtuosity. Gambian solo or 'birimintingo" styles tend to have phrasing derived more from a rhythmic arc rather that a melodic one. There is a lot of cross over between regions but generally speaking the tunes that are distinctly Gambian or 'Tilijii' region-specific have simpler melodic information in their accompaniment parts so solos tend to develop more freely. If you listen to any of the old style of Gambian musicians you'll hear that kind of soloing."

Kora music is quite extraordinary, when you consider the few digits employed in performance. Mathis: "It's thumbs and first fingers."

The kora could also be posited as providing a restriction on the conventional jazz instruments in a band, that is, in terms of the other instruments breaking free. Mathis says: "The kora is a diatonic harp limited by the range of keys that we can play songs in, and that's one of reasons that we use guitar on the new album. We experiment with new kora tunings. But each kora tuning allows for three main keys, so that gives us [some versatility], then the band would modulate and the kora would lay out. The kora will play a harmony that includes notes that the kora doesn't actually have. So I'll leave those notes out of the chord. Or I'll just play guitar on the song. But that hasn't actually been much of a problem because of Andrew's creative arrangement of tunes, but it's always the fact that the band is interested in that, working with the idioms of Mandinka music.

The Kora Band's album is evocatively named. Mathis explains: "[It's called] Cascades because the traditional solo lines, when the kora was first becoming a virtuosic solo instrument, were downward, they were moved mostly downward. Also The Cascades is a mountain range, which is really close to where we all live, and it's also the name of the train that takes Andrew from Portland to Seattle.

The musicians in the band are from the Northwest in general, but several have spent time in New Orleans. "Andrew's background is diverse," says Mathis. "He grew up in Portland and went to New Orleans to study jazz. In 2005 he left because of Hurricane Katrina. He and the whole rhythm section was in New Orleans together—Andrew, Brady the bassist [who is from Michigan] and Mark DiFlorio as well. The trumpeter, Chad, has been based in Seattle for awhile now."

The band is touring in September, 2010. Mathis says, "The tour will be as far [south] as San Francisco and Sacremento. Then in Portland on the way back up."

The Trek To Africa

As Mathis explains, his guitar style fit the music that he was to discover: "I was a sophomore in high school and I started to listening to South American music to look for some rhythmic inspiration in my guitar playing. I was tracing a lot of the influences of that back to Africa and was listening to some music from Ghana, and shortly after checking that [I] discovered the pitched instruments of Mandinka, [of] West Africa, and when I heard the kora it really captivated me because I was trying to do a lot of these kinds of things in my solo finger style playing, like playing a lot of different rhythmic variations in different registers at the same time, and I'd always had much more of a rhythmic approach to guitar playing. Even though I'd always played tonal instruments my inspiration in structure was always based in rhythm.

Mathis and friend Malayn Diabate

"So when I heard kora it was essentially like a twenty-two piece drum kit to me, the way it was played. It really resonated with my musical sensibility. So I spent a lot of time just listening to Mandinka music and how it was put together. (I) started making trips in Africa in about 1996. I stayed in a village with a group of hereditary musicians. I was going back every year for a while, staying two-and-a-half or three months with the Jobarteh family in a village called Brikama. The Jobarteh family is a very well-known family of herd musicians. Some of the best-known musicians in West Africa are Jobartehs. This particular family is every interesting as they have a lot of the key players in Gambia's music scene. My teacher, for example, was the adopted son of Alhadji Bai Konte, who is one the greatest musical exponents Gambia has ever produced. And he was touring all over the world in the early '70s."

Eventually Mathis was playing for the Gambian President. He says, "It was about my fourth trip there and one of my friends in the compound told me there was festival the Gambian President was throwing. We played at the first annual Gambian heritage festival with my group Tirmakang Ensemble, in the president's village of Kanilai. He said, 'Well they're inviting groups, we should take our group.' Which was two koras and our teacher's daughter singing. [So] we signed up and went to the festival. The festival lasted ten days and we slept outside on a patron's porch and just dialogued and spoke with other musicians and we got to play a couple of times for the president." The band played as the President was walking through the crowd, and then at the band's concert at the festival.

The kora is analogous to the piano in Western music. It is the string-like, harp-like foundation of the area's music. Mathis says, "I would say so, because in the kora you have the lower register which can have accent schemes that come from the drumming styles of Gambia. You have high note variations that can come from the ngoni styles. You have the middle voices that can come from balafon or vocals themselves. And so I would say that that's an appropriate analogy because kora has so many colors [that] the aspects of Mandinka musicality can come out in it.

It's like the piano is kind of an orchestra in a box, so to speak."

The kora has already been featured in jazz, for example, by the late Don Cherry. Mathis: "Don Cherry played with kora players for sure. He also himself played the hunter's harp, the ngoni, which is a relative of the kora. My teacher definitely remembers meeting Don Cherry when he went there. His aptitude on the instrument from a point of view of wanting to achieve a traditional vocabulary on it [was not great], but the fact that he was using it and the fact that it was African I think really did make an impact on people."

Mathis is also an expert at the oud, the middle Eastern guitar-like instrument of Turkey. He describes how he discovered the oud: "In the music conservatory I went to I had a Turkish girlfriend who was in the guitar department with me, and she and I were together for a really long time. When I was checking out music from other places and Africa, I heard a lot of the North African music from Algeria, Tunisia Morocco, places like that where they had oud. Even the Sudan and Egypt.

So I'd heard oud and experienced it as an African instrument, but I'd also heard a little bit of Indian classical music in Chicago. But I was always interested in musical traditions that had a single melodic line and no harmony and which also used microtones. I had a chance to go to Istanbul in '98 and '99 and study with Mutlu Torun at the ITU Conservatory in Istanbul, and then I did a five and a half year apprenticeship for oud study with the oud recitalist Munir Nurttin Beken. I have spent most of my time up until recently just dealing strictly with the traditional ways of playing them, and I haven't yet adapted the instruments to modern contexts until recently, just to make sure my traditional vocabulary in both of them was really, really solid and well-rooted."

Mathis has been writing music for both kora and oud for non-band contexts: "I'm composing some dance music for Catherine Cabeen, who's danced with Martha and Bill T Jones, and we're adapting the way the kora is played for some of the stuff that we've been working on, and the way the oud is played. And in general I'm starting to do it more and more, using traditional forms but using contemporary choices within those forms—choices of notes and behavior of certain scales and changing them a little bit from their traditional contexts, and using other instruments as well."

Mathis says the time he allocates to African music, as compared to Turkish, is about 50/50: "It's pretty even right now. I do a lot of Turkish and Greek music on the oud as well as contemporary stuff. I just finished a (summer term) residency on Turkish music at the University of Washington School of Music, and that took up a lot of my time. Now we're going to focus on this album with The Kora Band. So it goes back and forth."

Electric West African Music

It is not only in The Kora Band that employs jazz instruments with the kora. The Sahel Band has also used saxophones: "Yes, we definitely do [use jazz instruments]. In The Sahel Band sometimes we have saxophone players play with us. To us it seems natural because we're used to listening to some of the popular music that came out after independence and there are all kinds of horns all over those albums."

Kane Mathis with Oud

Surprisingly, colonialism was useful for African groups. Mathis says, "It actually gave the bands a lot of work. Some of these new top electric ensembles would entertain the diplomats for example. A lot of people accredit the rise in South American dance forms to the colonial preference for samba and rhumba, to the point where groups like Les Merveilles de Mali and Los Afro-Salseros de Senegal were sent to Cuba to learn Cuban music and came back playing violins and piccolos, and singing in Cuban Spanish. So in a lot of ways I think the colonial presence generated some work for them as well. And once they had independence in places like Guinea there is/was a huge push on the part of the government to reinvigorate traditional arts. Electric ensembles were one of the mediums for that. So the electric bands would not necessarily just play rumbas and sambas and dance styles that were popular, but they would also play their own traditional music on these instruments."

Mathis' Sahel Band, whose self-titled, self-produced debut was released in 2008. contrasts with The Kora Band in that it is an electric African ensemble. The band exists alongside The Kora Band in that it is constituted by Mathis when he has the opportunity. He says, "We play a lot at a club called the Triple Door, in Seattle. Basically when I move myself I reconstitute The Sahel Band in different places and in different contexts. The Sahel Band, with its original personnel hasn't done much touring."

"We have the same bassist [as in The Kora Band]. The Sahel Band is a lot more heavy-handed than The Kora Band project. It's a lot more arrangements and plays less with texture. It's a kind of more modern recreation of straight-up Mandinka rock, in a way."

"Mandinka rock" is a term some people may not have heard before. Mathis waxes on about musical terms and "genres": "We have all the terms that the music industry has latched onto like Afro Pop and Afro Beat, and there's a certain kind of rock music coming out of West Africa, out of West Guinea and Mali, where the pop or rock music has the kick drum patterns that are essentially lifted from dun dun parts. This is different from the Senegalese music, and it's different from the African salsa. It's its own kind of thing. It's essentially electric traditional Mandinka music. So the drum set parts come from traditional drum ensemble choices."

African musicians quickly utilized the electric guitar. Mathis explains, "The electric guitar had a lot of versatility because (it) could be played like an ngone, it could be played like a kora. In Guinea there is a particular down up right hand picking style that imitated the balofon very well. The down up of the right hand imitated the right left or left right of the balafon. [The electric guitar] was the perfect instrument to bring all these traditional idioms of various instruments into an electric band concept."

Mathis also spoke about some well-known African musicians, one of whom is a part of the Mandinka tradition, Baaba Maal: "He's a classic example of a true bard—they use the word 'grio' or 'jeli'—because all of his songs have the common poetry forms you would see in bardic West African traditions. He's very well-versed in the Mandinka forms and often uses kora and ngone and the classic Mandinka epic song forms. But he's really instinctive because the place where he was born, which is Podor, has a very strong presence of pulaar speaking people. They live basically around the Senegal River and they have their own kingdom of Futa Tooru, which I don't think I'm wrong in saying is a minor kingdom in the scope of that part of the world, so he's a huge figure that's carrying around this legacy and singing in pulaar and making that language world known. He represents a lot of different traditions. He does the Fulani music, singing in pulaar, he does some of the Mandinka singing, some Mandinka forms with pulaar lyrics, mixing with club and European pop styles as well. So he crosses into a lot of different territory."

Maal can be contrasted with Afro Beat's Fela Kuti, of Nigeria. "It's interesting," says Mathis, "because the legacy of Afro Beat, Fela and Femi, and the whole tradition that they started is as far as I know a truly contemporary African form. That form was inspired by Fela's experience in America and hearing black music. But interestingly it performs a very similar function to the griots or jeli of the Mandinka in that he used his music, his compelling music and charisma, also a feature of Mandinka professional music, to spread a message, essentially. "I feel that one thing that can be said about all African musicians is their incredible talent to adapt. That's Continent-wide. [It's] not only an ability to adapt but an interest in adapting their traditions to new contexts."

It is an exciting time for current music, as more and more Western musicians are uniting their sounds with world music. As Mathis' percussionist at Barbes, Timothy Quigley, said, "It's really happening now."

Mathis says, "I feel like people are more open and interested now. We're able to check out more music from around the world so much easier than before that it's just getting easier to trade music and let people know about different things. There have been so many successful collaborations with musicians around the world, people like Ry Cooder, for example, or Sting, who are bringing other elements into their music. These kinds of collaborations are opening doors for people and making them more emotionally and artistically and aesthetically available for surprises."

The kora is tuned from C below middle C up to B two octaves above middle C. "It depends on what you tune it, to because a lot of people tune it to their voices," says Mathis. "But basically you have three octaves plus two notes. The first octave is not completely filled out, so you have one, five, six, seven and then one, and that's your first octave. That's twenty-two strings. The reason why I say twenty-two strings is because my kora has an extra low string that a lot of people use in southern Gambia. That's an A. So in my lowest octave I have F A C D E, and then I go back to F, and then I have the full octave and then I have another full octave."

Mathis has played on many albums. He says, "I have played with Macedonian groups and Greek groups, and [on] other projects. I have three [solo albums], and there's one that I made really long ago, which is not up on my page, which is called Bantam Ba Kouyate (Self Released, 1998), which you might be able to find, and that was the album that appeared on Gambian radio quite a lot and it was an interesting album because I recorded it live in The Gambia, in my dorm room essentially. All just live. And it got a lot of airplay on radio Gambia which was really special for me because so many notable players had been actual radio musicians, and just to have that approval was really special.

The other album I have which is an interesting album is called Kora And Percussion (Self Produced, 2004), and it's available from CDBaby. That is a live radio set I did with a percussionist of instrumental pieces using only traditional percussion. We basically recorded it on the radio in Seattle live in one take. We didn't add many effects, didn't add any editing. We just put the album out as the broadcast was."

"It's all traditional music. Even in the traditional music the forms are improvised. That's when you decide how long you want to play a song for—you tailor it. So we tailor the traditional songs to the broadcast like a jazz musician would play a traditional song for as long as he wants to or doesn't want to.

Mathis developed his singing to add to the kora. He says, "I sing just because I felt like the aspect of the voice in kora music was an important aspect and it was something I wanted to deal with, and it was a good way to practice using Mandinka. And the voice is a really compelling instrument. And it's such a different texture. You have this wind instrument over a plucked instrument, and it's a really interesting ensemble, those two things. And also because when you have a band, it's nice to have a singer and I was the only one who could really do it, so I started singing the Mandinka songs mostly out of necessity and interest, not out of having any skill as a singer, although I'm trying to develop it."

He adds, "Traditional Mandinka music is mostly sung. I would say all of the pieces are songs. You can play an instrumental version of the song, again similar to a jazz tune where you can sing the words or you can just play the head instrumentally.

This suggests that there could be, potentially, an easy translation into playing the music with jazz instruments. "Yeah, for sure," says Mathis."There may be an increasing number of these kinds of crossovers: "Yeah. Also I think the vocal phrasing of a lot of Mandinka music is really interesting and a little bit different than some of the choices many of us would make. So they're an interesting thing to study as well."

Mathis describes the principle differences between Western popular singing and Mandinka music: "Instead of a rhythm or a time signature you have an accent scheme. And so instead of having a pulse, per se, that orientates your rhythm, you have something that's a little bit more like a clave, and vocal phrases will end on important parts of the bass accent schemes in ways that make melodic lines begin and end in places which would be atypical for a lot of American and European composers.

"[Examples are] anything by most of the singers, anything by Ami Koita, who has a lot of great albums out, the song on the new Cascades album, by The Kora Band, called "Dakang," is a good example. That has really nice kora and voice [parts] that show the freeness of the voice and how it skates over and has a really distinctive phrasing arc that I think is unique to Mandinka music."

This appears to be a result of characteristics of African musicianship. Mathis explains: "I think it's because the rhythmic aesthetic is very forward moving, whereas in non African students of African music, when you play a repeating pattern it will sound [like that], but when you hear the African musicians play that repeating pattern it sounds progressive and it sounds forward moving. This is the first thing you notice with a new kora student from America or Europe. 'Cause if we count off a jazz tune or a classical tune, or even a folk tune, we might say '1-2-3-4' and snap our fingers, and it has this kind of verticality to it. Whereas if you ask, say, a Mandinka person how the beat goes, they might not snap their fingers in a quarter note. They might say, 'It's 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4....'

"A good example would be to take something like a clavé and imagine that as your beat, instead of a quarter note. I've heard a couple of musicians say to me, 'Well if you hear a vocal line, just only the vocal line of a rumba or a samba, you can tell which direction the clavé's going by the vocal phrasing, and I think it's the same thing in African music." Maybe it is the example of the broad African river, smooth and always sliding forward with inevitable movement: "Yes definitely," says Mathis.

Adding acoustic bass to the kora and drum is also a fruitful marriage. Mathis says it makes a really great ensemble sound. He has played in the format frequently.

A further step may be film music. Mathis says, "I'm working on some new kind of electronic compositions with a film composer in Seattle, named Steven Cavett, and that could definitely find its way into film. I'm a dance accompanist [with guitar and percussion] for my day job at the University of Washington Dance Department, and just dealing with being a dance accompanist for the last for the last eight years now, matching music and the visuals, is something that I really connect with."

The Future

With The Kora Band's first album out shortly and the band's tour imminent, the members have not yet decided on the format for a follow up album, but there may be several options on the table. Mathis reveals, "We have a lot of ideas for projects, specific things. It's hard to know what is going to come into play. I've suggested the idea of having The Kora Band play with a string quartet, that kind of thing. It may be that the best thing for us to do after this is to follow it up with an album that shows more of our kora sound. As a band we haven't really decided what the next step is as far as recorded product goes for us."

Kane Mathis' idea for kora, jazz band and string quartet would be a true meeting of worlds, West African music, jazz and Western classical instruments.

Selected Discography

Kane Mathis, Siloo (Self Released, 2010)

The Kora Band, Cascades (Origin, 2010)

The Kora Band, June 2009 Studio Session (Origin, 2009)

The Kora Band, Live At Jimmy Maks 10-9-09 (Self Released, 2009)

The Kora Band, Just 4 U (Origin, 2009)

The Sahel Band, The Sahel Band (Self Released, 2008)

Kane Mathis, 2005 (Self Released, 2005)

Kane Mathis, Kora And Percussion (Self Produced, 2004)

Photo Credits

Photos Courtesy of Kane Mathis



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