My passage as a listener into the jazz world was accidental and fortuitous. As a young rock fan browsing the vinyl cutouts at Jack's Record Rack, I found one of Miles Davis' Live at the Blackhawk albums for $1.99 or so. Something about the moody cover appealed to me, so I bought it.
Not long after that, I heard my first live jazz performance. The shortlived Winterfest booked tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who'd made a remarkable comeback after some lean years. For a few bucks I heard one of the giants of his instrument play It's You or No One" and several other numbers.
I was lucky that my first encounters with the music were with truly great musicians. The recorded legacy of jazz is so vast now, it can be hard for a newbie or dabbler to figure out what to listen to next. Too many choices.
If you want to check out Duke Ellington, which of his 9 million recordings do you pick up or download?
There are many histories of and guidebooks to jazz. The Jazz Standards" (Oxford University Press, $39.95). a new book by music historian and pianist Ted Gioia, might help you with the Ellington conundrum. Gioia has written a short historical and musical essay on more than 250 songs commonly played by jazz musicians, then offers a selection of recommended recordings for each song. I have made these selections on the basis of their historical importance, influence on later artists, inherent quality, and originality of conception. At the same time, I tried to highlight a variety of interpretive styles." So, to stick with Duke, Gioia suggests several different recordings of In a Sentimental Mood" by the composer (including one with John Coltrane), as well as versions by Sonny Rollins, Art Tatum, Nancy Wilson, McCoy Tyner, Abdullah Ibrahim and Buddy Tate, and Chris Potter.