6 Underappreciated Jazz Artists You Should Check Out

News | Apr, 25th 2016

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, so we thought we'd celebrate by delving into the careers of a handful of underappreciated jazz artists. 

(This survey represents just a small handful of the hundreds of artists who deserve more recognition, so stay tuned to the blog for upcoming posts on more artists worth investigating.) 

Now, in no particular order:

1. Johnny Griffin

This hard-blowing tenor saxophonist from Chicago was hardly unknown to his fellow musicians—he played in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and served a couple stints in Thelonious Monk's ensembles—but he never attained as much fame as peers like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Griffin cut his first album for Blue Note when he was just 28 and went on to release several dozen albums as a leader. His bold, rounded tone belied his 5'5" height, which earned him the nickname "Little Giant." Griffin spent the latter part of his career living in France and then the Netherlands, an absence that perhaps contributed to his relatively lower profile in the U.S. 

Start with: His fiery 1957 Blue Note release, Introducing Johnny Griffin.

2. Shirley Scott

Scott's soulful Hammond chops earned her the moniker "Queen of the Organ" and, as the Jazz Night in America video above attests, she regally presided over Philadelphia's jazz scene from her emergence in the 1950s until her death in 2002. She is famed for her own recordings as a leader and her long-running collaborations with tenor saxophonists Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Stanley Turrentine, whom she married in 1960. In her later years, she played more piano than organ and spent a significant amount of her energy on jazz education initiatives in Pennsylvania.

Start with: Her 1996 Candid album A Walkin' Thing finds a late-career Scott in full swing alongside Philly musicians whom she'd mentored.

3. Woody Shaw

Shaw ranks among the music's underappreciated trumpeters and is one of its most tragic figures. Mentored early on by saxophonist Eric Dolphy, Shaw was a technically gifted player and a harmonic visionary who redefined what was possible on the trumpet. As a 21-year-old, he appeared on and contributed three compositions to Larry Young's Blue Note classic Unity, and he led a prolific two-decade recording career as a leader. We should have gotten much more from Shaw: he died when he was just 44 due to complications from injuries sustained during a subway accident. 

Start with: Rosewood, Shaw's 1977 major label debut, showcases both his writing and arranging talents as well as his heady playing.

4. Abbey Lincoln

Endowed with a honeyed voice and the capacity to wring every last emotion out of a tune, vocalist Lincoln made a career not only out of delivering deeply felt renditions of standards but writing and singing her own material as well. Her earliest albums found her tackling the American songbook, but as she matured, she developed her own voice and created her own songs. She sang on We Insist!, an epochal album of jazz-activism from Max Roach (to whom she was married for seven years) and campaigned for civil rights throughout the 1960s.

Start with: Abbey Sings Abbey (2007) finds Lincoln at the top of her game performing her own songs.

5. Blossom Dearie

Few jazz musicians have been blessed with a name as apropos as Blossom Dearie's. Her airy, unadorned vocals and light touch on the piano complemented each other perfectly and helped her sweetly sing through much of the American songbook. With Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Jo Jones on drums, her self-titled album is an all-time classic. A self-styled "songwriters' singer," she favored witty, offbeat tunes from (also underappreciated) composers like Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough.

Start with: Her 1957 Verve release Blossom Dearie.

6. Earl Hines

Earl "Fatha" Hines isn't exactly an obscure figure, but it may be impossible to overly appreciate his impact on jazz. The piano player helped singer and bandleader Lois Deppe create some of the first recorded jazz in 1922 before moving to Chicago, where he connected with Louis Armstrong. The two became friends and shared a highly successful musical partnership that would result in some of the art form’s most beloved and influential records. Hines ultimately set out on his own, eventually starting a big band that would help launch the careers of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Hines's powerful rhythmic playing and keen ear for melody hastened jazz piano's evolution from stride to swing and laid the stage for bebop. Hines reunited with Armstrong in the 1950s but the latter's star always shone a bit brighter; still, his crucial role in jazz's progression is hard to overstate. Hines toured and recorded consistently until his death in 1983.

Start with: Live at the New School (1973), recorded when Hines was 69 and enjoying a career renaissance. 

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