Jazz music presents the height of musical sophistication and technical ability. The genre is awash with virtuosos and masters who are responsible for some of the most impressive and most compelling records in the history of music.
Yet while jazz music is celebrated by a community of ardent fans and critics, the fact remains that jazz has not generally enjoyed the same levels of commercial success as the likes of rap, rock, or even classical music.
The albums on this list are exceptions to the rule, all being gold or platinum certified, selling between 400,000 and 4 million copies.
Let’s find out more about these best-selling jazz albums that stormed the music world.
10. Saxophone Colossus (1957) – Sonny Rollins
- 400,000 copies
Saxophone Colossus should be an essential part of anybody’s jazz album collection. Sonny Rollins EP has stood the test of time and is considered one of the greatest ever jazz recordings.
Perhaps the album’s most famous track, ‘St. Thomas’ is a lively song that highlights Rollins’ passion for both Caribbean music and true mastery of the saxophone. The EP also features the bebop-inspired ‘Moritat’ and uptempo ‘Blue 7.’ Every composition displays Rollins’ technical genius and an ability to express a range of feelings through his arrangements.
9. Giant Steps (1960) – John Coltrane
- 400,000 copies
John Coltrane’s iconic 1960 album Giant Steps is noteworthy for its use of complex chord progressions designed to push the boundaries of traditional jazz harmony. The EP features Coltrane playing mainly on tenor saxophone alongside Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums.
The record’s title track ‘Giant Steps’ is a brilliant composition, fast tempoed and with complex chord changes that require an advanced level of technical skill. Giant Steps is considered one of the greatest jazz albums ever made, a permanent record of Coltrane’s genius and his impact on the development of jazz.
8. The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959) – Ornette Coleman
- 450,000 copies
Saxophonist and Composer Ornette Coleman released his revolutionary jazz album The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. The EP highlights the use of “free jazz” which focuses less on rigid traditional jazz structures and leans more heavily on spontaneous improvisation. On the record, Coleman shuns traditional chord changes with the musicians instead given the freedom to experiment freely both in terms of rhythm and harmony.
The Shape of Jazz to Come features songs such as jazz ballad ‘Lonely Woman’ and up-tempo effort ‘Congeniality’ which shines a light on the musicians’ technical skill and creativity. The EP is recognised as one of the most significant jazz albums of all time – an album that pushed the genre’s boundaries and influenced many future generations of jazz musicians.
7. The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (1963) – Charles Mingus
- 500,000 copies
The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was released in 1963 by bassist and composer Charles Mingus. It features a substantial ensemble in the form of an eleven-piece band that includes woodwinds, brass and strings sections.
The EP is structured as a ‘six-part suite’ with each section building on the motifs and themes crafted in the previous one. The album is rightly considered one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time with Mingus’ creative compositions and inventive bass playing. Stand out tracks include the moody and atmospheric ‘Solo Dancer’ and frenetic song ‘Group Dancers.’
6. A Love Supreme (1965) – John Coltrane
- 500,000 copies
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is widely regarded as a masterpiece, praised not only for its technical genius but also it’s spiritual and emotional depth. This four-part suite is an engaging record of Coltrane’s religious beliefs and personal struggles. The EP is a fascinating blend of free jazz and modal jazz by using scales with Coltrane’s tenor saxophone the driving force through both complex and intricate compositions.
A Love Supreme is a lasting account of Coltrane’s virtuosity and his connection to the music he loved to play. The album’s influence can be heard in countless recordings of jazz even today with its message of love, spirituality and redemption still resonating with modern listeners today.
5. Getz/Gilberto (1964) – João Gilberto and Stan Getz
- 625,000 copies
A landmark record in the history of jazz, this legendary bossa nova album was released in 1964, seeing a collaboration between saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto – with vocals provided by Gilberto’s wife Astrud.
The EP is considered a fusion of American jazz and Brazilian bossa nova which combines to create a very distinctive sound. Perhaps the album’s most famous track ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ went on to become a worldwide hit.
Overall, Getz/Gilberto‘s impact helped to popularise bossa nova in America and brought attention to their style back in Brazil. The album is a prime example of how the power of music transcends cultural boundaries and brings people together.
4. What A Wonderful World (1967) – Louis Armstrong
- 1.05 million copies
Released in 1967, Louis Armstrong’s timeless album What A Wonderful World arrived a year after the release of his iconic song of the same name. The album showcases a collection of classic jazz standards alongside several original creations that are all performed with Armstrong’s signature charm and style.
The EP is renowned for finally introducing the world to Armstrong’s incredible talent as both a musician and vocalist. His unique vocal tones and distinctive trumpet are at their peak on this record where he injects new life into classic tunes like ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and ‘Blueberry Hill.’ For many Jazz fans the album has since become a beloved and classic masterpiece.
3. Head Hunters (1973) – Herbie Hancock
- 1.1 million copies
Often described as a groundbreaking album, Head Hunters by jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock was first released in 1973. The EP marked his move into a new funk-influenced sound that would become the long-lasting style found within his music.
The album’s innovative use of synthesisers and electronic effects alongside its heavy grooves, created a fresh new sound. The opening track ‘Chameleon’ features an iconic Hancock keyboard riff and ‘Watermelon Man’ showcases Hancock’s incredible musical vision by blending different styles cohesively.
2. Time Out (1959) – Dave Brubeck Quartet
- 3 million copies
Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet has a superb, distinctive sound which incorporates unusual complex rhythms and time signatures that helped shift possibilities in the genre, adding a new level of rhythmic sophistication. The iconic record found significant commercial success, ultimately making it the second best-selling jazz album ever.
The album’s most famous track is ‘Take Five,’ which remains one of the most recognizable jazz tunes of all time, utilising a then revolutionary example of 5/4 timing. Other quality numbers include ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ and ‘Strange Meadow Lark’ that mix traditional jazz with world music influences.
1. Kind of Blue (1959) – Miles Davis
- 4 million copies
Frequently described as the greatest jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue is considered a masterpiece of improvisation. The EP features a legendary ensemble of musicians including saxophonist John Coltrane, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and pianist Bill Evans.
The iconic album’s tracklist includes ‘All Blues’ and ‘So What’ which both display the group’s amazing chemistry and ability to craft beautiful improvisationed melodies. Kind of Blue is a favourite among jazz enthusiasts and casual listeners alike. A true masterpiece that captures the creative essence of jazz in a timeless way, and unsurprisingly, the best-selling jazz album of all time.
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