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The First Five: One Man's Introduction To Jazz

A collage of records.
Christopher Toothman
A collage of records.

I'm old, so my earliest experiences buying music involve going to record stores in the Washington, D.C., area to pick up LPs. I frequented The Turntable near my home and the Soul Shack downtown. But, more often than not, I found myself browsing the bins in a store just south of Dupont Circle called Discount Records and Books.

I was buying folk, blues and rock, mostly. I'll never forget standing at the register, proudly holding my copy of The Mothers of Invention's We're Only in It for the Money — the one with the inside-out parody cover of Sgt. Pepper's with the Mothers in dresses. I looked over my shoulder to meet the gaze of an older patron, whose scornful glare could have peeled paint.

The store had a great staff; they were the best teachers for a young music fan like me. I talked regularly with all of them, especially Rusty Bogart, who would discuss the latest country blues reissues from Yazoo and Biograph. Then, one day, I decided I needed to learn about jazz, so I approached Thomas Paul, whom everyone called TP. He was a big guy with a medium 'fro. As I recall, when I asked to be enlightened, he thought for just a moment before he started pulling records. He had a sense of what I liked in other music, and he knew what I should hear.

These were not academic choices intended to educate me about the history of the music. There was no Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington — these were TP's personal choices. This was the music that leaped first to his mind, the stuff he really wanted me to hear: Bird and Diz, Two Hours With Thelonious, Charles Mingus' Better Get It in Your Soul and Live at the Five Spot, Vol. 1 by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.

There were five LPs in all. You may notice that there are just four titles above. I'm ashamed to say that I don't remember the fifth. My addled brain thinks it could have been Jazz at Massey Hall, the legendary collaboration featuring Charlie Parker (playing a plastic saxophone), Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. But I'm not sure. So I've subbed a disc I know I bought at Discount Records, and which may have been among that first five: Les Stances a Sophie by the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

So here are five jazz records, in no particular order — TP's First Five, if you will. They're not all easy listening, but they worked for me: I've been a fan of the music ever since.

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Tom Cole
Tom Cole is a senior editor on NPR's Arts Desk. He develops, edits, produces, and reports on stories about art, culture, music, film, and theater for NPR's news magazines Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered. Cole has held these responsibilities since February 1990.