Jazz for Readin’/Teachin’/Intellectualizin’

As a genre, jazz can often prove a difficult backdrop for other activities. By its very nature, it demands attention – syncopation and swung notes; improvisation; nuanced harmonies; technical phrases, solos. These qualities can make it a distracting medium should you find yourself simultaneously trying to be somewhat productive. As an elementary teacher, I had a few different classroom playlists that I created to both expose the kids to good music and to maintain a desired ambiance conducive to reading or independent work. I found that compiling jazz tunes to fit the bill (especially for immature jazz ears) was a difficult, but rewarding task. For today’s post, I’ve recycled some of the same material, with updates to include some recent finds. So here you go: a jazz playlist that is full of goodies, but optimally chilled for silent reading time, studying, or hammocking.


Blue in Green – Miles Davis

This song (off the timeless Kind of Blue record) really needs no introduction. It is one of my all-time favorites. I once heard a jazz expert (I believe that was his title) give a brief lecture on the album, and he described the timeless feel of this song as having a ‘heroin pulse’. Here’s a review found on allmusic.com by Thomas Ward:

“Blue in Green” is arguably the most beautiful piece of music on Kind of Blue. The ensemble playing reaches new levels of subtlety and transcendence, and the work benefits greatly from the introduction of pianist Bill Evans, one of Miles Davis’ greatest collaborators. Indeed, his piano part is magnificent, and his solo is a masterpiece of his unrivaled lyricism. The tempo of the tune is audaciously slow, and it’s easy for the listener to think that it will fall apart at any moment. It doesn’t,  however, due to the genius of the ensemble. “Blue in Green” is also a greatly important piece; it shows that the values of “cool jazz” can have huge artistic value – it’s not just laid-back music for the sake of it, it’s music of extraordinary depth of feeling.

Starmaker – Roy Hargrove

This album, Earfood, is one of my favorite jazz albums of all time. If you don’t know Roy Hargrove, get familiar. He’s one of the most talented trumpet/bandleaders out there right now. Unfortunately I understand he’s got an issue with heroin as well, which can (negatively) impact his live performances. This highly sensual song exemplifies everything I like about his playing: tasteful, lyrical phrases teased out with impeccable tone.

Toy – Cannonball Adderley & Bill Evans

This is the first of three songs on this playlist from the exceptional record, Know What I Mean. I like Cannonball’s style for its expression. He sounds like he’s talking! He’s especially playful on this one, appropriate given the title of this Cliff Jordan cover.

Waltz for Debby – Cannonball Adderley & Bill Evans

Now that the pasta is boiling, or your projects are otherwise on auto-pilot, the music relaxes a bit. Ha, just wanted to make sure you were paying attention – that bit comes from my last post. You can hear Bill Evans’ flourishes a bit more on this tune than the last. Very pretty song.

Julia – Medeski, Martin, Scofield, & Wood

An incredibly beautiful Beatles cover. Deeply emotional and rich. The subtle changes made by John Medeski on the chords played are brilliant. This may be my favorite song of all time.

Take Five – Dave Brubeck Quartet

After Dave’s recent passing, I had to include this timeless gem.

My Funny Valentine – Miles Davis Quintet

Frequently covered, but this is my favorite version. I love the piano intro.

Behind Closed Doors – John Scofield

Again, Scofield’s tone is sensational. I was previously unaware that this was a classic country cover. Worth a listen to compare: Charlie Rich – Behind Closed Doors. His ability to mold a country song in such a way makes me think it was his idea to do the cover of Julia (above).

Nancy (With the Laughing Face) – Cannonball Adderley & Bill Evans

Originally a Sinatra recording, this song makes me feel like I’m walking through an art museum. ‘Cause I would walk around about that that fast, without any urgency.

Be Good (Lion’s Song) – Gregory Porter

I tried to make the playlist strictly instrumental, but I couldn’t resist this one. Indy got a sneak peek at this one and said it reminded him of a modern Nat King Cole. I see the similarity, though I think Porter’s got more of a sensual, smooth sound. If you like him, I also recommend this tune about asking for a girl’s hand: Gregory Porter – Real Good Hands

The Stroke – The RH Factor

Roy Hargrove’s group from the early 2000’s. This song has an incredible intimacy.

Naima – John Coltrane

Coltrane’s wife inspired this ballad, which serves as a stark contrast to the more upbeat songs on the Giant Steps album.

Peace Piece – Bill Evans

You can tell that I like Bill Evans. Heard this on the radio on MLK day, on a jazz program dedicated to playing songs that reminded the DJ of Dr. King. The octave and fifth intervals that pervade remind me of Debussy. A truly peaceful tune to conclude the set. I hope you enjoyed!


3 comments on “Jazz for Readin’/Teachin’/Intellectualizin’

  1. Just a heads up, I think your Spotify playlist is a link to an old version or something. After the 4th song the playlist is different from the tracks you mention in the post. Really digging this Roy Hargrove, though. I’m going to pick up Earfood for sure.

  2. Great list, John. A couple old favorites on here for me, as well as some great new stuff.

    Blue in Green – like you, this is a personal favorite. A couple birthdays ago I got a book on the making of Kind of Blue, and the author listened to all the studio recordings, the original tapes. There’s a part on ‘Blue in Green’ at the end, after the track fades out, where they kept the tape rolling for a second… there’s some silence, and then you can hear Bill Evans say, “beautiful… just beautiful.”

    Starmaker – Really dig this track. I’m going to track down this album. It seems like this could, if it were weaker rhythmically or lyrically, fall into the category of smooth jazz, which I suppose is just a different say of saying cheesy jazz. The sax solo 3/4 of the way through is a little too frenetic for me, but the piano solo that follows more than makes up for it.

    Toy – This sounds like it could almost be a Christmas song. I’ll probably have to pick up this album as well.

    Julia – Another favorite; of course, you were the one who introduced me to MM&W. I also really love the chord changes in this song. Whatever kind of organ he’s playing, he just adds notes in layers, until you can feel the change coming, and it just hangs until it’s almost unbearable. Very evident in the last 3/4 of the song when the organ takes the lead.

    Behind Closed Doors – Very nice. You’re right about Scofield’s tone… it’s one of those signature sounds that you immediately recognize.

    Nancy (With the Laughing Face) – Didn’t quite grab me. The lack of urgency makes it harder to really engage with.

    The Stroke – I like this one. The bass line is what drew me in.

    Peace Piece – Lovely. You can really get lost in the melody. The octave work you’re talking me about reminds me of a boat rocking back and forth. Peaceful indeed.

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