What Are The Best Live Jazz Albums?

What are the best live jazz albums? Below you will find a readers poll where you can vote and see the results.

Jazz thrives in a live environment and famous recordings go back to the 1930s. Playing in front of a crowd can inspire soloists to push themselves to their limits.

When I started this blog, I had no idea how many live jazz albums there are. Coming from a rock background, I’m used to artists having a handful of live albums but the best known jazz artists have forty, fifty or more.

This is one of the reasons why people who aren’t jazz enthusiasts and just want to dip their feet into the water find jazz a difficult genre to get to grips with and need some guidance.

Yes there are the big names – Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington – but I think most non-enthusiasts would struggle to name more than about a dozen acts and would certainly struggle to name a few artists by genre like bebop or hard bop or fusion.

Then there are the well known jazz tunes like Take Five and Mack The Knife but again knowledge quickly runs dry as few jazz songs cross over into the mainstream.

That’s why I’d like your help to make recommendations for the best live albums by jazz artists and groups.

There are two things to do:

  1. Vote in the poll below;
  2. Tell me if you think I’m missing an essential live album by leaving a comment.

The Main Contenders?

From the swing/big band days, perhaps albums by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong or Benny Goodman will dominate.

These bands may have been at their best in the 1930s and ’40s but can great performances compensate for primitive recording techniques?

Or perhaps the bebop of Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie will get plenty of votes?

Or the modal developments of Miles Davis or John Coltrane? Or the more extreme free jazz developments of Ornette Coleman?

Or will the popular hard bop of the 1950s and ’60s dominate?

Even though he’s not a favourite of mine, Miles Davis deserves a poll of his own as he has changed his style so often and pioneered many different types of Jazz. He’s got one and so have many of the other leading names (see further down the page).

Perhaps, in your opinion, the best live jazz albums don’t come from the classic era of jazz from 1930s to 1970s but are much more recent? You’ll need to give me a helping hand so please use the comments section at the bottom to make your recommendations.

Or perhaps the list of best live jazz albums will echo a list of the best studio recorded jazz albums? After all, albums like Kind Of Blue and Bitches Brew,  (Miles Davis), A Love Supreme and Giant Steps (John Coltrane), Saxophone Colossus (Sonny Rollins), Ah Um (Charles Mingus), Time Out (Dave Brubeck) and The Blanton-Webster Years (Duke Ellington) are very extensively praised so will the closest live albums also prove popular?

My Favourite Five Live Jazz Albums

Since I’m asking you to reveal the albums that you think are the best live recordings, I’d better share with you my thoughts.

As I’m going to do this for the different categories, I’m approaching it as a desert island selection where I can have five live albums from each genre which creates an issue with crossovers but jazz doesn’t crossover unless I create more focused polls for jazz fusion, swing, bop etc.

Let’s start with artists that I can’t imagine living without.

Three spring to mind – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy. These tend to be the artists I turn to first when I feel in the mood for jazz and it helps that Mingus and Dolphy played together. If I was looking at studio sets, the Billie Holiday/Lester Young songs would definitely feature but I don’t think there’s a live album that comes close to fitting the bill.

I have to have (at least) one live albums featuring Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy but it’s not that obvious which ones, especially as I can combine the Mingus/Dolphy selections if I desire.

With Ellington, I think I’d overlook the obvious At Newport 1956 album in both original and complete forms. The romantic in me is tempted to go back to the 1940s when big band swing provided joy in such desperate times. One option is Duke At Fargo 1940 which features the classic Blanton-Webster band and their studio songs would feature if the focus was on studio albums. Another is Carnegie Hall Concerts January 1943 with its version of Black, Brown and Beige. Of the later recordings, Live At The Blue Note from 1959 is an album I really like as Ellington brings his band to a small, intimate jazz club.

The first choice for Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy is much easier. It’s Cornell 1964 which is probably my favourite live jazz album as it has a bit of everything. Other recordings from this 1964 reunion are also terrific, especially The Great Concert Of Charles Mingus recorded in Paris but there’s much too much crossover to include both.

Charles Mingus Sextet With Eric Dolphy Cornell 1964
Cornell 1964 by the Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy is my first choice as one of my five favourite live jazz albums.

My problem is that I don’t think that’s enough so I want at least one more. That makes it a toss up between Mingus At Antibes or Eric Dolphy At The Five Spot Complete.

There are some great live albums by Thelonious Monk and the combination of the two Johnny Griffin albums at the Five Spot in 1958 (In Person and Misterioso) is very tempting to be included but there’s an obvious choice for me. That’s Live At The It Club Complete with Charlie Rouse in 1964.

Thelonious Monk Live At The It Club

What else? Charlie Parker? Dizzy Gillespie? Lester Young? Miles Davis? Cannonball Adderley? Possibly. John Coltrane? Bill Evans? No, not as band leaders. I haven’t really taken to any piano-led trios because I want the reeds or horns too much.

More big band swing? Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong? Possibly.

What about jazz with vocals? Is there a live recording of Billie Holiday without Lester Young that’s good enough? One of those starring Ella Fitzgerald with Duke Ellington is tempting and I’d probably go for Duke And Ella At The Cote D’Azur. I have another category for Light Jazz and what I call Lounge Music where the vocal jazz albums would fit in alongside Sinatra etc.

I have a bit of a funny relationship with Miles Davis. I feel brainwashed that he’s this great innovator and the only realistic modern challenger to Armstrong and Ellington as the greatest and most important jazz artist. But I have issues with his trumpet playing which, in my opinion, can be the weakest part of his best known live albums. Can I ignore him or is it that I’m blocked in some way, and if or when I’m unblocked, I’ll appreciate his genius?

The eras I like best are the early to mid 1960s – In Person Friday & Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk Complete, My Funny Valentine with or without Four & More, At Carnegie Hall with Gil Evans or perhaps I should persevere with The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel to understand why so many others rave about it, despite the trumpet sounds.

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie can be combined easily enough in one be-bop statement or considered separately but I only admire and not adore the albums I’ve heard. That’s not good enough for a top 5 desert island jazz album. The same applies with Lester Young because I feel as if his greatest era hasn’t given us a live recording.

It’s certainly hard to narrow down your choices if your stakes are as high as desert island discs.

I don’t think I can live without Mingus At Antibes so that’s my second Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy selection. There is no duplication of tunes with Cornell 1964 and the feeling of the album is very different.

Charles Mingus At Antibes
Mingus At Antibes is my second Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy live album.

I’m going to have to give albums 4 to 5 more thought and make the hard choice of which Duke Ellington album I feel most commitment to.

Don’t be surprised if I change my mind, but my choice of Duke Ellington live album is the 1959 expanded recording from Live At The Blue Note. I like the idea of taking his big sound to a jazz club.

Duke Ellington Live at the Blue Note


My final choice is the Eric Dolphy and Booker Little album, Live At The Five Spot Complete, both stars were lost tragically young, with Little passing away weeks after this albums was recorded in 1961 and Dolphy died a few weeks after the Mingus 1964 tour of Europe ended.

Eric Dolphy Live At The Five Spot Complete

Selecting five jazz albums is hard.

If I had another five choices, that would allow me to find another three Mingus and two Dolphy live albums or is it the other way around?

I tend to think of piano based trios and solo piano albums as background music but they can have a charm and my choice would be the combined Sunday Night At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby by Bill Evans.

On a Desert Island, I could live without a Miles Davis album, but I might find the time to appreciate what I’m missing and nearly everyone else see. I’d probably chose the combined In Person: Friday & Saturday Nights At The Black Hawk Complete.

John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins miss out. None of their live albums come close to making my final list.

There is always a decision to make about whether you want to go wide across many artists or deep into the careers of a few.

If I go wide, I’m going to include albums by Dave Brubeck and Charlie Parker but my temptation is to go deep.

I want more Mingus, more Ellington, more Monk.

It’s over to you now but I wouldn’t repeat my desert island disc choice, often you’ll find that your first instincts are best as you take into your subconscious.

The Poll – What Are The Best Live Jazz Albums?

This poll is longer than the others featured on the website. That’s partly because jazz is such a large category and I haven’t tried to split it into smaller, more specialised polls in the same way as I have done with rock. I’ve tried to look beyond the big names, partly because they have their own polls – : – Louis Armstrong –  Count BasieJohn ColtraneMiles DavisEric DolphyDuke EllingtonDizzy Gillespie –  Billie HolidayCharles MingusThelonious MonkCharlie ParkerLester Young

I know it doesn’t feature enough modern jazz but my own tastes are stuck in the 1930s to 1960s. By all means, tell me about great live albums I’ve missed by leaving a comment.

Please pick the five albums that you’d recommend most strongly.  This is hard but again, if you want to recommend more albums, you can do so by leaving a list in the comments. I’d also appreciate it if you could help promote the poll on social media and forums as the number of voters for live jazz albums is much smaller than the 500 plus voters for hard rock and heavy metal or 300 plus voters for progressive rock.

What Are The FIVE Best Live Jazz Albums?

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You can get these albums from Amazon.com – Amazon.co.uk.

You can see the complete list of readers polls at Live Album Polls.

What Great Live Jazz Albums Have I Missed?

I know the poll is biased towards the bigger names but what great albums have I missed?

What should be included in the genre poll but isn’t?

What Other People Say Are The Best Live Jazz Albums

UDiscoverMusic.com – The 50 Greatest Live Jazz Albums

This doesn’t list the albums in any order of preference but goes on to select ten albums to feature . These are:

  1. Bill Evans The Complete Live At The Village Vanguard 1961
  2. John Coltrane Live At The Village Vanguard
  3. Miles Davis & Thelonious Monk Live At Newport 1958 1963
  4. The Quintet Jazz At Massey Hall
  5. Erroll Garner Concert By The Sea
  6. Wynton Kelly Trio & Wes Montgomery Smokin’ At The Half Note
  7. Duke Ellington At Newport Complete
  8. Sonny Rollins A Night At The Village Vanguard
  9. Ella Fitzgerald Mack the Knife: Ella In Berlin
  10. Keith Jarrett The Koln Concert

AllAboutJazz.com – The Ten Best Live Jazz Recordings (1953-65)

This is arguably the most important and exciting period for jazz. Personally I’m not convinced about these choices but you might agree because it doesn’t include any little known surprises:

  1. Bill Evans At The Village Vanguard 1961
  2. John Coltrane At The Village Vanguard 1961
  3. Miles Davis At The Plugged Nickel 1965
  4. Charles Mingus At Antibes 1960
  5. Duke Ellington At Newport 1956
  6. Sonny Rollins At The Village Vanguard 1957
  7. John Coltrane At Birdland 1963
  8. Wes Montgomery At The Half Note 1965
  9. Erroll Garner Concert By The Sea 1955
  10. The Quintet Jazz At Massey Hall 1953

Also at AllAboutJazz.com is Best Live Jazz Recordings: The Best of the Rest 

I don’t think these are in any particular order but this list certainly branches out away from the mainstream:

  • Eric Dolphy: Live At The Five Spot Volumes 1 and 2
  • The Art Blakey Quintet: The Complete Live Recordings at Birdland: A Night At Birdland Volumes 1 and 2
  • Keith Jarrett: Still Live
  • Thelonious Monk: Live At the It Club
  • Grant Green: Live At the Lighthouse
  • Buddy Rich: Mercy, Mercy-At Caesar’s Palace
  • Return to Forever: Live
  • Benny Goodman: Live at Carnegie Hall, 1938
  • Stanley Turrentine: Up At Minton’s
  • Miles Davis: Live At the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970: It’s About That Time
  • The Crusaders: Scratch
  • Art Pepper: The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions
  • Ray Brown: Bam, Bam, Bam

At the Discogs Forum – Best Live Jazz Albums

The following are amongst the recommendations:

  • Art Pepper – Friday Night At The Village Vanguard
  • Charles Tolliver – Live at Slugs
  • John Coltrane Village Vanguard 1961
  • Eric Dolphy Illinois Concert 1963
  • Music Inc. Live at Slugs Vol1 &2
  • Tubby Hayes – Live at the Village
  • Miles & Monk at Newport
  • John Handy At the Monterey Jazz Festival
  • Mtume Umoja Ensemble ‎– Alkebu-Lan – Land Of The Blacks (Live At The East)
  • Miles Davis At Carnegie Hall
  • Miles Davis My Funny Valentine
  • Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri Athens Concert
  • Bill Evans’ Paris Concert Vol 1 and 2
  • Ella and Duke at the Cote D’Azur
  • Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani Orvieto
  • Les McCann & Eddie Harris ‎– Swiss Movement
  • Marlena Shaw ‎– Live At Montreux
  • Billy Cobham / The George Duke Band ‎– “Live” On Tour In Europe
  • and more

The Mercury News – Ellington? Coltrane? Miles? What’s your favorite ‘live’ jazz album?

Richard Scheinin nominates five albums:

  • John Coltrane Impressions (this is from the 1961 Village Vanguard concerts)
  • Freddie Hubbard The Night of the Cookers, Volume 1
  • Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Bright Moments
  • Charles Mingus Mingus In Wonderland
  • Jeff “Tain” Watts Detained at the Blue Note

Sadly as at 20/6/16, no one else has entered into the discussion but the short list includes some less well known albums that are worth investigating.

At UDiscoverMusic.com, there is a list of the 50 Greatest Jazz Albums that includes some live albums:

  • Erroll Garner – Concert By the Sea
  • Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport
  • Keith Jarrett – the Koln Concert
  • Bill Evans – Sunday at the Village Vanguard
  • The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall
  • Benny Goodman – At Carnegie Hall 1938
  • John Coltrane & Thelonious Monk – At Carnegie Hall

I know I’m biased but I think far more live albums should be included.

JazzWiseMagazine.com has The 100 Jazz Albums That Shook The World which also includes live albums:

  • Bill Evans Trio – Sunday At The Village Vanguard
  • Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert
  • Cecil Taylor – At The Café Montmartre
  • Duke Ellington – Ellington At Newport
  • Billie Holiday – At JATP
  • John Coltrane – Impressions
  • John Handy – Live At Monterey Jazz Festival

Reddit.com Great live jazz albums?

Nominations include:

  • Cannonball Adderley Mercy Mercy Mercy
  • Ramsey Lewis Trio, The In Crowd
  • John Coltrane One Up, One Down: Live at the Half Note
  • Eric Dolphy – The Illinois Concert
  • Bill Evans Trio Sunday At the Village Vanguard
  • Bill Evans Trio Waltz For Debby
  • Bill Charlap Trio Live at the Village Vanguard
  • Horace Silver Doin’ the Thing: Live at the Village Gate
  • Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note
  • Dave Brubeck Quarter Back Home
  • Dave Holland Quintet – Extended Play, Live at Birdland
  • Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet – Walk, Love, Sleep
  • Elvin Jones Jazz Machine – Live In Japan, vol. 1 & 2
  • Anat Cohen – Clarinetwork Live at the Village Vanguard
  • Les McCann and Eddie Harris – Swiss Movement: Live at Montreux
  • Art Blakey at the Cafe Bohemia
  • Stan Getz – Cafe Montmatre
  • Rahsaan Roland Kirk Bright Moments
  • plus more

DigitalDreamDoor.com – 100 Greatest Live Jazz Albums

The top ten are:

  1. Ellington At Newport 1956 – Duke Ellington
  2. The Köln Concert – Keith Jarrett
  3. Smokin’ at the Half Note – Wes Montgomery/Wynton Kelly
  4. Live in Lausanne 1962 – Bud Powell
  5. Bird at Birdland – Charlie Parker
  6. My Funny Valentine 1964 – Miles Davis
  7. Live at Birdland – John Coltrane
  8. Sunday at the Village Vanguard – Bill Evans
  9. Diz and Bird at Carnegie Hall – Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker
  10. At Newport – Dizzy Gillespie

At http://jazz100.sffjazz.com there is Top 100 Jazz Albums

This includes the following live jazz albums:

  • Keith Jarrett The Köln Concert
  • Bill Evans Trio Waltz for Debby
  • Bill Evans Trio Sunday at the Village Vanguard
  • Duke Ellington & His Orchestra Ellington at Newport
  • Thelonious Monk w/ John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall
  • The Quintet (w/ Charlie Parker) Jazz at Massey Hall
  • Diana Krall Live in Paris

At jazzguitar.be, there is 100 Greatest Jazz Albums and it includes the following live recordings:

  • Bill Evans Sunday at the Village Vanguard
  • Bill Evans Waltz for Debby
  • Thelonious Monk Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
  • Keith Jarrett The Koln Concert
  • Duke Ellington Live at Newport ’56
  • Benny Goodman Live At Carnegie Hall
  • Erroll Garner Concert by the Sea
  • Diana Krall Live in Paris

The Jazz Resource has a list of the 25 Greatest Jazz Albums of All Time which includes the following live albums:

  • Duke Ellington At Newport
  • The Quintet Jazz At Massey Hall
  • Erroll Garner Concert By The Sea
  • Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall

Gentleman’s Gazette has a list of the 30 Jazz Albums Every Man Should Hear which includes the following live albums:

  • Duke Ellington At Newport
  • Brad Mehldau Trio Art Of The Trio Vol IV Back At The Vanguard
  • Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall
  • The Quintet Jazz At Massey Hall
  • Bill Evans The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings
  • Wynton Marsalis Septet Live At The Village Vanguard

Musicophiles Blog has a list of  9 Outstanding Live Jazz Recordings which includes some more modern albums than normal.

  • Cannonball Adderley Mercy Mercy Mercy Live A The Club
  • Bill Evans Trio Waltz For Debby
  • Bill Evans Trio Consecration
  • Brad Mehldau: The Art of the Trio Vol 2 Live At the Village Vanguard
  • The Jazz Messengers At The Cafe Bohemia Vol. 1
  • Giovanni Mirabassi Live At the Blue Note Tokyo
  • Christian McBride Trio Live At The Village Vanguard
  • Enrico Pieranunzi Live At The Village Vanguard
  • Michael Wollny Trio Weltentraum Concert Edition Live At The Unterfahrt

The IndyCulture Blog has listed the 40 Best Live Jazz Albums with reviews. Here are the top ten:

  1. Bill Evans The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard, 1961
  2. Sonny Rollins A Night at the Village Vanguard
  3. Miles Davis The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965
  4. Duke Ellington The Complete Ellington at Newport 1956
  5. Benny Goodman At Carnegie Hall 1938
  6. Keith Jarrett The Koln Concert
  7. John Coltrane The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
  8. The Quintet Jazz At Massey Hall
  9. The Art Blakey Quintet A Night at Birdland, Volumes 1 & 2
  10. Louis Armstrong Satchmo at Symphony Hall, 65th Anniversary: The Complete Performance

It’s going to be interesting to see how my poll compares with these lists when it gets 200 plus voters to express their opinions. Some of the other polls have more voters so I’m really hoping the jazz community turns out to vote.

The Best Live Albums By The Best Known Jazz Artists

I have specialist polls for the following artists: – Louis Armstrong –  Count BasieJohn ColtraneMiles DavisEric DolphyDuke EllingtonDizzy Gillespie –  Billie HolidayCharles MingusThelonious MonkCharlie ParkerLester Young

You can also see the pages for the following major jazz artists:



3 thoughts on “What Are The Best Live Jazz Albums?”

  1. If you really want to find the best live jazz albums then you need to add more of Miles Davis live albums from the 1970s.

    Get rid of so much big band stuff and middle of the road jazz like Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck.

    1. Thanks for your comment but which Miles Davis albums were you thinking of in particular?

      I have a poll for Miles Davis on his own at http://www.bestlivealbums.com/what-are-the-best-live-albums-by-miles-davis/ which may be more to your liking.

      Because I’m asking readers to vote for their favourite jazz albums, it does mean that “good and popular” is likely to beat the exceptional album that few have ever heard. There is likely to be a bias towards the artists who are familiar to fans of general music because these “light jazz” performances are easier to appreciate, even if the jazz enthusiast sees them as derivative and cliched. Hopefully, when many more people vote, we can find a balance that gives everyone helpful suggestions.

      One of the reasons why I’d like people to leave comments about the great jazz albums that I haven’t included in the poll is to bring these rare beauties to public attention. Generally I like to keep polls limited to about 50 albums but in the more popular genres I have introduced a second division poll with promotion and relegation possible based on the votes cast. As yet, I haven’t received anything like enough votes to make this happen for live jazz albums.

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