I discovered jazz during a brief, ill advised attempt to play the trumpet at school. It was a short step to Louis Armstrong and then on to Miles Davis. The trumpet disappeared but the Jazz remained. For some time I stuck with Miles, almost a genre on his own, but later on discovered all sorts of other stuff. Jazz has drifted in and out for me over the years. Currently it's in.
Jazz is as plagued by category-itis as any other music. I could go on about Hard Bop vs Mainstream vs Fusion and bore myself, and you, stupid. In the past record companies tended to have house styles, often dictated by the label owner producer or engineer.
Blue Note: The obvious place to start as it is the one label that non fans may have heard of. Reid Miles' artwork has been influencing graphic design since the 1950s, and the music, rooted in "Hard Bop", (a mix of BeBop with R&B, soul, and blues) has been a dominant style for much of that time. This list from Apple Music covers 10 of the really essential bits of Blue Note to get you started.
Blue Note's sound was inspired by founders Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff. They allowed artists paid rehearsal time to develop ideas, which competing labels like Prestige didn't, so their records sounded better and bursting with ideas - because they were.
Impulse!: Starting in 1960 Impulse! was Jazz without stabilisers, it could get a bit wobbly on some of the wilder bits of the avant garde. John Coltrane was it's headline act and was followed by a raft of angry tenor sax players. There are also some real gems on Impulse the Duke Ellington/John Coltrane album has some of 'Trane's finest ballads, and there are classic albums from Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson and others that don't require a high tolerance for squalling horn solos. Set up by producer Creed Taylor the label was shepherded through the sixties by Bob Thiele. Impulse! was another label with a strong visual presence, it's orange and black spines translating well to the CD age.
CBS/Columbia: Home to Miles Davis from 1955 until the eighties Columbia came into its own with Electric Jazz in the seventies. Many of Miles' sidemen found a home here. Tony William's Lifetime, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. While not always made from the best quality tapes, the Contemporary Jazz Masters series is worth keeping an eye out for as it is pretty much the best of 1970s Jazz Rock Fusion. Tell them by the red borders and this stamp. Columbia had many great Jazz artists before they plugged in, Erroll Garner, Ellington and Brubeck amongst others. Avoid like the plague the corresponding blue border Jazz Masterpieces series, they couldn't even get the covers right. It's a good reference list of what to buy elsewhere though.
If you are new to Jazz then checking out these labels will give you a fair range of Jazz to explore. One name to keep an eye out for is Rudy Van Gelder recording engineer extrordinaire for Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse! and CTI (Creed Taylor's 70s label). His records have a distinct feel and sound and his RVG remasters for CD are amongst the best transfers to digital.
With some very cheap downloads available, and Fopp and secondhand shops selling Jazz CDs for £3 or £4 you can afford to experiment. There are also some great books on Jazz, Richard Cook's Biography of Blue Note, any of Ashley Kahn's books and David Rosenthal's "Hard Bop" are good places to explore. Less well served than rock for magazines, Jazzwise is the news magazine and while Jazz Journal has it's good points the semi pro feel is off putting. There were a couple of tries in the nineties at a Mojo style legacy magazine perhaps time to try again?
You may have noticed that I haven't talked about current jazz artists much. They are coming up in part two and also what Jazz is actually on my iPod.