Leaving aside the essentialism and elitism inherent in the question, it's an interesting project. Also, there's a contest -- the reader who submits the most interesting list of 12 works wins a prize. I gave it a shot.
The result was abject failure. You're welcome to give it a try yourself in comments, but I couldn't make any headway on a list with only 12 entries. I even failed when I gave up on the broader question and tried to come up with a list of 12 essential jazz records. The best I could do is after the jump.
- Saxophone Colossus - Sonny Rollins
- Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet - Miles Davis
- Jazz in 3/4 Time - Max Roach
- Pithecanthropus Erectus - Charles Mingus
- Ellington at Newport '56 - Duke Ellington
- Django - The Modern Jazz Quartet
There are some great jazz records before '56 (Miles Davis' own 'Round About Midnight comes to mind), but 56 is the year when hard bop really came into it's own. Cookin' was one of four albums the quintet recorded over two sessions in 1956. They're all pretty short, and nowadays would have been released together. The others are Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin'..., and Workin'.... Duke Ellington is the odd man out on this list, but his Newport performance is significant in that it signalled a renaissance that would ultimately include such masterworks as Jazz Party, Money Jungle, and The Far East Suite. Also, it's awesome.
- A Night in Tunisia - Art Blakey
- Blue Train - John Coltrane
- Miles Ahead - Miles Davis
- Thelonious Himself - Thelonious Monk
- Way Out West - Sonny Rollins
- Plenty, Plenty Soul - Milt Jackson
I'm not sure how I came across it, but A Night in Tunisia is the record that convinced me that postwar jazz could have the same kind of energy found in swing and dixieland. When people talk about Coltrane, the phrase you often see is 'cascades of notes', and there's no doubt that the cat can play fast. But it's also true that 'trane can play with as much emotion and feeling as, say, Lester Young, and Blue Train brings that quality to the fore. Lastly, the sessions don't fit the criteria for this list, but Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded together several times in 1957, ultimately producing three records. My favorite is the first, Ella and Louis, mostly because it includes what I take to be the definitive take on one of my favorite songs, "The Stars Fell on Alabama".
- Misterioso - Thelonious Monk
- Cool Struttin' - Sonny Clarke
- Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly
- Soultrane - John Coltrane
- Freedom Suite - Sonny Rollins
It's tough to pick a favorite Thelonious Monk record, but if I were trapped on a desert island and could only have one Monk track on my iPod, it would definitely be "Nutty" from this record. Maybe the best way to grok Monk's brilliance is to randomly listen to a selection of tracks from Misterioso and Cool Struttin'. Sonny Clark is a brilliant pianist, but his work just doesn't compare.
- Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
- The Shape of Jazz to Come - Ornette Coleman
- Cannonball and Coltrane - Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane
- Mingus Ah Um - Charles Mingus
- Time Out - Dave Brubeck
- Giant Steps - John Coltrane
Oh my fucking God 1959 was a good year for jazz. If you, somehow, don't own any jazz or, somehow, think that jazz sucks, buy these six records and you will come to understand the glory. While you're at it, you should also pick up Ellington's Jazz Party and Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, both of which were also released in 1959.
- My Favorite Things - John Coltrane
- Ole Coletrane - John Coltrane (1961)
- Money Jungle - Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach (1962)
- GO! - Dexter Gordon (1962)
- Out to Lunch - Eric Dolphy (1964)
- The Empty Foxhole - Ornette Coleman (1966)
There's no question but that jazz lost something after 1959. In some sense, the seminal recordings of 1959 were a dead end. The form had been pushed to its limits, and what looked like a new direction was really just another step on the road away from the audience. And yet, the 60s produced at least three masterworks. Dexter Gordon disappeared from 1955-1960, and so GO! which would have fit most comfortably in 1957 or 1958 wasn't recorded until 1962. Coltrane's Ole Coltrane is an underappreciated classic. Trane's blowing on the title track is as far out there as anything you'll find, but the rhythym section grounds his playing and gives the listener something concrete to hold on to. Money Jungle is, simply put, the greatest work of jazz ever recorded. Ellington's staccato thumping of the piano keys demonstrates that he has digested the innovations of the 50s -- which is to say that he has understood Monk -- but doesn't distract from his unparalleled melodic sensibilty. Mingus, for his part, turns in a virtuoso performance that is unmistakably angry. And then there's Max Roach, who is somehow able to make his own voice heard while staying out of the way of those two marauding geniuses.