I've heard bits and pieces of this genre over the years and it interests me somewhat but I have absolutely no idea where to start with actual albums and such. So what are some of the "staples" of the genre to best start with?
Coltrane - My Favorite things, a love supreme

Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz, the shape of jazz to come

Sun Ra - Space is the place

Albert Ayler - Spiritual Unity

Eric Dolphy - out to lunch
i wouldn't call either of those Coltrane albums free jazz. they may lean towards avant-garde, but Om and Ascension are the ones of his that i would point out as being free jazz.

also wound up finding a John McLaughlin and John Surman album, Where Fortunes Smiles, that is someplace between free jazz and fusion. some pretty killer stuff on there, but it is a bit hard to track down. i suggest hearing it though.
^I totally agree, I forgot to mention that I would use those to help get into it (I wouldn't start with Ascension). just forgot to include Pharaoh Sanders - Karma
On the Corner by Miles is pretty fun. Tonic by MMW is cool too, maybe not 100% 'free' but satiates that need.
Can't go wrong with Cecil Taylor and John Zorn