1959: A Great Year in Jazz
My father really enjoys wine. We can go to a restaurant and he will talk to the waiter about wine for what seems like an eternity. The conversation normally revolves around the year a certain wine was fermented. He will settle on a year and enjoy a couple glasses with his meal. For the life of me, I could never understand the importance of the year of a glass of wine. Wine is wine: you order it, you drink it and you enjoy it. However, I have finally seen the light, just like the cartoon characters in the old Looney Tunes. The light bulb came on one day when I noticed that the jazz CDs I listened to the most came from one particular, wonderful year.
That year was 1959.
Consider if you will, what the year 1959 meant to jazz. Just sit back and think about what happened in 1959. From Miles Davis to Ornette Coleman, you had jazz stretching out into new forms and becoming, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful music ever recorded. Of course, 1959 also had its sad moments. We had the loss of both Billie "Lady Day" Holiday and Lester "Pres" Young. Billie Holiday, considered by many the greatest jazz singer of all, took a tune and made you feel it. Not just hear it-but, more importantly, feel it. She could sing you the manual for the latest DVD player and you would be moved. President, or Pres, as Lester Young was known (nicknames given to each other by the other) was the model for many a saxophonist for years to come (along with Coleman Hawkins). His light, airy tone helped carry the music deep into your soul. The two worked together for years, but had a falling out. However, in the end, they left the earth in the same year and, I believe, are making beautiful music again in the great Birdland in the sky. Two musical soul mates that helped to define the music of jazz for years to come, taken before their time.
Yet, from these tragic losses came beautiful and challenging music. Here are five of the major albums released in 1959:
- Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
- Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um
- Dave Brubeck - Time Out
- Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come
- John Coltrane - Giant Steps
Many would consider those five albums alone the backbone of a great jazz collection. All were released the same year and all helped to define jazz for years to come. You may be asking yourself now, as I did with my father, why are these albums so important? Why are they so great? Here are my thoughts on the matter.
Kind of Blue
In Kind of Blue, Time Out, and The Shape of Jazz to Come, jazz explores new approaches. Miles Davis had for years been interested in the development of George Russell's theory of modal music. For years, solo improvisations were based around the specific key of a piece-that is, its tonal center, the starting point to which its melodies and chord progressions would return for a feeling of resolution or completeness. Modal improvisations, on the other hand, were based on modes, or scales-but not just the typical major and minor scales familiar to nearly all musicians. The most commonly used modes did relate to major scales, though; each note in the scale was also the first note of a new mode, which would incorporate all of the notes in the original major scale, but sounded different because the new starting point rearranged the order of distances between notes. So, in 1959, Miles Davis, always the innovator, decided to record an album using mostly modal formats for the tunes. The outcome is breathtaking. In his sextet, you have some of the best players of the day, of any time for that matter, stretching out and playing some outstanding music. This album is considered to be, by many, THE jazz album of all time. I remember placing this in my CD player and thinking about a time in college a friend of mine decided we should kill some time by asking each other questions from a new book he had bought called, if memory serves, The Big Book of Questions. If you aren't familiar with this item, it asks a bunch of tough questions and makes you decide which one is the better option in your mind. I remember one of the questions he asked me that day was "Would you rather be blind or deaf?" I pondered the question for a moment and told him that I would rather be blind. If I were deaf I wouldn't be able to enjoy music, I reasoned with him. Placing Kind of Blue into my stereo one fateful day, a few years later, reaffirmed my decision. If you do not own this album, get it now. This music can change your life.
Mingus Ah Um
Next, we have the "Angry Man" of jazz, Mr. Charles Mingus. 1959 saw the release of arguably Mingus's best album, Mingus Ah Um. Opening with the swinging "Better Git it in Your Soul," Mingus defies you to not feel and, maybe more importantly, dance to his music. With the well timed shouts from the leader and the band, the record oozes a distinct feeling of a church revival. Mingus clearly rooted his music in the time-honored tradition of the spiritual and testimonial. There are times I just want to jump up, clap my hands and praise not only to The Lord, but also to Mingus and his mates for making such a great song. Following that great track, Mingus laments the loss of his friend and jazz legend Lester "Pres" Young. As I mentioned above, the loss of Young left many jazz musicians saddened. In the beautiful ballad "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" (Young's chosen head wear for most of his life) Mingus vents his feeling of loss. It is a beautiful piece and finds John Handy doing his best interpretation of Young's beautiful, rich and open tone on tenor. One word suffices to describe this song: beautiful. Very few albums have two great songs on them, let alone open with two greats. The combination punch of "Better Git it in Your Soul" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" sealed the deal for me. This was going to be a great album! From there Mingus and his band launch into such great numbers as "Boogie Stop Shuffle," another number daring you to dance along, the beautiful ballad "Self-Portrait in Three Colors," and the other famous cut from this album, "Fables of Faubus," which was named after the 1950's Arkansas governor Faubus. He famously fought school integration in Little Rock, leading to President Eisenhower sending federal guards to the state to force his hand. Mingus, who spoke out early and often about racial issues in America, wrote this song with famously bitter lyrics. However, Columbia execs at the time requested he leave the lyrics out in fear of upsetting too many people. Mingus, not usually one to cave into label demands, surprisingly recorded and released this version without the lyrics (you can find the "original" "Fables of Faubus" on Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus, another great album). Overall, I would say this is an outstanding place to start looking into Mingus's music. The volatile, stubborn, "angry man" of jazz made many great albums before his premature death in 1979. Very few albums he made after this were as consistent or moving. Mingus Ah Um definitely got into my soul!
The Dave Brubeck Quartet
On Time Out, Dave Brubeck's quartet delved into different time signatures and broke from the traditional, swinging 4/4 rhythm found in jazz and in most Western music for that matter. They explored time signatures from Turkey and India and really opened up the music. Of course, the big hit "Take Five" came from this album and was the first jazz single to sell a million copies. So, as you can see, they not only broke new musical ground but also broke new commercial ground for the genre. I remember putting this album on and just having a smile come over my face. It was actually one of the first jazz albums which prompted my girlfriend to stop and tell me how much she liked it. I love the worldly feel of the music and how each song swings, regardless of whatever odd time signature it happens to occupy. I can put on Time Out and just sit back and relax, too. Sadly, this album has been lambasted over the years for being associated with the upscale ambience of the Starbucks of the world. However, as Steve Huey wrote at www.allmusicguide.com, "as someone once said of Shakespeare, it's really very good in spite of the people who like it." That sounds just about right to me.
The Shape of Jazz to Come
Nineteen fifty-nine also brought us a new branch of jazz called Free Jazz or the Avant-Garde (the first major movement in jazz since the advent of be-bop). Many considered free jazz to be just noise, the equivalent to letting the barn door open and letting all the animals come out to make noise. Ornette Coleman saw it differently. He always heard melody in a different way, and in 1959 he released the The Shape of Jazz to Come. It opened up jazz like never before. Essentially Coleman wanted his musicians to forget about the rules and just play. He took Miles's innovations of modal improvisation to the next level. To him this meant not obeying any specific chordal convention, but playing according to the feel of a tune. This approach baffled many listeners because it tossed away the old rules of jazz and opened the door to a new world. The importance of The Shape of Jazz to Come can be found in not only the fact that it opened the music to a new realm, but also in that it drew a line in the sand that even today has musicians and critics alike debating its merits. (The recent television series Ken Burns Jazz, for example, was quite ambivalent about Ornette's contributions.) Certainly there are players that are even more avant-garde than Ornette (i.e. Cecil Taylor) and they opened up the music even further. In listening to the record today, the music is much more accessible than I thought it would be and it even swings (which is so very important to jazz music!). Coleman, however, is significant because he fired the first shot in a musical revolution. One of the key musicians influenced by Coleman's "new" music was John Coltrane. Nineteen fifty-nine found Coltrane musically awakened by both Davis's modal concept of music (to which he contributed on Kind of Blue ), but being one of the first musicians to "get" what Ornette was doing. These two factors influenced his music for years to come. Meanwhile, by the end of 1959 he was working on his major breakthrough solo album, Giant Steps, which would be released the following year.
With Giant Steps, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time found his voice and created a masterful album at the same time. Every tune on this record is a Coltrane original. Coltrane rewrote jazz pieces to focus primarily on solos. He also introduced an approach to soloing which critic Ira Gilter termed "sheets of sound." Many of the solos on this album had a very high level of creative energy, Coltrane strives to fit every note possible into his solos. From the opening chords of the title song (nearly impossible to play for many jazz musicians), the band goes through a workout. And that alone is a sign that Coltrane recruited some top-notch musicians for the session. For me, the most beautiful song on the album is "Naima." Coltrane wrote this sweet and tender ballad for his wife at the time. It is one of the seminal jazz pieces in the history of the music. I always tell my friends that if they haven't heard this tune, they haven't lived. The rest of the album, while taken at a much different pace than "Naima," is just as beautiful. The music he made launched the most creative decade years any jazz musician has ever had. Coltrane, who was never satisfied with his music, created what many consider his most approachable albums while working with Atlantic Records. A close listen reveals not only beautiful musicbut also signs of a musician preparing to take jazz fans where they never had gone before.
For me, jazz from the year 1959 is the equivalent of a great bottle of Viader wine from 1994 (which, if you're interested in a critical opinion, earned a rating of 100 from The Wine Spectator magazine). So, next time you are in the record shop and you're wondering what to pick up, stop and think about my dad. Remember that 1959 is the year jazz made some of its biggest changes and introduced some of its best. So order a round of 1959 jazz next time you have a chance.
You won't be disappointed.