A Great Day -Outside – Harlem

Episode Three – Danny Silverstone – November 2021

Listen to the playlist

Of course while the Great Day in Harlem photo captures a number of jazz greats on that day many, many more were not pictured. Some were serving time for drug convictions; some were playing in Europe, some didn’t get or failed to respond to Art Kane’s call. Most were on the road at a time when every major American city boasted a distinctive jazz scene.

And the decade following 1958, when the picture was taken constitutes probably the most intensive and creative period in the history of modern jazz- certainly in the U.S. The lingua franca of bebop laid down by the early bebop masters in the late 40’s- Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Monk, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke -had been studied and integrated into the jazz styles that followed. The music was now poised to be taken into many new directions

I want to focus on two very different jazz legends who were not present on that Harlem stoop on that day; Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman.

Miles Davis: Leading up to Kind of Blue

In 1958 Miles Davis’s first great quintet comprising Miles, Coltrane, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers, was reaching the apex of its creative life. But Miles was growing tired of reinventing show tunes and bebop classics. He had recently signed for Columbia, and while he was fulfilling his contractual commitments with the Prestige label with a string of outstanding albums all recorded in a matter of weeks in 1956, his thoughts were turning towards looser, more impressionistic and modal approaches. 

The ground was being prepared for the seminal recording, Kind of Blue in 1959. Miles arrived at the studio with some new concepts to share and the refreshed sextet now including Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Jimmy Cobb on drums and crucially (& briefly) Bill Evans on piano went on to make jazz history. It is worth mentioning that the recording was achieved in less than half a day with very little in the way of preparation or rehearsal. The tunes were sparse with very few underlying chord changes. Miles was setting a new mood and trusted his musicians to interpret that mood in their own ways. The stellar music laid down in Kind of Blue continues to fascinate and resonate to this day.

One of the best descriptions I can find of Kind of Blue is in Richard Williams’s brilliant book The Blue Moment (2009)

“It is the most singular of sounds, yet among the most ubiquitous. It is the sound of isolation that has sold itself to millions…

Before Kind of Blue there had been slow jazz, mournful jazz, romantic jazz astringent jazz. But there had never been anything that so carefully and single-mindedly cultivated an atmosphere of reflection & introspection to such a degree that the mood itself became an art object…

The musicians seem to have been spellbound. No wonder its forty odd minutes of music were made in barely nine hours, and that it was never repeated.

Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot 

The Five Spot Café in east Broadway during the period it was run by the Termini brothers quickly attained legendary status within the jazz world. Thelonious Monk headlined a sixmonth residency with John Coltrane in 1957. “It was a long, narrow room with a bar on one side, tables down the middle and a slightly elevated stage at the far end opposite a WC that reportedly emitted eye-watering fumes. When full the Five Spot held around 75 people.  The club was happy to offer long running bookings to bands who were breaking boundaries in the music, including Mingus, and the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. Ornette Coleman with Billy Higgins on drums, Don Cherry on cornet and Charlie Haden on bass took the place by storm.

Record producer John Snyder recalled many nights catching Ornette’s quartet at the Five Spot.

A fairly wild looking crowd of jazz aficionados. Long haired painters in mottled dungarees. Village girls in leotards, men in sweaters and leather jackets. Dark glasses. Sailors, cadets and the Madison Avenue crowd. 

Here are some recollections and real time responses to Ornette Coleman’s legendary lengthy residency at the Five Spot in New York running from late 1959 to early 1960 all taken from Maria Golia’s insightful new biography, Ornette Coleman (2020)

“He’ll change the entire course of jazz” “He’s a fake” “He’s a genius” “I can’t say, I’ll have to hear him a lot more times”. “He has no form”. “He swings like HELL”. “I’m going home to listen to my Benny Goodman trios and quartets”.  “He’s out Real Far Out”. “I like him, but I don’t have any idea what he is doing”  

“Roy Eldridge said ‘I think he’s jiving baby’ Miles Davis sat in with Ornette commending him ‘because he doesn’t play cliché’s’, but he soon revised his opinion. ‘The man is all screwed up inside’. Max Roach reportedly followed Ornette home one night and challenged him to a fight. Charles Mingus harassed him onstage. Mingus subsequently revised his views, ‘You can’t put your finger on what he’s doing. It’s like organized disorganization or playing wrong right’.

“When John Coltrane heard Ornette at the Five Spot, he said ‘Well that must be the answer’ and the two would become fast friends, with Coltrane purloining three quarters of Ornette’s band for his album The Avant-Garde.

The great contemporary alto saxophonist Jackie McLean observed, ‘You spend your life making a three-piece suit that’s incredible, and this guy comes along with a jump suit and people find that it’s easier to step into a jump suit than to put on three pieces’.  Jackie McLean went on to record a classic Blue Note album, Old and New Dreams with Ornette.

Tellingly, Ornette himself declared ‘when you hear me you probably hear everything I’ve heard since I was a kid’.

When I listen to Ornette I hear his formation in Texas blues, the Texas church and show bands. The rich musical and cultural gumbo in which he was formed in Fort Worth. I’m with the contemporary critic Robert Palmer who declared that,

‘Ornette’s compositions and performances looked ahead to explorations rather than pre-determined patterns and looked back through the jazz tradition with its collective improvisations, and its personal, speech-like approach to intonation and phrasing.’

Ornette Coleman’s arrival in New York in 1959 and his recorded output for Atlantic records at that time had a monumental and divisive effect on the jazz world and wider impacts in the New York art and contemporary music scenes. Sixty years on without having to listen to Ornette’s music through the prism of the unprecedented sound and fury that his arrival provoked, I think it is possible to hear a composer and instrumentalist drenched in the roots of the blues and while at the same time searching for new ways to present the deeply etched play book of the blues. It also easier to hear now what a brilliant composer Ornette Coleman was in that period, how accessible most of these compositions were at that time. 

The accompanying playlist takes you into the sound world of Miles and Ornette almost precisely to coincide with the Great Day in Harlem photoshoot.  I also offer three bonus tracks from other great artists not present on that day -Bud Powell, Betty Carter, and John Coltrane- all recorded on or close to the magical year of 1958.

Notes on the episode playlist…

Miles Davis  

Straight No Chaser  

Milestones 1958

Miles: Trumpet

Coltrane: Tenor sax

Cannonball Adderlet: Alto sax

Red Garland: Piano

Paul Chambers: Bass

Philly Joe Jones: Drums

This catches Miles with his classic sextet. It follows the appearance in quick succession of 3 large ensemble works all orchestrated by Gil Evans – Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain – and immediately prior to the release of Kind of Blue. A high tempo version of a Monk tune with great harmonies in the opening and closing sections and signature solos throughout

Miles Davis  

So What  Kind of Blue 1959

This track rewards repeated listening from the unhurried Paul Chambers opening leading to the bass figure that anchors the tune through to the languid , impressionistic solos throughout Couldn’t be more different in style from MIlestones, the previous year, with a major clue to that transition being the influence of Bill Evans on piano. Evans worked with Miles for less than a year before devoting himself to the art of the piano trio for the rest of his career. Jimmy Cobb on drums was the other newcomer , listen out for his splash on cymbal at the transition from the tune to Miles’s solo

Miles: Trumpet

Coltrane: Tenor

Cannonball: Alto

Bill Evans: Piano

Chambers: Bass

Jimmy Cobb: Drums

Miles Davis  

Blue in Green  Kind of Blue

Same line up as 3

The most ephemeral tune on the album. Miles claimed authorship, however there is much evidence that it was written by Bill Evans. No matter.

Bill Evans  

Blue in Green Portraits in Jazz  1960

Another take on the tune from what many regard as Evans’s greatest trio. Scott LaFaro who died tragically in a car crash the following year at 25, had , in his short life, completely revolutionized bass playing, moving it from a background time keeper to a front line contributor. His loss left Evans devastated. In Eddie Gomez  Bill was ultimately to find a worthy successor to LaFaro. Paul Motian’s subtlety on drums was ideally suited to this trio’s creativity.


Scott LaFaro: bass

Paul Motian: Drums

Ornette Coleman  

Turnaround Tomorrow is the Question  1959

Ornette Colema: Alto

Don Cherry: Cornet

Red Mitchell: Bass

Shelly Manne: Drums

Recorded in California early in 1959 prior to his appearance in New York at the Five Spot. The band comprises 50% of the band that Ornette took to the Five Spot -with LA-based Shelly Manne and Red  Mitchell on drums and bass .Ornette takes the standard 12 bar blues format and reinvents it for his own purposes without sacrificing the blues feel, in fact he amplifies it.

Lonely Woman 

The Shape of Jazz To Come 1959

Ornette Colema: Alto

Don Cherry: Cornet

Charlie Haden: Bass

Billy Higgins: Drums

A haunting ballad, which points to Ornette’s genius as a composer as well as an iconoclast.


The Shape of Jazz to Come

Focus on Sanity

Two contrasting original tunes that would certainly have figured during the band’s residency at the Five Spot. Same recording and line up as 6.

Charlie Haden  

Lonely Woman 1988

Charlie Haden: Bass

Geri Allen: Piano

Paul Motian: Drums

Haden went on to develop a distinctive career in jazz spanning his  large ensemble- the Liberation Music Orchestra, trios, duos and quartets. This trio track offers another take on Lonely Woman- a tune Haden returned to regularly through his career. Geri Allen was a truly remarkable pianist. And another chance to hear Paul Motian on drums

Bud Powell 

John’s Abbey  

Time Waits Volume 4. 1958

A jazz prodigy, tormented by mental illness throughout his short life, Bud Powell had a prodigious technique and is responsible for some of the most distinctive tunes within and beyond the bebop cannon. This track was recorded by Blue Note shortly before Bud’s departure for France. 

Bud Powell: Piano

Sam Jones: Bass

Philly Joe Jones: Drums

A jazz prodigy, tormented by mental illness throughout his short life, Bud Powell had a prodigious technique and is responsible for some of the most distinctive tunes within and beyond the bebop cannon. This track was recorded by Blue Note shortly before Bud’s departure for France. 

John Coltrane  

Like Sonny  

Coltrane Jazz 1959

Coltrane: Tenor

Wynton Kelly: Piano

Paul Chambers: Bass

Jimmy Cobb: Drums

Another album that represents a major transition. In Coltrane;’s case from the end of his tenure with Miles to the launch of his classic quartet in 1960. Based on an improvisatory fragment from Sonny Rollins and dedicated to Rollins , on this track Coltrane is accompanied by Miles’ rhythmn section of the time . Other tracks on the album contain his first recordings with McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. With the recruitment of Jimmy Garrison on bass Trane’s classic quartet was good to go.

Betty Carter  

There is No You  

The Moderrn Sound of Betty Carter 1960

This is Carter early on in her career within the context of a somewhat schmaltzy orchestral arrangement. She went on to lead a succession of great quartets and to found BetCar records- her own recording and publishing company. I heard her many times at Ronnies. She had a remarkable voice and stage presence and always commanded hushed audiences.