In this piece I want to make the case for regarding 1959 as the true annus mirabalis- the miraculous year- in the history of recorded jazz.
Of course, pioneering music was recorded before and since and is being recorded as you read this piece. The same goes for the huge volume of stellar live sessions that went unrecorded but retain a place in jazz folklore- Lester Young “cutting” Coleman Hawkins at a Kansas City jam session in the 1930’s , Sonny Rollins having the same effect on Gerry Mulligan in the mid-50’s, the endless after hours sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the 40’s , the cradle of the bebop revolution, right up to the London jazz scene of the 2010’S often linked to Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors that produced the conveyor belt of exciting young talent that is the shape of jazz to come in London and way beyond.
I want to focus on three stellar albums recorded in 1959- Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Giant Steps by John Coltrane and the aptly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. Since 1959 was a high water market for modern jazz my playlist also contains selections from a number of other outstanding albums that appeared that year. What distinguishes the three albums I have chosen to feature is that their appearance and continuing impact was (and is) truly revolutionary.
These three albums, all recorded within months of each other show how broad the church of jazz is. Each album contains music that is unique in every respect, presenting music of an entirely different timbre, ambition, and context from anything that came before- and here I am referring to the broader sweep of 20th century music, not to jazz specifically. In any musical context these are landmark recordings.
The musicians in whose names the albums appeared; Miles, Coltrane and Ornette all pursued quite distinct paths in their musical careers to get to this point.
Following his short apprenticeship as a teenage member of Charlie Parker’s band Miles who was 33 in 1959 had been a leader for over 10 years, had participated in the classic Birth of the Cool album and had recorded a string of sensational albums featuring his first classic quintet, that latterly included Coltrane, and in larger scale recordings on which he collaborated with the master arranger Gil Evans. The quintet’s repertoire was firmly based within the territory of modern jazz standards and some originals from Miles from a recognizably bebop genre. His intensive work with Gil Evans led Miles into spacier, more impressionistic musical territory, ideal preparation for the ideas that he would showcase in Kind of Blue.
John Coltrane born in in 1926 in North Carolina but raised and heavily influenced by Philadelphia was exactly the same age as Miles but had pursued a much longer apprenticeship. Like Miles, Trane struggled through the 1950’s to quit his narcotics addiction. While Coltrane had made a number of studio recordings in his own name, in 1959, free of drugs, and renowned for his intense practice regime and deepening spirituality he was still a member of Miles’ quintet and would not become a leader until 1961 with the formation of his classic quintet comprising McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on drums and Elvin Jones on drums.
Ornette Coleman, born in Fort Worth Texas, and formed by his musical associations in California was 29 in 1959. He had to my knowledge never recorded as a sideman. All his albums were issued in his own name featuring music that was completely original, and totally divided critical and listener opinion within the jazz world. Music that Ornette and a small group of collaborators, most notably Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins and/or Ed Backwell on drums had been rehearsing and developing for many years away from the public eye. All of Ornette’s early, and indeed subsequent recordings, featured original material. Ornette felt no need to prove his credentials within the realm of jazz standards. To this extent Ornette’s early musical formation and apprenticeship was unique within the context and history of jazz.
So, what makes these three albums so distinctive and timeless?
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Kind of Blue
It is part of jazz folklore that Miles showed up at the studio to record Kind of Blue armed only with some skeletal outlines of the tunes with very brief modal sketches to shape the improvisations. In fact, Miles was becoming increasingly restless with what he saw as the constraints of modern jazz, particularly a slavish devotion to the chordal structure of tunes. He had been paying close attention to Khachaturian and non-Western musical forms. He had been very struck by the improvisatory freedom that Gil Evans had given him in the recording of Porgy & Bess.
In Miles own words,
“It doesn’t have to be cluttered up. All chords, after all are relative to scales You go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about chord changes and you can do more with the melodic line….I think there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them”
In these few words, and Miles was not known for opining on musical theory! he changed the whole course of jazz and challenged both his own, and future generations of jazz musicians to think differently about how to improvise. “Less is more” became the new maxim
The other major surprise that Miles pulled at the recording was to call the young pianist Bill Evans, much to the chagrin of Wynton Kelly, a formidable part of Miles’s working sextet. Miles felt intuitively that Bill Evans’s unique jazz sensibility was exactly what was required for this session. Kelly only appears on one number, Freddie Freeloader
Although the Kind of Blue repertoire was frequently referenced in numerous subsequent performances of Miles’s second classic quintet, albeit always in different guises, Miles deliberately did not use live performances to bed in the material before the recording. Surprise was of the essence.
John Coltrane – Giant Steps
At the time of this recording John Coltrane was at the pinnacle of what critic Nat Hentoff termed as his “sheets of sound” period. Trane more than any other contemporary had through a regime of intensive study and rehearsal mastered the art of extracting every possible improvisatory nuance out of every chord change in every tune he played. To some critics and listeners this made for exhausting listening, not least given Coltrane’s proclivity to play increasingly lengthy solos in live performance. Miles welcomed Coltrane’s complexity albeit more critical of his longevity.
According to Naima Coltrane Trane began working on the underlying chord structure as early as 1957. Wayne Shorter recalls that “Trane would sit and play those Giant Steps changes all the time before he even recorded it. You know, just over and over like that”. This was a period of intense study and self-discovery, where Coltrane delved very deep into complex harmonic possibilities often linked to patterns of thirds in in terms of scale intervals. The tune itself was seen by the composer as an adjunct to the underlying harmonic structure with two chords to each bar
John Coltrane according to all contemporary accounts was a deeply serious and humble person. Right up to the end of his short life he sought improvement, and like Miles, could not bear to tread water. And yet Giant Steps was aptly named. It has provided a harmonic framework that has challenged jazz musicians of every subsequent generation.
In the same year that Coltrane was climbing the summit of complex harmonies, he rose to the challenge set by Miles in the Kind of Blue studio to see the endless possibilities of a single chord or two.
The Shape of Jazz to Come – Ornette Coleman
The Shape of Jazz to Come
This album appeared in advance of Ornette Coleman’s much anticipated engagement at New York’s Five Spot club in late 1959. The gig attracted queues round the block throughout its multi-week residency. The audience, “a fairly wild looking crowd of jazz aficionados, long haired painters in mottled dungarees, village girls in leather jackets, sailors, cadets and the Madison Avenue crowd.”
The gig was a must-see for New York-based musicians, critics, and aficionados. All of them had opinions before during and after a performance. The reactions are best summed up in this quote from Downbeat’s George Hoefer,
“He’ll change the entire course of jazz”
He’ a fake”
“I can’t say I’ll have to hear it a lot more times”.
“He has no form”
He swings like HELL”
He’s out; real far out”
“I like him, but I don’t have any idea what he is doing”
Of course, Ornette knew exactly what he was doing. He was preparing for this moment for the last 10 years. In common with Miles but entirely in his own way he was developing a brand of jazz that was free, unrestrained, not tied to traditional chord structures while deeply rooted in blues sensibility.
What disappointed him most was how many, although by no means all, of his contemporary jazz stars, including, at least initially jazz modernists such as Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Miles himself were disparaging in their comments. In the opposite corner, Sonny Rollins’s reaction spoke volumes. Still on sabbatical on the bridge at this time he returned to the studio with Ornette’s rhythm section and Don Cherry too
I’ll finish with a positive view from pianist Paul Bley referencing the juxtaposition with Ornette’s band and the Benny Golson’s Jazztet which had proceeded Ornette at the Five Spot.
“The Jazztet sounded like a very modern, Horace Silver-type arranged band; beautiful aesthetics, with all the rough points ironed out, slick, smooth. Ornette played one set and turned them into Guy Lombardo”
I have drawn on 3 important books in composing this piece;
Ornette Coleman – The Territory and the Adventure by Maria Golia
John Coltrane – His Life & Music by Lewis Porter
Miles Davis by Ian Carr