What exactly was it that made 1959 the greatest year in jazz? One single window of 12 consecutive months brought us some of the most important and recognised jazz music that we still cherish today. Kind Of Blue would become the most sold jazz album of all time, while Time Out would feature the most sold jazz single ever – Take Five. The influence these albums had on the countless future masterpieces and virtuosos is hard to overstate. To better understand what made 1959 the greatest year in jazz, let’s start with the setting.
It’s so rare to have so many stars align to form the perfect atmosphere for a creative explosion from so many artists simultaneously. A big part of this was rooted in a question which was beginning to be asked by increasingly many leading artists. What is the future sound of jazz?
Up until 1959, bebop had dominated the sound in clubs like Minton’s and The Five Spot in New York. Miles Davis would know this better than anyone, having frequently played with the great Charlie Parker. Bebop had been such a hit in nightclubs that it had an incredible streak of popularity over multiple years. But a growing number of artists were asking themselves – where to from here?
The albums which were recorded in response to this question were simply mind-blowing. At this point in time, jazz was asking itself an existential question – and that was one of the key contributors to making 1959 the greatest year in jazz.
We’ve written about the genius of Kind of Blue in our previous post – Top 5 Miles Davis Albums of All Time. But when we talk the sound of an album, words are never enough. Miles put together a super-group for this session, and Bill Evans definitely brought the cool. The album is so understated it can be called minimalist. And yet, it has so much body to it you don’t understand where it’s all coming from. Miles brought a new sound to the trumpet which can best be described as a delicate whisper telling you something super groovy. The opening riff of So What is a tune that forever plays in the backs of the minds of us here at Vinyl Wings.
At the same time, a new movement was brewing in the mind of Ornette Coleman. The Shape of Jazz to Come, was not immediately well received by the public, but the artists knew what a landmark recording this would prove to be. Viewed by many as the foundation of free-jazz, Ornette played from the bottom of his soul, and would have given us more if he wasn’t constrained by the mere 12 notes that exist in music. The record was in so many ways outlandish, that even today it sounds like something wild. And yet, the album’s influence stretched beyond jazz, even reaching rock in the 60s when certain guitarists would study it for their own solos.
While Kind of Blue was being recorded, Coltrane already had his own career ideas. His debut solo album, Giant Steps, was a hit and quickly acquired legendary status among jazz lovers. The entire album featured Coltrane’s own harmonic progression which became known as the Giant Steps Changes. With this musical direction, Coltrane put himself on a very different course to what he had been until now. This was the beginning of an increasingly complex musical journey that Coltrane would continue down on.
On the political front, the cold war years brought their own challenges. The Dave Brubeck Quartet went on a Cold War Tour sponsored by the United States in 1958. As part of a government-backed cultural programme, they were told to “take jazz and it’s American values to the East”. What the band saw and heard had such an influence on the musicians that they started to base pieces around their experiences.
Many of the time signatures used in Time Out were in fact influenced by the ethnic music of where the band had travelled to – including Turkey, Poland, and India. Anecdotally, after being smuggled over the border between West and East Berlin, Brubeck arrived in Poland where he was known to as “Mr. Coolu” – Mr. Cool in Polish. The resulting record was such a success because it had brought jazz to such a wide and varied audience that Brubeck had become almost an icon of jazz to so many eyes.
Within America’s own borders the racial divide among people was not only leading to high tensions, but it was also fire for the artistic minds. One such observant personality not afraid to speak his mind was Charles Mingus. He wasn’t afraid to call it like he saw it and put that in his music – whether good or bad.
The events at Little Rock under governor Faubus in 1957 left such a strong impression on Mingus, that his response on Mingus Ah Um would come in the form of a comedic, ironic tune called Fables of Faubus. The tune gives the image of a clown-like goofy personality who likely is in over his head.
On the other end of the spectrum, the record opens with one of our favourite tunes – Better Get Hit in your Soul. A play on words as either an immediate command to the listener, or perhaps as a nod to the feeling one gets at a gospel church prayer meeting. If you’ve seen the Blues Brothers, you get the idea.
So, what made 1959 the greatest year in jazz? We like to thank that what was recorded in 1959 was music which served a purpose – whether artistic, political or intellectual. The greatest artists of the time took what they had been hearing up until that point, and responded to it in the way they knew best – through their instruments. The resulting breadth of style, and sound of these records is in itself something to admire, let alone the music. The results would change the direction of jazz forever – and that’s what made 1959 the greatest year in jazz.