Friday, 31 August 2012

1959: a miracle year in jazz

The winds of change





Revolution was in the air and the world seemed ripe for change. In Africa, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Harold MacMillan, would tell the South African Parliament in Cape Town in February 1960, the winds of change were blowing, and would soon reach gale force. Fidel Castro took over Cuba and in that bastion of conservatism, the Vatican, saintly Pope John XX111 announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council, which would open the windows of the Vatican to let some fresh air into its stuffy confines. Archbishop Makarios returned to Cyprus after the island state obtained independence from the UK, the Marx Brothers made their last TV appearance and the first US servicemen were killed in Viet Nam. Bob Dylan had not yet found the answer blowing in the wind, but the wind was freshening all over the world.
In the world of jazz the wind was also being felt. It blew away some of the greatest names in the history of the music: Billie Holiday and her soulmate Lester "Prez" Young; the great master of the soprano sax, Sidney Bechet; pianist Baby Dodds.
It also blew an amazing creativity into the practitioners of the music, who produced a succession of albums of groundbreaking quality. Among the most outstanding of these were the two Charles Mingus albums, Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um; the Dave Brubeck album Time Out; the two Miles Davis albums Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain; John Coltrane’s Giant Steps; Ornette Coleman's prophetically titled The Shape of Jazz to Come; Bill Evans's Portrait in Jazz; Duke Ellington's soundtrack album Anatomy of a Murder; and Art Pepper's Art Pepper + 11. As jazz writer Gary Alexander has noted, "You can make a case that all forms of jazz existed side by side, in relative peace, in that one year - everything from Dixieland to avant-garde was on the record shelves under one category, Jazz."

On the cusp of something new

Jazz is a music of the moment, a music with which its practitioners react to what is happening around them, and what was happening in 1959 was the proclamation of change, the introduction to the turbulent 1960s, the decade of revolution and the "summer of love." The year represented the cusp, the change moment from the relative quietism and conformity of the 1950s to the clamour of the 1960s, the decade of Carnaby Street, the Beatles and Woodstock, the anti-war movement and the uprisings of May and June 1968, not to mention the Moon landing of July 1969.
At the same time the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the United States. The people of the US had been made aware of a new phenomenon in their midst, the Nation of Islam, through the documentary “The Hate that Hate Produced” and the emergence of Malcolm X. This fostered as renewed interest and pride in African American culture, combined with a heightened awareness of the disadvantaged status of African Americans within predominantly white US society. Jazz musicians are, like most artists, extremely sensitive to issues of acceptance and rejection, and were certainly not immune to the currents and eddies blowing around them.
At about the same time the jazz style that had dominated since the 1940s, namely bebop, was being felt by many musicians to be restricting and limited in scope. The decline of bebop was in a sense signalled by the death of Charlie Parker in 1955. There was a feeling that bebop had come to the end of its tenure as a valid mode of expression, and musicians were becoming restless, looking for something new. The researches of musicians like George Russell into modal music was one direction taken, and Miles Davis's album Kind of Blue, is a prime example of where this exploration might go. The other response to the decline of bebop was the more free expression favoured and pioneered by Ornette Coleman, who used the springboard of the blues to find a new way of playing.
Somewhere in between these two was Charles Mingus, always different, both as person and as musician.
In 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley) author Fred Kaplan writes "There was a sense that we were on the verge of change, a sense of both hope and dread, and a critical mass of pretty radical changes in almost every walk of life." And the musicians were expressing their responses to the change, to the sense of hope and dread.

The producers

Another aspect of the creativity of jazz, its special time signature in 1959, was the readiness of two great producers to give the musicians relatively free rein in the studio, supporting new directions, new sounds and rhythms. These two were Teo Macero, himself a musician (both a composer and a sax player), and Nesuhi Ertegun.
Macero was responsible for singing Charles Mingus to Columbia records and his greatest achievement, according to the obituary written by John Fordham in The Guardian of 28 February 2008, "but his close association with the notoriously difficult Davis - in a period in which the trumpeter changed styles at least three times in moving from acoustic jazz to electric fusion - was the supreme achievement of his time at the company."
Macero's contribution to jazz, especially jazz recording, and to the creative outpourings of 1959, came from the fact that he "thought as a creative musician, not a record company technician." according to Fordham's Guardian piece.
In the magic year of 1959 Macero produced the stand-out albums by Brubeck (Time Out), Mingus (Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty), and Davis (Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain). All of these in addition to the other albums that he produced that year.
In 1959 Nesuhi Ertegun produced Mingus's Blues and Roots, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come and John Coltrane's Giant Steps. Clearly he had an ear for the future of the music.

The "Miracle year"

Another factor in the creative explosion that was 1959 was that in 1948 Columbia Records had introduced the long playing record (LP), which gave musicians more scope than the previous 78 rpm records had allowed. The exploitation of the new format by musicians and producers made it possible to regard the album as a work of art in itself, and few were more attuned to this than Macero.
Of course, these were not the only jazz albums recorded in 1959. Many other jazz musicians made superb albums, Ellington in particular with the Queen's Suite for Queen Elizabeth and the soundtrack music for the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. The Queen's Suite, which was recorded at Ellington's own expense and of which only a single copy was made and sent to the Queen, included the wonderful number "Single Petal of a Rose." The recording was not publicly released until after the Duke's death in 1974.
Cannonball Adderley, Shorty Rogers, Ben Webster, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday (just before her death), Quincy Jones and Thelonius Monk were among other artists who recorded in 1959, though their albums were not quite as essential as the core repertoire of Time Out, Giant Steps, Kind of Blue, Mingus Ah Um and The Shape of Jazz to Come, which are outstanding documents of the new directions jazz was exploring in that wonderful year described by Gary Alexander as "The miracle year 1959" which, he wrote, "was not only the year the music was reborn, but the year that jazz creativity reached its zenith."

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2012


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