Welcome to Earfood, a new, occasional column from arts writer Ashante Infantry that aims to nourish, and satisfy, your sonic curiosity. Earfood explores the ingredients of jazz’s past and present, describing the music and the conditions of its creation and development, contextualizing the genre’s newest sounds.
In 1959, the Barbie Doll was created, Fidel Castro assumed power and Xerox launched the first colour copier—indelibly transforming popular culture, international politics and technology.
That same year, similarly significant developments occurred in music: the first Grammy Awards ceremony was held; Berry Gordy started Motown; and Simon Cowell was born.
And in jazz, five of the genre’s major players recorded iconic albums: Miles Davis (Kind of Blue); Charles Mingus (Mingus Ah Um); Ornette Coleman (The Shape of Jazz to Come); Dave Brubeck (Time Out); and John Coltrane (Giant Steps).
Their output comprised an eclectic set of recordings that encompassed the key styles of the day—cool, modal, hard bop, avante garde—and consisted primarily of tunes penned by the leaders, yielding classics such as “So What,” “Take Five” and “Naima.”
“By ’59, as opposed to recording and arranging standard songs, there was, now, a predominance of original compositions in jazz recordings,” says trombonist and composer Ron Westray, York University’s Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance, of the environment that yielded these five influential ‘concept-records.’ “And the distinctness of each recording is also an analogue to the uniqueness of each associated leader/stylist.”
It was a fertile period.
Also, in 1959, Davis began recording the Grammy-winning Sketches of Spain; his Kind of Blue pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly made brilliant albums (Portrait in Jazz, Kelly Blue); Mingus recorded the celebrated Blues & Roots; Coleman delivered the well-regarded Tomorrow is the Question!; and Coltrane made crack duo albums with vibraphonist Milt Jackson and altoist Cannonball Adderley (Bags & Trane, Cannonball & Coltrane).
There have been other years that can boast a remarkable wealth of creative output, says Toronto multi-instrumentalist Colleen Allen, “however the recordings from this year portend to the pathways of the future of jazz.”
They weren’t all immediately embraced though: now lauded for its experimental time signatures, Time Out received a dismissive two stars review from DownBeat Magazine’s Ira Gitler, who groused, “If Brubeck wants to experiment with time, let him not insult his audience with such crashing-bore devices.”
And, the magazine’s feature on Ornette Coleman, while noting that “many critics and musicians think he might be the start of a new direction in jazz,” dubbed him “controversial” and described the tone of his plastic saxophone as “weird.”
Others, like American saxophonist and educator Gregg Gelb question the long-term impact of this “crowning point” in jazz history. While the “trail-blazing leaders” would remain prolific and influential, “from that point forward, (the genre’s) stylistic evolution and popularity would begin to wane,” posited Gelb in his University of North Carolina dissertation, 1959 Jazz: A Historical Study and Analysis of Jazz and Its Artists and Recordings in 1959.
There’s no debate though that 60 years later, these albums still resonate. Here’s a closer look at the top of the class of 1959 (in order of release):
Kind of Blue: The jazz album most people own was recorded primarily in the modal approach (the musicians were given a set of modes or scales to improvise on, rather than a chord progression or series of harmonies).
Listen for: “The melodic, understated, essential soloing on the trumpet complemented by the exuberant Cannonball Adderley on alto sax (keeping one foot in the bop door), and the ground-breaking, forward thinking Coltrane on tenor,” says Allen.
Mingus Ah Um: Between the gospel-inflected “Better Git It In Your Soul,” bluesy “Boogie Stop Shuffle, and soulful “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” – a poignant tribute to saxophonist Lester Young who died two months earlier—this is the most diverse and energetic album on this list.
Listen to: “Fables of Faubus.” Cinematic and insouciant, the song named for a segregationist governor showcases the breadth and strength of the master bassist’s compositional abilities.
The Shape of Jazz to Come: The player credited with establishing the free jazz movement employed neither chord structures, nor a chordal instrument, like piano or guitar, in pursuit of his philosophy of melody over harmony.
Listen for: “With no harmonic instrument, the lively compositions and remarkable technical playing create conversations that aren’t lacking in any way,” says Allen.
Time Out: Inspired by Turkish musicians he encountered overseas, Brubeck introduced complex time signatures which critics abhorred. But the album eventually hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart and became a top-seller.
Giant Steps: His first album of entirely original material exhibited the unique chord progressions that became known as “Coltrane changes.” He began recording it just a few weeks after wrapping Kind of Blue with Davis.
Why listen: “As a jazz-improviser and composer this recording encouraged me to achieve virtuosity on my instrument; and it greatly informed my approach to the possibilities of small-group-concept-composition,” says Westray.