60 Years of ‘Kind of Blue’ & Beyond
The year 1959 — that impactful way station between the stuffy prosperity of the ’50s and the catharsis of the ’60s — is to jazz what 1971 is to rock or ’77 is to punk or ’88 has been to hip-hop. Which is to say, it’s a commonly touted Greatest Year in the History of the Genre.
The designation isn’t incorrect. A handful of canonized LPs did offer both breathtaking aesthetic achievement and enduring innovation, and underscoring ’59 in jazz’s timeline has incited some dynamite cultural criticism and fascinating deep research. But jazz newcomers should know that every midcentury year produced a trove of desert-island disks; then as now, the musicians jammed and gigged and recorded constantly.
Jazz history is an ocean of information that even the most well-designed college survey course can’t consolidate. Many great things were and are happening all at once, and the fun resides in the fact that the next record or set just might be the best thing you’ve ever heard.
To celebrate this idea of an embarrassment of jazz riches, we’ve picked several releases or sessions turning 60 this year that you’ve probably already heard, or at least heard of — and that includes Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which dropped on August 17, 1959.
Then we’ll discuss a few other fantastic LPs, also recorded or released in ’59, that you might try out next.
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Why is trumpeter Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue perhaps the most enduring and mythologized acoustic jazz album ever? Because it’s undeniably beautiful, first of all. That might seem obvious, but if you really get into jazz, you’ll likely have to sit through records that register as head-scratching and unappealing; Kind of Blue is a reverie off the bat.
Davis and his conceptual adviser of sorts, pianist Bill Evans, sidestepped the harmonic blueprints of bop and hard bop in favor of what became modal jazz, a kind of streamlined safe space for melodic invention. With thin guidance, Davis’ personnel — a dream team of Evans, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and the drummer Jimmy Cobb, a cushiony secret weapon — fell impeccably under the tunes’ spell, offering solos and support that are now compulsory for student musicians to dissect.
Kind of Blue is also a testament to the graceful power of a patient tempo, as much of its material gathered steam in a live setting, becoming more akin to the rest of Davis’ catalogue.
Next Steps: Workin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet was recorded by Davis’ First Great Quintet with Coltrane and Chambers in 1956 but held until ’59, and fans of Kind of Blue’s lyrical quietude will adore “It Never Entered My Mind.”
They should also immerse themselves in Porgy and Bess, the third landmark project Davis completed with the peerless arranger Gil Evans, and a vibrant contribution to the classical-jazz axis.
Chet Baker’s Chet features some Davis cohorts, including Bill Evans, and delivers just the sort of doe-eyed introspection you’d want from this other great brass romantic.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out
To this day, the pianist Dave Brubeck is a popular jazz phenomenon rather than a critical favorite, but his true genius was his ability to split the difference between those two poles.
On Time Out, he seamlessly incorporated the odd time signatures he absorbed during his travels into the elegantly swinging vibe of his best-remembered working quartet: the floating alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello.
The experiment, shrouded in crisp California cool, went down smooth, and the LP became a chart success that spawned a hit single in Desmond’s “Take Five.”
Next Steps: If Time Out’s mix of musicianly smarts and a mellow temperament invites you, check these out: while their Village Vanguard recordings are favored, Bill Evans, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian documented the beginning of their boldly interactive relationship on Portrait in Jazz.
The Wes Montgomery Trio marked the twilit leader debut of jazz’s most influential guitarist.
Finally, dig into the work of the late bossa-nova pioneer João Gilberto, whose gentle rallying cry of a debut, Chega de Saudade, was released in ’59 in Brazil.
Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um
Irascible and visionary, the bassist and composer Charles Mingus bridged the gap between resolutely modern jazz and its gutbucket blues and gospel roots like no one else.
On Mingus Ah Um, his first effort for Columbia, he turned his wooly ambition into a handful of compositions that continue to haunt bandstands, among them the roiling blues “Boogie Stop Shuffle” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a noir-kissed tribute to saxophonist Lester Young.
In saxophonists John Handy and Booker Ervin, the album also reflects Mingus’ gift for corralling distinctive voices who’d go on to rate among jazz’s cult heroes. Like saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, released the prior year, Mingus’ tune “Fables of Faubus,” an indictment of Arkansas’ bigoted governor, is a nascent example of jazz as civil-rights-era protest.
Next Steps: On the ’59 shelf, there are plenty more examples of leading-edge jazz ideas commingling with blues and wonderfully rugged musicianship. See Mingus’ Blues & Roots, The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall and Sun Ra & His Arkestra’s Jazz in Silhouette.
Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come
It’s little wonder that Ornette Coleman, 60 years after this Atlantic debut, remains a jazz beacon for music fans far outside jazz. When he was developing and showcasing his notion of the avant-garde, many musicians devoted to the harmonic consonance and heroic precision of bop scoffed, or worse.
But a through line connecting the saxophonist’s oblique melodic cries to rough-and-tumble blues was always there — Coleman hailed from Texas, after all — and his conceptual ingenuity has felt of a piece with breakthroughs in 20th-century classical music and the vanguard of rock & roll.
On tracks like the classic “Lonely Woman,” Coleman and his trailblazing piano-less quartet — cornetist Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins — balance enticing themes with an all-in brand of improvisation that shifts constantly to reflect the present moment.
Next Steps: The free-jazz champion also released his last album for the Contemporary label, Tomorrow Is the Question!, in ’59, and it’s a striking study of Coleman and Cherry’s burgeoning ideas and rapport atop a more conventional rhythm section of drummer Shelly Manne and either Percy Heath or Red Mitchell on bass.
John Coltrane, Giant Steps
The saxophonist John Coltrane’s great gift to music — to culture, to planet earth — was proving how achievement and ambition could have nothing to do with ego. A reticent man who delivered his deep spiritual yearning through his horn, he thirsted for new systems and undiscovered modes of expression.
On Giant Steps, bolstered by pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor, that mission meant a pair of related harmonic races, the title track and “Countdown,” that continue to daunt musicians today.
Still more of the LP has entered the jazz songbook: the hard-bop exemplars “Mr. P.C.” and “Cousin Mary”; the sweetly melancholy ballad “Naima,” on which Flanagan and Taylor are replaced by Kind of Blue veterans Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb. Coltrane would leave Davis (for good) in 1960, having transcended his oversight.
Next Steps: Whiffs of the harmonic daring that would culminate with Giant Steps can be found on slightly earlier recordings like Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago, which offers another opportunity to experience the Trane-Cannon tandem with the Kelly-Chambers-Cobb rhythm section of Kind of Blue’s “Freddie Freeloader.”
Jackie McLean’s New Soil is another example of a searching and supremely talented saxophonist searching for fresh possibilities in hard bop, and it could have gone elsewhere in this piece; McLean was an alum of bands led by Davis and Mingus, and absorbed the influence of Ornette Coleman profoundly.
The era’s other tenor god, Sonny Rollins, spent much of ’59 on his famous sabbatical, so Sonny Side Up, recorded in 1957 and released two years later, is a fine excuse to sample a separate incarnation of midcentury excellence.
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