Illustration for article titled The Best Year in Jazz Ever

Ask 30 avid jazz fans, the type who cherish their vinyl LPs, to name their 30 favorite recordings and the following discs will show up on a lot of the lists. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and two by Charles Mingus, Blues and Roots and Ah-Um. While it’s remarkable to get any degree of agreement in the jazz community, what is even more amazing is that all six of these albums were recorded in 1959.


It was no fluke. That year represented the apex in jazz creativity. In the years before or just after 1959, other jazz legends—Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey—also released iconic recordings. After Kind of Blue, Davis went on to begin work on Sketches of Spain, probably his second-most beloved recording.

These six discs in particular were striking and innovative. With Kind of Blue, Davis introduced modal improvisation, a style in which the soloist abandons the chords of a tune in favor of improvising upon the scales. It resulted in a more open sound and enhanced the deeply meditative sound of this recording. Both of Mingus’ discs were rebuttals to the notion that his music was too cerebral, and it fused raucous improvising with bluesy and gospel-influenced melodies.


Coltrane played on Kind of Blue, then he began recording his first classic only a few days later. On it, he advances the solo style into a frenetic rush of rhythmic precise notes, and his tone begins to approach that of an impassioned human voice. Brubeck fused jazz and classical music in a new, infectious way. Coleman, who spent most of the ‘50s on the fringes of the Los Angeles jazz scene, completely rewrote the rule book of jazz, abandoning many of the harmonic and melodic structures in favor of a more intuitive style.

Every lasting musical style has a peak moment. Rock had one from the mid- to late ‘60s, when The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan all released cornerstone albums. Hip-hop had a moment like this in the early to mid-‘90s when gangsta, alternative and mainstream wings were in full effect. As was the case in jazz, those were eras when commercial success and artistic inspiration merged, but there were deeper social factors underlying jazz’s greatest era.

Consider the birth years of these legendary musicians: Brubeck was born 1920, Mingus in 1922, Coltrane and Davis in 1926 and Coleman in 1930. They had all come of age during the World War II era, bebop revolution of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Bird and Diz, as they were often known, brought radical change to jazz, turning the long bluesy lines that were the mainstream into intricate, complex staccato rhythms. This opened the door for innovation, and musicians who sought to be the next wave of stylistic leaders knew the bar had been set high. Mingus, Davis and Coltrane played with these legends; Brubeck and Coleman were deeply influenced by their music. During Coleman’s groundbreaking New York City debut in November 1959 at the Five Spot Cafe, outraged musicians and fans who thought Coleman didn’t know the jazz tradition were shocked to hear him play Parker’s music with astonishing dexterity backstage just before his concerts. Ornette knew the tradition; he just wanted to move beyond it.

Jazz was in a unique position in the late ‘50s. It was increasingly respected in the art world; it wasn’t considered on the same level as European classical music, but it was certainly closing the gap. However, jazz was also still immensely popular; rock and roll and R&B were just starting to enter the mainstream. For these reasons, it was only natural for a talented young musician to aspire toward a career in jazz, and the glut of musicians in the style increased the urgency to develop a unique style.


There was one more impetus that led to all of this amazing music. There had been a rash of tragic deaths that rocked the jazz community in the mid- and late ‘50s. Parker died in 1955 at the age of 34. Legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown died in a car crash in 1956 at the age of 25. The great saxophonist Lester Young died in 1959 at the age of 49, and Billie Holiday passed away in 1959 at the age of 44. Lengthy addictions to drugs and alcohol contributed mightily to all of the deaths except Brown. There was an almost communal endeavor to highlight a new generation of leaders, and these musicians fit the bill better than anyone could have imagined.

Each of these six recordings sold exceptionally well; in fact, Kind of Blue and Time Out are two of the best-selling jazz recordings of all time. And astonishingly all of these musicians except Brubeck produced later works that equaled or approached the classics they produced in 1959. Davis released Sketches of Spain in 1960, Bitches Brew in 1970 and a host of other revered albums. Mingus produced another classic, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, in 1963 and most of his work from this period is incredible.


Coltrane produced his all-time masterpiece, A Love Supreme, in 1965. All of Coleman’s recordings from the early ‘60s are must-haves, and he has continued to make stellar, unique music.

For Brubeck, 1959 represented a career peak, but for Mingus, Coleman and Coltrane, this apocryphal year was only the beginning of a remarkable run of extraordinary music. For Davis, who had already created one masterpiece (The Birth of the Cool in 1949), making great records was simply business as usual.  


Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter

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