Today we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look at the multiple revolutions that took place during 1959. While it can be hard to nail down major turning points to specific years, this particular year signaled a change that brought major diversity to jazz.
Last time, we looked at the era of Post-Bebop that came about during the mid 1950s. We saw how methods of improvisation changed during this time, and were the breeding ground for new experimentation. We also looked at the importance of Charles Mingus, whose music and virtuosity on the bass helped influence others at the time.
Now we’ll look at a period that changed jazz forever. After this time, jazz ceased to follow an evolutionary handbook, and tendrils of diversity spread from it like scatter shot.
Once again, we’ll give a brief overview of this era, and touch on the multiple revolutions that came about during this time. We’ll then move on to a few musicians who encapsulated this period, and track the influence they had on jazz.
By 1959, confidence in jazz was still high. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were keeping the tradition of mainstream jazz alive. At the same time, Charles Mingus was demonstrating how funk and soul elements could be used. Other musicians were recording jazz versions of Broadway tunes. But from the outside, “America as a whole thought of jazz as a single style of music, unaware that hard-core jazz followers were at that very moment finding it increasingly difficult to say exactly what kind (or kinds) of the new jazz they favored” (p. 210).
Three singular albums came out in 1959 that captures these sentiments well. One each from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman. “There were two contrary tendencies at work in jazz at this point: to simplify the existing vocabulary of music and to complicate it” (p. 213).
One major component in bringing about permanent change in jazz was the increasing tendency of musicians to start playing with modes. A mode is simply just another scale, of which there are thousands available. As the chordal influences of rock, soul, funk entered jazz, progression were simplified. With less movement in chords, there was new room for melodies to step in.
Modal playing granted musicians more freedom from the conventions of harmony and songwriting. “It also provided new kinds of melodies and arrangements with a freer sense of rhythm, as modal pieces often have a floating, impressionistic quality” (p. 215).
Much like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis mocked musical categories, and innovated nearly every aspect of jazz along the way. This left many listeners confused and at a loss when it came to categorizing him as a musician. “Was he a bebopper, a cool jazz player, hard bopper, modal jazz musician, free jazz revolutionary, a fusioneer, a pop instrumentalist?” (p. 216).
Davis was all of these. And while his technical ability on the trumpet was at times criticized, “he could turn his alleged weaknesses into an aesthetic vulnerability that would fascinate generation after generation of listeners” (p. 216).
During these jazz revolutions, it was a time when the fundamentals of jazz were being rethought. John Coltrane was one of the more serious thinkers of the era. He would stack chords on top of one another, while attempting to play all the notes at once. Or experiment with playing foreign modes and techniques, especially inspired by those of India.
“Where most musicians can take thirteen years just to get up to speed, Coltrane was creating whole new styles, new musical conceptions, new senses of self every two years or so” (p. 218).
By the late 1950s, most jazz musicians adopted Charlie Parker’s musical view as the standard. They used the same musical vocabulary and syntax, and other alto sax players mimicked his tone and phrasing. Ornette Coleman, however, reinterpreted Parker’s musical language into another dialect of jazz. He pushed the limits of music further than most other musicians of his time.
“Though he minimized harmony, his work remained strongly rhythmic in a conventional way, appealing to a physical sense of pulse or heartbeat, and his phrases were often predictable and even blues-like” (p. 222).
While at the time, the music being played by the three musicians above was shocking, in time, it would become more of a mainstay in jazz, and lose its shock value. From 1959 onward, jazz became much more diverse, and ceased to conform to any logical evolutionary pattern.
We’ll touch more on that next time, as we dive into the era of Free Jazz.