More Than 'Kind Of Blue': In 1959, A Few Albums Changed Jazz Forever

Apr 29, 2019
Originally published on April 30, 2019 12:57 pm

Sixty years ago, this month, Miles Davis finished recording Kind of Blue, perhaps his greatest masterpiece and still jazz's bestselling album. But it was not the only milestone recorded that year.

John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus all cut timeless classics, which is why many fans hold that 1959 is the greatest year in all of jazz music. There are countless think pieces exploring the idea, a popular new blog devoted to the subject and even a documentary film, 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz.

"1959 began with a very special issue of Esquire magazine called 'The Golden Age of Jazz,' a full issue devoted to this idea," says Nate Chinen of member station WBGO and NPR's Jazz Night in America. "The year opens with this bold proclamation, and I think it was in some ways a self-fulfilling prophecy."

So what makes it feel so special? Chinen joined host Rachel Martin on Morning Edition to explain; hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for highlights.


Interview Highlights

On Kind of Blue

When we talk about the 1950s, bebop — which had come out of the '40s — has really reached a sort of maturity. And bebop is all about frenetic tempos and this real sort of virtuosic mastery; Miles Davis cut his teeth on bebop. But with this album, he really makes a concerted effort to move in a different direction, and so he brings all this space and openness and these kind of languid tempos, and creates a mood. It's no secret why people love it: It just feels good.

On John Coltrane's Giant Steps

If you want to talk about Kind of Blue as sort of a "relaxing into your armchair with a cocktail" vibe, Giant Steps is more like leaning forward in the passenger seat of a speeding race car.

It's really interesting to me that Coltrane plays on Kind of Blue, but his mind is in this other place. I mentioned how bebop is all about complexity and quickening tempos; Giant Steps is this landmark recording, and it's as if Coltrane took the complex algebra of bebop and turned it into quantum physics. He's just taking everything and ratcheting it up. [The title track] in particular has become a kind of proving ground for generations of musicians.

On Dave Brubeck's Time Out

This album was hugely popular. It was much more popular in its day than Kind of Blue or Giant Steps. And some of that has to do with how stylish it is: It's a very appealing sound, and I think you can trace this album and its intentions to what we know as fusion — and then, the stuff that later would kind of morph into smooth jazz. It's easy on the ears, even as it has a point to make.

On 1959's ultimate legacy

It's not only a year that produces all these great albums, it's this pivotal moment — because every one of these points in a different direction, and lots of people have followed those directions in the 60 years since. You can go out to a club in most American cities and hear someone who's evoking any one of these ideas.

Copyright 2019 WBGO. To see more, visit WBGO.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS'S "FREDDIE FREELOADER")

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sounds good, right? Sixty years ago this month, Miles Davis finished recording one of the most iconic albums in jazz. "Kind Of Blue" is perhaps Davis's greatest masterpiece. But it wasn't the only milestone recorded that year. John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus all cut timeless classics, which is why many fans consider 1959 the best year in jazz ever.

There are all kinds of think pieces about this - a new blog devoted to the subject, even a documentary film titled "1959: The Year That Changed Jazz." So settle in. And let's listen to what 1959 sounded like. Our guide is Nate Chinen. He is editorial director at our member station WBGO. And he's with Jazz Night In America. Nate, thanks for being here.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. Make the case. What makes 1959 so great?

CHINEN: You know, it's funny. 1959 began with a very special issue of Esquire magazine called "The Golden Age Of Jazz," a full issue devoted to this idea. And so the year really opens with this bold proclamation. And I think it was, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

MARTIN: That's so interesting. They were prophesying that it was going to happen.

CHINEN: Right, you know. And remember that albums were still a fairly new development. People were really thinking about these albums as, like, major artistic statements.

MARTIN: Let's listen to another piece from "Kind Of Blue." This is called "So What."

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS'S "SO WHAT")

MARTIN: People who know this work can almost anticipate the trumpet coming in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS'S "SO WHAT")

MARTIN: What makes it such an important recording, Nate?

CHINEN: What's the word that comes to your mind when I say Miles Davis?

MARTIN: Blue. I mean, (laughter) is that lame? I mean...

CHINEN: No. Not at all. And I think there's this aura to this album. And it is about blue. And it's also about the other word I was thinking of, which is cool. You know, when we talk about the 1950s - bebop, which had come out of the '40s, has really reached a sort of maturity. And bebop is all about frenetic tempos and, you know, this real sort of virtuosic mastery. Miles Davis cut his teeth on bebop. But with this album, he really makes a concerted effort to move in a different direction. And so he brings all this space and openness and these kind of languid tempos and creates a mood. It's no secret why people love it. It just feels good.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "GIANT STEPS")

MARTIN: All right. One of those guys who played on that album was John Coltrane. He also put out a classic album in 1959. Let's listen to a little bit of the title track from "Giant Steps."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "GIANT STEPS")

MARTIN: He's doing his own thing there, isn't he?

CHINEN: Yeah. You know, what a contrast. It's really interesting to me that Coltrane plays on "Kind Of Blue," but his mind is in this other place.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHINEN: And, you know, I mentioned how bebop was all about complexity and quickening tempos. "Giant Steps" is this landmark recording. And it's as if Coltrane took the complex algebra of bebop and turned it into quantum physics.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHINEN: He's just taking everything and ratcheting it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "GIANT STEPS")

CHINEN: This song in particular has become a kind of proving ground for generations of musicians.

MARTIN: What about the listener experience, though? Does it have the same emotive quality that "Kind Of Blue" has?

CHINEN: I feel like there's emotion in "Giant Steps." But it is certainly - you know, if you want to talk about "Kind Of Blue" as sort of relaxing-into-your-armchair-with-a-cocktail vibe...

MARTIN: Yeah.

CHINEN: ..."Giant Steps" is more like leaning forward in the passenger seat of a speeding racecar, (laughter) you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "TAKE FIVE")

MARTIN: All right. Let's listen to another good album from 1959. This is "Take Five" from Dave Brubeck, his album "Time Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "TAKE FIVE")

MARTIN: If "Kind Of Blue" is sitting in an armchair with a martini or a cocktail, this - speaking of vices - feels like smoking in an alley to me.

CHINEN: (Laughter) And so much of that attitude comes from the sound of the alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, who - actually, his tone was once described by a jazz critic in terms of a dry martini.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "TAKE FIVE")

CHINEN: This album was hugely popular. It was much more popular in its day than "Kind Of Blue" or "Giant Steps." And some of that has to do with how stylish it is. It's a very appealing sound. And I think you can trace this album and its intentions to what we know as fusion and then, you know, the stuff that later would kind of morph into smooth jazz. It's easy on the ears, even as it has a point to make.

MARTIN: Right. But there's still, like, a melody, you know?

CHINEN: Yes. Yes. It's highly melodic, for sure.

MARTIN: All right. We've got time for one more track. This is called "Eventually" from Ornette Coleman's album titled "The Shape Of Jazz To Come."

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "EVENTUALLY")

MARTIN: I love that. They're talking to each other - right? - it's like a call and response.

CHINEN: Absolutely. You totally get it. So Ornette is this incredible alto saxophonist and composer. And as quickly as you grasped what this track is about, a lot of people were really incensed by it. It was kind of scandalous in its day.

MARTIN: Why?

CHINEN: Because there was this way in which Ornette was breaking apart the sort of usual, formal signposts. You know, he wasn't heeding the usual sort of bebop rules. You know, there's this sense of something bursting out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN'S "EVENTUALLY")

CHINEN: And so this becomes the sort of shot across the bow that really kicks off what we now refer to often as free jazz or, you know, the avant-garde.

MARTIN: So is Ornette Coleman right? Was this the shape of jazz to come?

CHINEN: It was definitely one shape, you know? And this really gets at the heart of what fascinates me about 1959. It's not only a year that produces all these great albums. It's this pivotal moment because every one of these points in a different direction. And lots of people have followed those directions in the, you know, 60 years since. You can go out to a club in, you know, most American cities, and you can hear someone who is evoking any one of these ideas. And so this notion of jazz having a shape in the future, it actually - for me, there's not one shape of jazz to come. There's actually many.

MARTIN: In 1959. Very cool, Nate. Thank you so much for taking us back to that year.

CHINEN: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS'S "BETTER GIT IT IN YOUR SOUL")

MARTIN: Nate Chinen, from member station WBGO and Jazz Night In America, talking about 1959 - the year some have called the greatest year in jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS'S "BETTER GIT IT IN YOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.