1959 – The Year That Changed Jazz

1959 was a seismic year in the history of jazz music.

It saw the arrival of several timeless classics (not least ‘Giant Steps‘ and ‘Kind of Blue‘) and is frequently heralded by critics and fans as the greatest year in jazz.

Pioneering releases by the likes of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus all sought to take their music in different directions, and challenge an audience’s preconceived notions of what jazz could be.

The themes explored on these records have provided inspiration to future generations of jazz musicians who followed, and their importance cannot be overstated.

We’ve selected 7 albums that entered the jazz world with a bang in 1959 to look at in more detail – enjoy!

1959 in jazz

John Coltrane – Giant Steps (1959)

Widely regarded as one of the most indispensable jazz albums of all time, John Coltrane entered the studio to commence work on Giant Steps fresh off the back of recording the equally iconic Kind of Blue with Miles Davis’ band, and having recently signed a deal with Atlantic records.

Pursuing a completely different harmonic path to Davis’ Kind of Blue, Giant Steps was laden with new and daring harmonic movement, perhaps most obviously on the title track itself.

Utilising a rapid chord sequence that moves through three key centres, tackling Giant Steps remains to this day, a sort of rite-of-passage for every budding jazz musician, and a barometer by which their improvisational skill can be measured.

Stretching the harmonic boundaries of what had come before to the absolute limit, Coltrane effortlessly flies through the 26 chord changes in the composition’s 16-bar sequence. The saxophone great demonstes a total mastery of pentatonic patterns, and an unrivaled fluency when improvising over chordal movement in major thirds.

Whilst featuring two extraordinary rhythm sections (the first session comprising Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, the second featuring Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb), it is undoubtedly Coltrane who is the primary focus of the record.

His ferocious improvisations burn with a white-hot intensity across the seven forward-thinking original compositions that were written for the date, and shifted the needle for all those that would follow, changing the shape of jazz to come over the course of 37 minutes and 3 seconds.

Abbey Lincoln – Abbey is Blue (1959)

Abbey is Blue was  Abbey Lincoln’s third and final session for the Riverside label.

It precedes some of her most politically-engaged recorded output (such as work on Max Roach’s seminal civil rights-themed disc We Insist!), and features the jazz singer in fine company:  she’s joined by an all-star cast of musicians including the likes of Kenny Dorham, Wynton Kelly, Philly Joe-Jones and Cedar Walton.

Whilst perhaps not as overtly musically ground-breaking as some of the other recordings featured on this list, Lincoln’s eloquent and emotionally direct style (similar in some ways to that of Billie Holiday) has inspired countless singers since, and provides a masterclass in inhabiting the lyrics of a song.

Lincoln’s song choice demonstrates her shift away from well-worn Tin Pan Alley standards, and towards her championing of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, delivering arresting renditions of songs with themes of loss and injustice and forcing the listener to engage.

Art Blakey – Moanin’ (1959)

Marking drummer and bandleader Art Blakey’s return to Blue Note Records after several years recording for different labels, Moanin’ (originally titled Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers) is often described as one of the definitive hard-bop recordings of all time, and ranks as Blakey’s most popular in his extensive discography.

Featuring arguably the greatest line-up in Blakey’s jazz messengers’ history (Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt), this landmark disc encapsulates the spirit of hard-bop perfectly, taking the modern jazz language of the time and fusing it with elements of blues, gospel and R&B.

This is particularly evident on the title track, ‘Moanin’ whose bluesy call-and-response theme is steeped in the gospel tradition and features one of the most iconic solo openings of all time from jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan.

All six of the tracks featured on the original recording were to become staples of the Jazz Messengers’ live repertoire for decades to come, and have been performed extensively by jazz musicians since.

As well as the title track, listen out for Golson’s elegant contrapuntal writing on the up-tempo ‘Are You Real’ as well as the harmonically sophisticated ‘Along Came Betty’.

Captured masterfully by Rudy Van Gelder at his famous Hackensack studio, Moanin’ is worthy of its place on this list, and well worth seeking out.

Dave Brubeck – Time Out (1959)

Dave Brubeck’s much loved Time Out, released in 1959 on Columbia records was ground-breaking at the time for its extensive use of time signatures that were unusual in jazz.

Peaking at number 2 on the pop charts, it was the first jazz album to sell over one million copies, and its enduring popularity saw it inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009.

The album features six compositions by pianist Brubeck, and one (the biggest selling jazz single ever, ‘Take Five’) by saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Brubeck’s compositions draw inspiration from a wide range of musical backgrounds.

‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’ for example explores rhythmic concepts that Brubeck was exposed to whilst listening to Turkish folk musicians on a US-sponsored tour of Eurasia.

Whilst starting in the relatively conventional time signature of 9/8, the beat is subdivided in a way that is not often heard in Western music (2+2+2+3, the rhythm of the traditional Turkish Zeybek dance), before switching to 4/4 swing for the solos.

‘Take Five’ on the other hand stays in its 5/4 time signature throughout, famous for its two chord vamp between Ebm7 and Bbm7.

Brubeck’s defining Cool jazz masterpiece is both sophisticated and accessible: a must-have in any record collection.

Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)

Ornette Coleman’s debut album for Atlantic records ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come‘ is without question one of the most important free jazz recordings of all time, and a landmark album in the history of 20th century music.

Slightly unusual at the time, Coleman’s famous quartet didn’t use any chordal instuments and consisted of Coleman on his plastic Grafton alto saxophone, Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on double bass and Billy Higgins on drums.

The album features six compositions all by Coleman himself which, in their overall form, are conventional in following a head-solo-head structure.

The improvisations, however, abandon the use of a chord structure, allowing the soloist total freedom over the harmonic and melodic direction that they wish to pursue, a philosophy that Coleman coined as ‘harmolodic’.

Whilst branded by certain critics as totally radical at the time, ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come‘ is in reality an accessible and joyful album that eschews traditional form and technique in pursuit of a new sound.

It’s inspired countless other boundary-pushing jazz musicians, and gives a glimpse of how Coleman would develop further throughout his illustrious career.

Charles Mingus – Ah Um (1959)

Double bassist Charles Mingus’ debut release for Columbia records perfectly captures his genius as both a composer and bandleader, resulting in an album that is revered by all, and quite possibly his greatest work.

The original release comprises 9 brilliantly unique compositions full of character and contrasting moods, whether it be Mingus’ musical ridiculing of segregationist governor Orval E. Faubus heard in ‘Fables of Faubus’ or the simmering intensity present throughout the hard-swinging ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’.

The disc is laden with tributes to those he revered including Lester Young (‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’), Duke Ellington (‘Open Letter to Duke’) or Jelly Roll Morton (‘Jelly Roll’) and is essential listening for those interested in the history of jazz.

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959)

Frequently cited as the best-selling jazz record of all time, and unquestionably one of Miles Davis’ great masterpieces, ‘Kind of Blue’ was recorded for Columbia Records in New York City across two sessions in the spring of 1959.

Miles Davis leads a sextet comprising John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley (alto saxophone), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (double bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums), with pianist Wynton Kelly replacing Evans on the blues ‘Freddie Freeloader’.

Together, they perform five original compositions (including two with contributions from Bill Evans).

From the moment that the record begins, the listener can hear that Davis had consciously shifted the band’s sound; they move away from the classic, chord-heavy hard bop style and towards a new one, that would in time come to be known as ‘modal jazz‘.

Taking inspiration from jazz pianist George Russell’s 1953 book ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation’ the trumpeter set about writing a whole record based on a series of modal sketches.

This new way of improvising, based around the vertical relationship between chords and scales, paved the way for early experimentations in ‘modal jazz.’

It’s said that the recording session took place with almost no rehearsal, and few prior clues regarding what Davis wanted to record, each musician simply being given a set of scales and melody lines on which to improvise.

The result of Davis’ new approach is one of the most influential albums of all time, and a landmark of 20th century music, essential listening for all music lovers.

So there you have it: 7 of the most famous albums in jazz history, all released in the same 12 month period in 1959!

Hopefully this has given you some ieas of music to listen to, but feel free to use the comments section below if you feel we’ve overlooked other favourites from 1959!

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