© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The freedom to import or invent musical resources fundamentally changed the role of the composer-performer in jazz. Like Jelly Roll Morton, one could go on inventing jazz or take it as a given. The jazz composer-performer can choose to be a creator within a form and/or creator of forms. The difference, as of 1959, is that jazz was at last strong enough to venture beyond established conventions without losing its identity.”...
“There were many earlier victories on the socio-cultural level, for example, the 1938 and 1939 Carnegie Hall concerts, but the collective breakthrough in 1959 was the decisive emancipation of jazz from its popular past; a break not only from being seen as popular entertainment and dance music, but from being defined by the very (musical) characteristics that lasted even through the so-called bebop revolution. Modern jazz was not a rejection of tradition but, like modern 'classical' music, was built on re-conceptualising what was already possible. Present-day jazz pedagogy and theory within the jazz tradition is a lasting and powerful link with this period.”
- Darius Brubeck
Part 6 is from Darius Brubeck’s essay - 1959: The Beginning of Beyond - which in its final form, serves as Chapter 10 in Merwyn Cooke and David Horn, The Cambridge Companion to Jazz .
As noted in the first posting, it’s a long piece, so we have used the subject headings within the essay as a means of presenting it on these pages in smaller samplings.
Keeping in mind Darius’ observation of 1959 as a pivotal year in the evolution of Jazz and having previously considered and delineated the factors building up to why this was so, he now turns to a discussion about the specific albums that created this critical juncture - “the beginnings of the beyond” - in the development of Jazz.”[paragraphing modified in places to fit the blog platform].
My thanks to Darius for allowing me the privilege of representing his work on these pages.
© Copyright ® Darius Brubeck, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.
“The 1959 Recordings”
“Since 1959, unresolved questions surround the alternative approaches to harmonic activity as the primary controlling factor in jazz performance and composition. If playing 'the changes' can be questioned, so can every other 'given.’ The almost simultaneous popularisation of devices that were undoubtedly known but barely used in jazz is no accident. I will now turn to the four recordings I listed at the start of this chapter, without meaning to imply that four very different musicians were knowingly working in tandem or constituted a self-conscious 'movement'. Along the way I pointed out contemporaneous critical and technical concepts and now we can examine what these records 'mean' in jazz history and why these 40-year-old recordings remain both contemporary and historical. All recorded in 1959, they confirm that jazz was not just on yet another new course but was rapidly expanding like a galaxy. To risk stating the obvious, the collection of music represented here does not add up to a new style; on the contrary, it signals the break-up of a broad consensus (already charged with centrifugal forces) and perhaps, with hindsight, the last chapter of the collectivism and evolutionary narrative. Each record included in this set showcases an idea that contributes to the overall stockpile of jazz resources, and the net result was to remove from jazz Mehegan's 'circumscribed limits of a diatonic harmonic system, 4/4 time, eighth-note, quarter-note, half-note time composite, eight bar sections and the various attendant qualities we have been accustomed to' (see above, p. 181/ Mehegan reference in Part 1). Taken together, these landmarks of modern jazz at the end of the 1950s anticipate the 1960s as the epoch of stretching the form. And, by the way, they did call it 'jazz'.
Of all of the 'experimental' albums ever made, only Kind of Blue seems perfect and still able to please everybody. Time Out by Dave Brubeck was attacked as too 'commercial' while anything by Coleman is still too 'far out', just too different, for mainstream cultural assimilation. Leaving aside anything we know about the subsequent careers of the musicians involved, these three albums are high-quality realisations of their creators' artistic goals at the time; in every sense of the word, good records. In spite of its historic importance as a 'great' album, Giant Steps (with all due respect to Coltrane) sounds thrown together. Canonic status is accorded on other grounds: it represents a crucial stage in a celebrated artist's growth, premieres of compositions that will be performed for the rest of time, a strong declaration of stylistic stance.
An appreciation of jazz differs from the way one appreciates classical music. The 'rough edges', sloppy execution and inconsistency within some jazz performances are not there by design, but that they remain there at all in a medium that allows for retakes, editing or rejecting a track that is unacceptable, points to other priorities. Jazz recordings that are considered good (and of course there is debate about which these are) have a long shelf-life and usually contain some brilliant unrepeatable moments framed within identifiable musical contexts that are interesting in themselves and capable of replication elsewhere. The context - composition, the ensemble, the style and maybe certain 'licks' in the solos - is all that alternate takes should have in common, so from the standpoint of a musician making a recording, the unrepeatable is most important.
Next priority is the realisation of the composition, or concept, to the extent that there is one. Sometimes the first priority is to get down on record a prototype that can be improved on. But choosing between takes that equally get the idea across the brilliant improvised passage reverts to priority number one. Jazz musicians often hear or play 'what a piece is about' and are satisfied if the idea - in musical terms - is made sufficiently clear. Ideally, everyone plays the right notes, in time, in tune and with the right feeling and the instruments in perfect balance and sounding better under studio conditions with controlled reverberation than they would 'live.’
Musicians accept that this cannot be always the case and listeners have learned too that high-quality jazz moments and imaginative ideas are worth more than flawless execution devoid of risk and freedom. That said, polished recordings such as those made by the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Miles Davis Sextet and the Dave Brubeck Quartet are not to be written off jazz-wise as less spontaneous, but rather the result of the same musicians working together long enough to develop a collective consistency of execution. (The Shape of Jazz to Come is spectacularly 'tight' in a less obvious way.) Giant Steps did not document the collective effort of a working band but the leader's material and musical ideas.
Miles Davis was first identified with the bebop movement of the 1940s and, from then on, seemed to lead the way in every new movement in modern jazz. Kind of Blue was not so much a revolution as a realisation, a supreme realisation of achieved simplicity. This is music that is expressive and cool, modern and simple, intellectually conceived - it is explicitly based on a theoretical idea — yet spontaneous in execution. Declaring 'war on the chord' meant no longer having to race around a slalom course of harmonic 'changes'. For example, the opening track, So What, uses just two chords in 32 bars. In the album notes, Bill Evans refers to Davis's compositions not as 'tunes' but as 'frameworks': 'As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with a sure reference to the primary conception.'
Kind of Blue has been extensively written about and has by now, in a Milesian, low-key way, worked its way into mass culture (see, for example, Khan, Kind of Blues: The Making of a Masterpiece, 2000). I have already discussed some of the background to modal jazz. Kind of Blue is not the first jazz record to 'use modes' consciously and of course it is not just one technical factor but a fully integrated aesthetic achievement, including the performances of all members of the sextet, that make it the modal 'classic.’ [Mark Gridley, Listening Guide to Kind of Blue, in Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, 1997].
In the same year that he recorded Kind of Blue as a member of the Miles Davis Sextet, Coltrane pushed working with chord changes to the nth degree on his own Giant Steps. Poet and sociologist LeRoi Jones, writing in 1963, was also aware of the war on the chord:
If Coleman's music can be called nonchordal, John Coltrane's music is fanatically chordal. In his solos, Coltrane seems almost to want to separate each note of the chord (and its overtones) into separate entities and suck out even the most minute musical potential. With each instance, Coltrane redefines his accompanying chords as kinetic splinters of melody, rather than using the generalised block sound of the chord as the final determinant of the music's direction and shape. [Blues People: Negro Music in White America, p.228]
Certainly after Giant Steps Coltrane had nothing to prove as a virtuoso. Tunes using 'Coltrane changes' (progressions in thirds, semitones and fourths, perhaps inspired by Hasaan), along with transcriptions of his solos, are still the advanced literature of the tenor saxophone and indeed for chordal jazz in a modal era. If most musicians learned So What because it was so simple, everyone had to learn Giant Steps because it was so hard. Coltrane's short career at the top began with posing and solving technical problems (but with passionate commitment), and ended with smashing his way through layers of complexity to pure expression. Perhaps he was looking for the answer to the rhetorical question, 'So what?' The year 1959 finds him still near the beginning of this self-described spiritual journey and at this stage his music is intellectual; he is preoccupied with its technical elements rather than the esoteric musician as conduit for divine energy he later became.
For Ornette Coleman, playing on chord changes would have been just 'playing the background', the equivalent of not really improvising at all. Naming an album that demonstrated his harmolodic alternative, The Shape of Jazz to Come was an affront or at best a puzzle to many musicians. Coleman's approach seemed a crude abandonment of hard-earned skills and the collective wisdom of two or three generations. 'Free jazz' was a rejection of deeply felt criteria of 'validity' so painstakingly learned and observed by jazz musicians. By 1959, most took for granted that their work happened within a tradition that they had inherited and that would outlive them.
Coleman's re-shaping of jazz 'to come' was uncomfortable in this context. Most disquietingly of all, his music could be quite beautiful. It was correctly predicted by the nay-sayers that whatever merit there might be in Coleman's own music, the influence of free jazz as a movement would have the effect of driving people away. It did, and this had real-world consequences. The resolute traditionalism of our present age is perhaps meant to protect the jazz scene against a similar economic catastrophe in the future. In the 1960s, free jazz won adherents even among established players like Coltrane. To the average listener, the problem with much of free jazz had less to do with not being 'based on the chord' than with the strident and deliberately 'unmusical' sounds often associated with it. Nevertheless, in the long run, the mainstream benefited from avant-garde explorations of an enlarged jazz sound-world, e.g., how instruments are played, which sounds are musical and how sound is organised. The avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s generously opened up a non-imitative space for improvisers, especially European musicians, for whom the disciplines and re-worked 'standards' (tunes) of bebop were of marginal relevance to their artistic goals and culture.
After the intellectual intensity surrounding the three above-mentioned albums, to include a popular hit like Time Out may seem like dragging Star Wars into a discussion of avant-garde cinema, but it really did open up a 'final frontier' of jazz. Like Kind of Blue, it was an album entirely dedicated to working out a particular musical idea. Steve Race's sleeve notes begin:
Should some cool-minded Martian come to earth to check on the state of our music, he might play through 10,000 jazz records before he found one that wasn't in common 4/4 time... Dave Brubeck... is really the first to explore the uncharted seas... The outcome of his experiments is this album.
Experimenting was much closer to Brubeck's outlook than hit-making. In fact, the production of Time Out was undertaken somewhat in a spirit of artistic rebellion under a cloud of corporate disapproval. Columbia Records did not like the idea of an album of 'originals', the odd time-signatures concept or even the cover art he wanted. Because Brubeck (like Davis) was one of the top-selling jazz artists on the label, Columbia agreed to release Time Out, but only on condition that he also record an album of standards (Gone with the Wind, CL450984, 1959)
In spite of 'war' rhetoric, chords are not really destroyed by modes and/or free playing any more than 4/4 is rendered obsolete by 5/4. Soon after Kind of Blue, the chord-density Davis cleared out of his kind of jazz came back as second growth in the shape of 'modal' changes, compound harmonies, chord shapes and clusters over pedal points, primarily through the influence of McCoy Tyner, Coltrane's pianist during his 'classic' Quartet years. The chord, though weakened, has not yet surrendered completely and unconditionally, and jazz musicians still play and compose 'tunes' based on 'changes'.
The freedom to import or invent musical resources fundamentally changed the role of the composer-performer in jazz. Like Jelly Roll Morton, one could go on inventing jazz or take it as a given. The jazz composer-performer can choose to be a creator within a form and/or creator of forms. The difference, as of 1959, is that jazz was at last strong enough to venture beyond established conventions without losing its identity.
In the twenty-first century the idealistic notion of an 'autonomous art form', especially one like jazz with popular roots, requires some qualification. What I have been writing about relates mostly to the internal methodologies of jazz because, as we have seen, this is what certain leading musicians and intellectuals were engaged with in 1959. Of course this engagement did not happen in a historical or cultural vacuum. Contributing factors ranged from the industry-wide changeover to the stereo 33 1/3 LP record around 1957 to broad social trends such as the surge in higher education affecting musicians and audiences in post-war America, economic growth and nationalism (the decline of regionalism) in culture, electronic media and commerce, the appearance of sub-cultures identified with alternative expressions in the arts and the vexed, pervasive, dynamics of race. Zen and Existentialism proclaimed the reality of the here and now and the modernist spirit encouraged experimentalism for its own sake. In the otherwise ambiguous jazz world, a new phase was clearly ushered in by 'music about music', as demonstrated in the four albums briefly discussed in this chapter. I therefore considered the background of intellectualism, technical means and critical expectation in order to understand the amazingly rapid success and recognition by an elite and canonisation of what was, of course, radical innovation. Mehegan's blustering in Down Beat would not seem ridiculous to us now if Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and Time Out had not been by and large accepted first of all by the dynamic artistic community in which they arose.
There is a relatively simple answer to the question asked earlier about the similarity between jazz now and 40  years ago, but it does require a cultural perspective on 'internalist' matters. Jazz musicians and their advocates were entering a further stage of the long struggle for legitimacy. Of course, the greater part of this struggle had (and has) to do with minimising the practical consequences of long standing elitist and racial prejudices. For cultural legitimacy to be a prize worth having, jazz musicians also had to succeed in their internal struggle to invent or discover appropriate values. Articulate critics, academics and musicians were inevitably drawn to formalist terminology and experimentation, and were challenged to create as well as replicate. Criteria in the classical world, though not usually useful in valorising performances in terms that jazz musicians themselves thought relevant, were much closer to the level of practical criticism that was needed.[Gabbard, The Jazz Canon and Its Consequences, in Jazz Among the Discourses, 1995].
There were many earlier victories on the socio-cultural level, for example, the 1938 and 1939 Carnegie Hall concerts, but the collective breakthrough in 1959 was the decisive emancipation of jazz from its popular past; a break not only from being seen as popular entertainment and dance music, but from being defined by the very (musical) characteristics that lasted even through the so-called bebop revolution. Modern jazz was not a rejection of tradition but, like modern 'classical' music, was built on re-conceptualising what was already possible. Present-day jazz pedagogy and theory within the jazz tradition is a lasting and powerful link with this period.
The pre-1959 historical canon was already in place; the best of Morton, Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Parker (and of course many names that fit alongside or in between) and the present-day canon - Miles, Coltrane and all the rest - was simply added to it and is now taught around the world. The evolutionary hypothesis (in its technical aspects) works deceptively well up to this point, but for the longer future and beyond, the organic analogy with its corollary of artistic progress breaks down. It would be unfair to write off all the music of the 1970s and 1980s, but this was not a period of comparable importance for the art-form as a whole. The recent re-emergence of acoustic post-bop based on the 1960s and the unassailability of the modernist canon would seem to mark, if not 1959 exactly, then not very long after as the beginning of the present era. The reason there has been relatively little change over such a period is that a secure sense of cultural legitimacy, musical values and intellectual purpose was achieved with reference to music that was produced at the end of the 1950s. Significantly, not by fixing limits but by destabilising them, jazz remains an open, experimental field grounded in now universally accepted traditions.”
The following albums referred to in the text are available as CD reissues at the time of writing:
Brubeck, Dave, Time Out, CK 65122
Coleman, Ornette, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Atlantic 7567-81339-2
Coltrane, John, Giant Steps, Atlantic 8122-75203-2, Rhino R275203
Davis, Miles, Kind of Blue, CK 64935
Goodman, Benny and various, From Spirituals to Swing, Vanguard VCD2-47/48
Mingus, Charles, Mingus Ah Um, CK 65512
Schuller, Gunther, The Birth of the Third Stream, CK 64929, 1996
[CK = Columbia Legacy]