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January 17, 2010

1959: The Year That Changed Jazz, Part One of Two

Last Friday I sat in the Whitsell Auditorium through the re-screening of Cool. I was giddy and excited to see 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz. Featuring highlights on Kind of Blue, Time Out, Mingus Ah Um, and for me most importantly The Shape of Jazz To Come. The audience was provided with the insight of individuals consisting of jazz writers, critics & historians Ashley Kahn, Stanley Crouch, Nat Hentoff, producer George Avakian, Charles Mingus' wife and the Mingus Big Band's art director Sue Mingus, the Village Vangaurd's Lorraine Gordon. While also featuring musicians Lou Reed, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Joe Morelo, Charlie Haden, Jimmy Cobb, and the voice of Ornette Coleman from a 2009 interview. The movie was divided into five sections; one segment for each album, and the fifth for how each artist responded to the times and how the times responded to each artist.

Last year, Fred Kaplan published a book titled, 1959: The Year Everything Changed. Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus wrote about here. This looks like a must for anybody even remotely interested in Mid-Century America. It's certainly on my list.

Kind of Blue, jazz's most selling album, started the discussion. Who else but expert Ashley Kahn consulted us about this historic achievement in jazz. Kahn mentioned how the session was just another day at the office for these players. Just a mere seven hour session, all cuts being just first takes with the exception of one, no one, not even Miles himself, expected this album to be so crucial to jazz. Charlie Haden described Davis' playing as completely individualistic and unlike any other trumpeters technique. And just like in the movie Cool, this film discussed Davis' approach to render his language as a continuation of bebop.

We were then transitioned into Dave Brubeck's, Time Out. I don't think I even even have to go into the success of this record -- or that "Take Five" is probably one the must played songs in jazz. During the 50s, the U.S. saw Dave Brubeck as quintessential middle America. With the Cold War at it's peak, his quartet was sent overseas to tour Eastern Europe. In a way, he was used as an ambassador to represent the "cool" and the freedom of America. Brubeck himself pointed out a contrasting hypocrisy here. Many black citizens were striving for their own civil liberties on America's own front.

What I appreciated most was the film discussing the quartet's commercial success, which was mostly to white, middle America. Many individuals considered Brubeck a racist and sell out. However, Brubeck never intended to turn jazz towards any specific audience and his quartet was merely creating music in which he felt jazz should head. I couldn't agree more when Stanley Crouch when stating that Brubeck's quartet was far from racism and commercialism, it just so happened to be what the public latched itself to.

Much of the touring and exposure to Eastern European countries inspired many of the compositions on Time Out. For example, "Blue Rondo a la Turk," the melody was taken from Turkish folk music. Brubeck also shared a lot of great stories about the quartet. We heard about the struggles for stage popularity between Joe Morello and Paul Desmond, the conflicts with racism and segregation for bassist Eugene Wright while performing in the south, and even how Brubeck received the idea for "Take Five's" time signature while backstage observing Joe Morello tapping on his lap in 5/4.

Charles Mingus was no exception when it came to struggles with race and the recording industry. And with a passion and temper as bold as his, it was no surprise to see outlandish displays of anger on stage. But often you may find Mingus' satirical criticism of these issues in his own compositions, especially on Mingus Ah Um. Mingus created a direct response to racism and civil rights with his composition, "Fables of Faubus." A response to Arkansas' governor, Orval E. Faubus, in which Faubus opposed the Supreme Court rulings to enact integration. In fact, he had originally written lyrics for him and Dannie Richmond to share, but to avoid controversy, Columbia Records banned them from the album.

I believe Mingus is the bridge between bop and the avant-garde. He encouraged freedom in improvisation, and like Coltrane, wanted to get to the roots of jazz while creating something new. I believe Mingus' album, The Clown, is his strongest. It's Conceptual, free, powerful, timeless and here to stay.

Coming up I'll post part two for Ornette Coleman's highlights of 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz.

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