Guest Column: 1959, A Good Year

Rifftides reader Gary Alexander has some thoughts about what he sees as a watershed year for jazz back when popular culture had not yet been reshaped by rock and roll. Mr. Alexander broadcasts a jazz program Mondays and Fridays 3:00 to 5:30 p.m. PST, from KLOI on Lopez Island, Washington. If you are among the 2,200 (+ -) people who live on that Lopez.jpgenchanting island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, you may know that KLOI is at 102.9 FM. If you are one of the 6-billion-800-million others (+ -), your best bet is to listen to Mr. Alexander on the web. Go here and scroll down to where it says, “Click Here To Listen To The Stream.” The opinions Mr. Alexander offers in the following piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Rifftides staff. On the other hand–to take a firm stand on the matter–maybe they do.

1959: The Year Jazz Was Reborn 

By Gary L. Alexander

Early in the morning of February 3, 1959, the chartered Beechcraft Bonanza carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.R. “Big Bopper” Richardson crashed just after take-off near Clear Lake, Iowa. It was shocking news, similar to what jazz fans felt when Charlie Parker died (“Bird Lives”) four years before, in March 1955. Later singers like Don McLean called this crash “the day the music died.” 

I beg to differ. Later that same day, the Miles Davis sextet (absent Miles) recorded


The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago, the first of three phenomenal new albums – all included John Coltrane – in the first half of 1959 alone. As the 50th anniversary of the Buddy Holly crash arrives this year, rock musicians and cultural pundits will mourn the death of these three vital voices at their peak of popularity in their golden age of rock’n’roll, but jazz musicians can celebrate the rebirth of their own music. 

In the six months of 1959 – particularly the four months between the famous crash on February 3 and the end of May – jazz was almost literally reborn, with ground-breaking albums like Miles Davis and his all-star sextet in the celebrated perennial best-seller, Kind Of Blue which was mostly recorded on March 2 of 1959. That album, a best-seller 


each year since, introduced modal music to many listeners, while albums recorded in the same season contained the most forward-looking avant-garde music. Giant Steps, John Coltrane’s post-“sheets of sound” excursion, was mostly recorded on May 5, the same day that Ella Fitzgerald captured many of the first Grammy awards in ceremonies dominated by jazz and swing-related music. 

Ella was busy recording her largest “Songbook” offering, the 53-song George And Ira Gershwin Songbook recorded from January to July of 1959. In the


 same period, Thelonious Monk recorded his famous Town Hall Concert (on February 28) and Charles Mingus perhaps his best album, Mingus Ah-Um (in May). Looking forward, Ornette Coleman offered us The Shape of Jazz to Come. At mid-year, Dave Brubeck recorded odd-time compositions in Time Out on June 25 and July 1. 

The rest of America was fairly hip in those months. The #1 jazz hit in 1959 was the “Theme from Peter Gunn,” written by Henry Mancini and played by Ray Anthony’s big band. It was in the Billboard Top 40 from January 19 to April 13, 1959, peaking at #8. The #1 hit for 1959 was a song written by Kurt Weill for a German opera in the 1920s, “Mack the Knife” (recorded in late 1958 and reaching #1 for 9 of 10 weeks in late 1959, a huge hit for Bobby Darin). As you can see, the #1 hits for the first half of 1959 were better-than-average pop songs.

#1 Billboard Hits its in Early 1959 

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” by the Platters (#1 for 3 weeks, January 19 to February 8)
“Stagger Lee,” by Lloyd Price (4 weeks): February 9 to March 8 
“Venus,” by Frankie Avalon (5 weeks): March 9 to April 12 
“Come Softly to Me,” by the Fleetwoods (4 weeks): April 13 to May 10 
“Kansas City,” by Wilbert Harrison (3 weeks): May 11 to May 31 
“The Battle of New Orleans,” by Johnny Horton (6 weeks): June 1 to July 12 

Jazz singers fared reasonably well on the Hit Parade, too. “Broken-Hearted Melody,” by Sarah Vaughn, charted for 11 weeks (August 17 to October 16), peaking at #7, while “What a Difference a Day Makes,” by Dinah Washington, reached #8. When the first Grammy Awards were announced in May 1959, jazz was a big winner, especially in the “Pop” category – although later on the Grammy judges mostly ignored jazz. 

For records released in 1959, the 1960 Grammy awards were also jazz-centered: 

Speaking of movie soundtracks, 1959 was the year that jazz scores expanded from jazz-influenced composers like Alex North, Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini to pure jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. 

I Want To Live.jpg

In late 1958Johnny Mandel scored and a band led by Mulligan played in I Want to Live, followed by Duke Ellington’s award-winning Anatomy of a Murder score in the Otto Preminger classic, released July 1, 1959. In the fall of 1959, three more movies featuring jazz artists were released: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, featuring Art  Blakey; Odds Against Tomorrow, with a score by John Lewis, and Shadows, featuring the music of Charles Mingus. 

The public was mostly buying good music, too. The best-selling album of 1959 was the soundtrack from Peter Gunn, which featured top Los Angeles-based jazz musicians. For the eight years surrounding 1959, the best-selling albums in America were all Broadway soundtrack albums: My Fair Lady (#1 in 1957-58), The Sound of Music (1960), Camelot (1961), West Side Story (1962-63), Hello Dolly (1964) and Mary Poppins (1965). The record-buying public was pouring more cash into music by Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein & Steve Sondheim, Jerry Herman and other great composers than into any single item by any rock artist – and that trend continued for nearly a decade, until 1966. 

Turning back to pure jazz, here are just a few of the albums recorded in those four magic months.

Day by Day, Classic Jazz Albums Recorded from February 2 to May 31, 1959

You can make a case that all forms of jazz existed side by
side, in relative peace, in that one year – everything from Dixieland to
avant-garde was on the record shelves under one category, Jazz.  The miracle year 1959 was not only the
year the music was reborn, but the year that jazz creativity reached its

                                                                                  ©Gary Alexander, 2009.

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  1. says

    I don’t know why I’m so attracted to jazz of that era — I was only 1 year old in 1959 — but to me it has a freshness I don’t hear in modern jazz. Mingus Ah Um is still one of my top 5 all-time jazz albums, even though I discovered it in college 30 years ago. I have many of the CDs you mentioned and I still listen to them often.
    I wonder why jazz in 2009 doesn’t sound as original or as interesting.