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 enchanting 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.
- Album of the Year (and Best Arrangement): The Music from Peter Gunn, by Henry Mancini
- Vocal Performance, Female: Ella Fitzgerald for the Irving Berlin Songbook.
- Best Performance by a Vocal Group: Louis Prima and Keely Smith for “That Old Black Magic.”
- Best Performance by a Dance Band: Count Basie for Basie.
- Best Performance by an Orchestra: Billy May for Billy May’s Big Fat Brass.
- Best Performance, Individual (Jazz category): Ella Fitzgerald for The Duke Ellington Songbook.
For records released in 1959, the 1960 Grammy awards were also jazz-centered:
- Record of the Year (and Best New Artist): Bobby Darin for “Mack the Knife.”
- Album of the Year (and Best Arrangements): Billy May for Frank Sinatra’s Come Dance With Me.
- Best R&B Performance: Dinah Washington for “What a Difference a Day Makes.”
- Best Musical Composition (also Best Sound Track and Best Performance by a Dance Band): Duke Ellington for the Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack.
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.
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
- February 3: The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago
- February 3-10: Shorty Rogers, The Wizard of Oz and Other Harold Arlen Songs
- February 9-10: Quincy Jones begins recording Birth of a Band
- February 25: The Queen’s Suite, a private recording by Duke Ellington for Queen Elizabeth II
- February 28: The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall
- March 2: Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue (5 of 6 tracks recorded)
- March 4-5: Billie Holiday, “You Took Advantage of Me” (among her last recordings)
- March 9-10: Quincy Jones: Most tracks for Birth of a Band
- March 14, 28: Art Pepper + Eleven (also on May 12)
- March 31 and April 1: Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Sextet Live in Australia
- April 8-9: Blossom Dearie Sings Comden & Green
- April 9: Ben Webster & Associates
- April 14: “The Single Petal of a Rose,” by Duke Ellington (part of The Queen’s Suite)
- April 22: Kind Of Blue‘s second session: “Flamenco Sketches” and alternate take of “All Blues”
- April 22-23: Dave Brubeck, most of the Gone with the Wind Album
- April 23-29: Mel Torme & the Mel-Tones, Back in Town
- May 5: John Coltrane, Giant Steps main tracks
- May 22: Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come
- May 26-28: Quincy Jones, more tracks for Birth Of A Band
- May 31: Count Basie: Breakfast Dance & Barbecue
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.