The Bigger Picture
Jazz's New Frontier: 1959
by Bob Moses
Decades are mile markers and as they recede into the rearview, they acquire meaning, if only by their distance. As organizing principles, some "anniversaries" merit curiosity — and some deserve real celebration. Film historians cherish 1939, with The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Rules of the Game, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights and on down an improbably long list of classics. Music fans have 1959, the year jazz established its agenda for the next 20 years with the most commercially successful jazz recordings of all time and the most challenging music of the time. Two projects celebrate a truly golden anniversary.
Wolfgang's Vault, the online archive of live music, acquired a trove of Newport Jazz and Folk Festival tapes from founder George Wein last year, and began releasing Newport Jazz concerts in November. The releases coincide with a new subscription program that entitles WVIP members to 192 kb streams and FLAC downloads with a member discount. I got to watch the preservation and mastering at close hand, and it was a labor-intensive, painstaking and fascinating process. Steve Rosenthal and Warren Russell-Smith from NYC's Magic Shop studio established with the Vault a one-room skunkworks a few floors above the Vault's New York offices. They stocked it with engineers, editors and an array of superannuated recording equipment in every conceivable format, networked to the Vault servers below. There were daily revelations as the transfers proceeded through the years, and a thousand questions: Who's in the band? Are we sure this tape is from the year the box indicates? The biggest revelations could be read in the faces of the young engineers; the music's power and appeal transcended generations and generational expectations. More than once I came upon Warren mastering a concert at full blast, reveling in the rocking swing of Stan Kenton or Count Basie big bands. Big band or trio, Warren achieved transparent, spacious audio on every concert I've heard so far.
The Vault's first releases are from the 1959 Festival, and it's a perfect choice. Jazz writer and biographer Bill Milkowski signed on to assist the editors and annotate the entire collection, and he's compiled a stellar playlist from 1959. That year's Festival reflects the tenor of the times.
The coincidence of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain with Dave Brubeck's Time Out would already demand notice: the sales of those three records, the best-selling jazz records of all time, surely dwarf the combined sales of all jazz records released since. Add John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um, and Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, and you have a millennial event. But, as with cinema's 1939, it's the depth of achievement in 1959 that truly astonishes. The notable releases of the year stretched from founding father Kid Ory playing W.C Handy to Monk playing alone in San Francisco. Two of my favorite concerts in the Newport '59 collection present the Ahmad Jamal Trio and the Horace Silver Quintet. Jamal's spare approach to piano and harmonic innovation (an acknowledged influence on Miles Davis and the records mentioned above) gets the best possible setting with his classic trio, and the material from what many consider to be the Trio's finest hour, Live at the Pershing: But Not for Me. Jamal's set catches the cool breeze that blew throughout 1959.
Pianist Horace Silver released two records that year with his quintet, Finger Poppin' and Blowin' the Blues Away. His set at Newport pulled from both Blue Note sessions and exemplified the swinging hard bop that made his 1959 releases classics. The playlist includes both the title cut from Blowin' the Blues Away and his famous "Sister Sadie" from the same album. Milkowski's playlist also includes rocking Basie and Kenton tracks, a characteristically gregarious Dizzy Gillespie performance, slinky Dakota Staton, two performances by Oscar Peterson (who seemed to release 100 records that year), and two Thelonious Monk compositions, "Crepuscle with Nellie" and "Rhythm-a-Ning." In short, it captures the breadth of expression found in 1959.
New York's public radio station WNYC recently debuted the Jazz Loft, a rich, cross-media project with echoes of 1959 and Monk. A radio series, online features and a critically-acclaimed illustrated book document the life and music bursting from a New York loft rented by photographer W. Eugene Smith in 1957. Over the course of the next eight years, Smith shot more than 40,000 photos and recorded more than 4,000 hours of audio. Those tapes included ambient sound, television and radio programs, conversations among the artists and musicians who lived in and visited the loft — and the preparations for Monk's landmark Tentet concert at Town Hall on February 28, 1959. The radio series' episode 8 digests three weeks in early 1959 as Monk and arranger Hall Overton rehearse the Tentet and work through the charts that would become another of the year's landmark releases, The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall. Monk's 1959 Newport performance on the Vault was recorded just four months after the historic Town Hall date, and it includes material from that show, performed by a quartet drawn from the Tentet, with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor.
In 1939, movies began the transition from black-and-white to color, they consolidated the experience of the first decade of sound, and reflected premonitions of the world's looming catastrophe. In 1959, Billie Holliday, Sidney Bechet and Lester Young died. The founders of jazz were still performing and recording, and bebop pioneers still blew. Cerebral cool appeared and nearly returned jazz to the popularity it had enjoyed so recently, as ecstatic sheets of modal soloing and polytonal, polyrhythmic freedom enlightened the true believers. Perhaps it's such cusp times that hold the promise of extraordinary achievement, the years when the past just comes into focus and the future first comes into view. These projects properly celebrate 1959 and the glorious sound of the past being blasted into the future.
Horace Silver's "Senor Blues" at Newport Jazz, 1959
Thelonious Monk photo © 1957 - 1965, 2009 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith
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