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Matthew Kohut

Matthew Kohut

Posted May 7, 2009 | 03:49 PM (EST)

Meltdown: The Year Jazz Threw Out the Rules


How does a music festival remain edgy and relevant? The British fest Meltdown 09 made news recently by tapping Ornette Coleman as director of this year's event. The timing of this tied in with the fiftieth anniversary of Coleman's classic The Shape of Jazz to Come, "a crucial moment in 20th century music," according to the festival website. It was indeed a crucial moment, but it was larger than Coleman's seminal album. 2009 year marks the fiftieth anniversary of a little-noted creative outpouring that changed jazz forever.

Four albums released in 1959 redefined jazz, shattering the conventions that had evolved from Dixieland right up through the post-bop era. Two were best-sellers that you're likely to hear today at Starbucks; fifty years after their release, they're familiar and easy on the ears, though they broke ground at the time. The other two, one of which is Coleman's masterpiece, still do not lend themselves to casual listening, and point to the difficulty jazz would have maintaining its audience as it became increasingly abstract. A close look reveals just how revolutionary these albums were:

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. A great deal has been written about Kind of Blue, including a book-length study by Ashley Kahn. Kind of Blue represented a departure from the traditional song structure of jazz, which mixed elements of blues, Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway. In its place, Miles introduced a handful of spare compositions that explored fewer tones in greater depth. This gave the musicians more time to improvise in a single key, rather than having to play "over the changes," which typically demanded a strict allegiance to a rapid sequence of chords and key changes. This new style of playing became known as modal jazz, in reference to the modal scales that musicians used for these extended jams over a tonal center. (Think of a mode as a mood expressed by a musical scale. Kind of Blue is the moodiest of jazz albums.) Miles had hinted in this direction with the previous year's Milestones, which opened with an upbeat modal title track. A year later, Kind of Blue was a study in melancholy, and its mid-tempo quiet intensity was accessible to listeners who could not relate to the kinetic energy and challenging harmonies of bop. It went on to sell two million copies, making it (by some accounts) the best-selling jazz album of all time.

Dave Brubeck, Time Out. As its name suggest, Time Out emphasized time signatures and rhythms. Much as Kind of Blue represented the abandonment of traditional jazz harmonies in favor of modal playing, Time Out signaled the abandonment of 4/4 swing as the heartbeat of its compositions. Brubeck looked to other cultures ("Blue Rondo a la Turk") for inspiration and odd time signatures. The album's most famous composition, saxophonist Paul Desmond's "Take Five," is a one-chord vamp in 5/4 followed by a more traditional jazz B section that maintains the 5/4 pulse. Drummer Joe Morello's outro solo on the vamp is a masterpiece of understatement that illustrates the shadings of the time signature rather than pounding it into the ground. Time Out paved the way for greater acceptance and experimentation with odd time signatures, though its lasting legacy can be found not in jazz but in prog rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd. Like Kind of Blue, Time Out became a ubiquitous 1960s staple of dorm rooms and cocktail parties, a jazz recording for people who didn't otherwise listen to jazz.

John Coltrane, Giant Steps. Coltrane, who also appears on Kind of Blue, took a radically different direction than Miles with Giant Steps. Rather than replacing traditional jazz harmonies with modal ones, Coltrane pushed into new harmonic territory with chord combinations that at first baffled even his bandmates. He introduced the title track "Giant Steps" without rehearsal in a recording session, and its unconventional intervals and high tempo presented such a puzzle to master pianist Tommy Flanagan during the original recording session that he struggled through a sparse, stop-and-start solo. Among musicians, improvising over "Giant Steps changes" became a challenge that demanded study and mastery. "Countdown," another single on the album, was similarly up-tempo and demanding. "Naima," a ballad, built incredible tension by employing dissonant and suspended chords beneath a slow, simple melody. Giant Steps and its title track represented a high-water mark in jazz harmony that has not been eclipsed to this day, though musicians like Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard would continue to innovate in this direction in the 1960s. It also marked a turning point for Coltrane. Having pushed the boundaries of chord-based compositions as far as he could with "Giant Steps," he moved increasingly to simpler modal compositions that allowed him the freedom for extended improvisations.

Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come. Unlike Davis, Brubeck, and Coltrane, all of whom had roots in the jazz establishment, Ornette Coleman appeared on the New York scene in 1959 out of nowhere with music that was revolutionary, not evolutionary. The Shape of Jazz to Come marked the abandonment of traditional concepts of composition, harmony, and rhythm. The old rules were out. The band had no piano or guitar playing comp chords behind single-line melodies. Instead, every member in Coleman's band focused on the melody, playing in, on, or around it. The result was a sound unlike any before it, virtually leading to riots during the band's stint at the Five Spot. Coleman became synonymous with the term "free jazz," which in turn became a widely misunderstood phrase that didn't describe his approach to music. The most common misconception was that free jazz had no rules or conventions. A close listen to "Lonely Woman" makes it clear that this was not the case. The cardinal rule of Coleman's jazz was intense listening and interaction among the players. In later years, Coleman developed a vocabulary to describe his concept of music, which he referred to as "harmolodic."

So what was it about 1959 that led to this creative outpouring of classic recordings? First, jazz was ready for new lease on life. The last big revolution in jazz had been the emergence of bebop in the early 1940s. New styles had come and gone since then--cool jazz, post-bop, hard bop, West Coast jazz--but none had profoundly changed the jazz landscape the way Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had, making swing bands sound corny and quaint practically overnight. Jazz was ready for another tectonic shift.

It is also important to note that the ground had been shifting for a few years. Just as Miles had begun experimenting with modal compositions before Kind of Blue, peers like Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus had been breaking stylistic conventions, employing dissonant harmonies, and developing new compositional forms. (Mingus's 1959 Mingus Ah Um could easily be added to this list, though its impact on future generations of musicians is harder to identify.)

The developments in jazz did not take place in a cultural vacuum--other art forms had already become increasingly abstract and detached from their traditions. Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac, who championed jazz as the inspirational soundtrack for his writing, threw out the rules of conventional narrative and verse. Samuel Beckett and playwrights associated with the Theater of the Absurd tore up dramatic conventions that dated back to Aristotle. The existentialism of Camus and Sartre reigned in café culture. Abstract Expressionism was already old news in the visual arts. In this respect, jazz was part of a larger artistic mainstream that had been challenging the status quo for some time.

Changing attitudes about race served as the one specific linkage between the developments in jazz and the coming broader societal changes. The civil rights movement had been gaining momentum since Rosa Parks had sparked the Mongtomery bus boycott in 1955; the lunch counter sit-ins were a year away. By 1959 black musicians began addressing themes of contemporary politics and black consciousness in their work. (Mingus was perhaps the most politically outspoken at the time, with protest compositions like "Fables of Faubus" on Mingus Ah Um.) As Ashley Kahn noted in his book-length study of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis found inspiration for the album in the sound of the African kalimba (thumb piano), which he heard during a performance of a Guinean dance troupe. While civil rights, the Black Power movement, and African musical influences found fuller expression in jazz during the 1960s--Coltrane and Ornette's trumpeter Don Cherry figured prominently in this--the innovations of 1959 pointed to bigger changes ahead.

As the music itself, what were the long-term consequences for jazz? It's clear now that the liberation from the conventions that had dominated jazz since the bop era came at a price. While modal playing freed jazz from the conventions of tightly constructed 32-bar or 64-bar compositions, it had the unintended effect of dumbing it down. It turned out that it wasn't so hard to play over one chord, even if you didn't do it as well as Miles Davis did. Kind of Blue spawned legions of imitators whose meandering modal jams lacked the restrained playing and compositional originality that gave this recording its enduring appeal. Miles recognized the limitations of modal playing, and throughout the early '60s his sets included compositions from Kind of Blue as well as more traditional ones. Similarly, The Shape of Jazz to Come inspired imitators whose music shared none of the intelligence or sensitive interplay that Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins achieved. It was easy to honk and squawk with no rules. It was far more difficult to make sublime music that way.

Jazz played out these innovations over the next two decades, with free jazz going steadily freer (to smaller and smaller audiences) and modal jazz joining with funk and rock to create fusion (with Miles again at the forefront). By 1980, with these directions exhausted, the new young voice in jazz was a 19 year-old trumpeter playing with his older brother in Art Blakey's band. He dressed sharply in a conservative suit and played flawless post-bop. With the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, jazz had come full circle: it was now an art form to be respected, studied, and preserved in formaldehyde. The rules of 1955 were back. Just as the election of Ronald Reagan, a movie star from an earlier era, marked the ascendance of a conservative movement that rejected many of the social and political changes of the previous decades, the return to the rules signaled the arrival of a new retro conservatism in jazz. As a vibrant, evolving art form, jazz was dead.