Five Key Artists From 1959, the Greatest Year in Jazz

Roy Haynes and Randy Weston photographed on Feb. 28, 2017 in Harlem, New York.
Ruven Afanador

Roy Haynes and Randy Weston photographed on Feb. 28, 2017 in Harlem, New York.

Jazz officially turns 100 this year -- an ­anniversary that comes with an asterisk. The genre emerged in New Orleans at the turn of the century out of the ­primordial soup of African, European and Caribbean music. But the first commercial ­recording properly labeled “jazz” was cut in New York in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group of white entertainers from the Crescent City who had ­appropriated the local sounds.

By 1959, jazz had reached maturity. And thanks to ­successive ­innovations by the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane, it was about to enter a wild new phase. In the latest Billboard, we talk to the living legends from that era and delve into the year America's original art form reached its pinnacle -- read that here. Below, meet five of the scene's key players.  

Roy Haynes, 92

Then and Now: A master drummer with Lester Young and Miles Davis, Haynes played on Randy Weston’s Live at the Five Spot -- and, later, with Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz and John Coltrane. He has performed for the past decade with his Fountain of Youth Band and will play the DC Jazz Festival in June.

Sideman Style: “In 1959, I had come off playing for years with one of the greatest vocalists, Sarah Vaughan. I was just a regular jazz musician; I didn’t try to deal with the political issues. I was thinking diffferent then. I was buying a lot of new clothes, looking at myself to see what I got on.”

Then and Now: By 1959, Weston was starting to incorporate African rhythms into modern jazz, and his album Live at the Five Spot brought together a group of greats including Roy Haynes. Weston now performs with his African Rhythms ensemble (at the Atlanta Jazz Festival May 27) and will receive the “Legends of Jazz” award from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem on June 14. He released The African Nubian Suite in January.

Ultimate Improv: “1959 was my opportunity to record with a small group for United Artists, and I got to go with Coleman Hawkins at the Five Spot. The arrangements arrived the day of the live date, so there was no time to rehearse. But it was a fantastic recording. I’ll never forget that date.”

Ruven Afanador
Roy Haynes and Randy Weston photographed on Feb. 28, 2017 in Harlem, New York.

Then and Now: Heath played in Miles Davis’ band mainly between 1955 and 1959. He now performs with the Legendary Heath Brothers, the Jimmy Heath Big Band and the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band.

Home Free: “1959 was good for me: I returned home from being imprisoned, I had a recording contract and I got a good gig with Miles. I had to learn to play in the modal fashion. Everyone who followed that new movement was able to tell a different story musically. It left you a lot of freedom in your improvisation.”

Ruven Afanador
Jimmy Heath photographed on Feb. 28, 2017 in Harlem, New York.

Jimmy Cobb, 88

Then and Now: The last surviving member of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue recording group, Cobb also played on Coltrane’s Coltrane Jazz and Giant Steps in 1959. He now leads three groups, including his Jimmy Cobb “So What” Band, celebrating Kind of Blue and Davis’ music.

Milestone: “Everybody was like brothers on the gigs. And in 1959 we made this very controversial Miles Davis record that got to be in history. He didn’t really have to tell me what to do -- all he’d say was, on slow tunes, ‘Make it sound like it’s floating; just like circles on the snare drum.’ Not a whole lot of instructions. It wasn’t rocket science.”

Ruven Afanador
Jimmy Cobb photographed on Feb. 28, 2017 in Harlem, New York.

Ron Carter, 80

Then and Now: Carter played regularly with Weston and Haynes at the Five Spot, and he just celebrated his 80th birthday with a week of performances at the Blue Note. He will release a new album with his trio in October and plays a Birdland residency that month as well (Oct. 3-21, with his big band, quartet and trio).

Diving In: “As soon as I graduated from the Eastman School of Music in 1959, I came to New York. Ornette [Coleman] said he was playing ‘free’ music, but I didn’t understand what the freedom was; to this day I don’t. I was just trying to find my way, working with Randy Weston and trying to learn these wonderful tunes he wrote, trying to figure out, ‘How do I play with these guys? How do I get better at this?’ ”

Martin Schoeller
Ron Carter photographed on March 3, 2017 at his home in New York.

This article originally appeared in the May 13 issue of Billboard.