Political unrest in 1959 lent jazz the kind of urgency that rock’n’roll would enjoy 10 years later. “There was a militancy that there isn’t now in jazz,” says impresario George Wein, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. “Miles, Mingus, Roach, they were fighting 24 hours a day.”
Music was one way to fight. The creepy-cool “Fables of Faubus” on Mingus Ah Um, for example, was meant as a condemnation of Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who famously opposed integration at a Little Rock high school in 1957. But the fight also extended to the unbowed way musicians comported themselves. “The mission that we had with jazz was also social change,” says Wayne Shorter, who arrived in New York soon after he was discharged from the Army, in early 1959, and quickly landed a job with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “Art used to say, ‘When you walk into a restaurant, you walk in with confidence -- don’t ever shortchange yourself. Think of yourself as being onstage all the time,’ ” says Shorter. The idea, Blakey explained, was to make people turn and say, “Who the hell is that?” Those were likely the words on New Yorkers’ lips when Shorter and his fellow Jazz Messenger and roommate, trumpeter Lee Morgan, would cruise up Sixth Avenue in Morgan’s convertible blue Triumph.
Like Louis Armstrong, jazz was born in New Orleans, migrated to Chicago in the ’20s, then settled in New York for good in the early ’40s. By 1959, New York had no real competition as a jazz city. The West Coast produced great players, and there were plenty of recording studios in Hollywood. But a musician didn’t really know his worth until he tested it in the Big Apple.
Shortly after arriving in New York -- his wife had secured an apartment in Harlem -- Ron Carter found work accompanying Randy Weston. On Mondays, when the band had the night off, Carter would head to jam sessions at clubs like Brankers or Birdland or Count Basie’s. These sessions were a professional requirement for anyone trying to establish his reputation. “The guys needed to hear you play before they invite you to their gigs,” says Carter. “You had to play better than [the other] guys.”
Clubs proliferated across the boroughs after the war, but the epicenter of jazz in New York was Midtown Manhattan. Players of all generations would convene at Jim & Andy’s bar on West 48th Street, either to find work or to hoist a few between studio sessions. Another gathering spot was the Brill Building on Broadway, where the Local 802 Musicians Union had its offices. “The musicians would be all out in the street, on the sidewalk,” says Rollins. “There was a great feeling of brotherhood.”
Birdland hosted the biggest names in the country, from Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis. For Rollins, though, the real entertainment was on the street. “After Birdland closed at 4 a.m., people would pile out of the club. From one block to the next there’d be musicians talking. I remember the jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris, who I knew from Chicago, was there one night. After it closed, everybody was on the street talking [and] Eddie was in heaven, because there was no such thing in Chicago, no such thing in Detroit, Los Angeles -- not like this.”