Ron Carter, the most-recorded jazz bassist of all time, never planned to play jazz music. But by the time he graduated from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in June 1959, his dream of becoming a classical cellist had been dashed. His skin, orchestra directors let him understand, was simply the wrong color. “Twice I was discouraged,” says Carter, 79, one recent afternoon in his sunny, art-filled Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. “I was informed that the classical world wasn’t prepared to have anyone who didn’t look like Beethoven or Haydn play their music.” (Judging from the Glenn Gould CD case resting on his stereo, Carter’s love of classical abides.) With a wife and young son to feed, Carter traded the cello for the double bass, and Beethoven and Haydn for Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. He had been gigging around town on weekends to pay for school, but Rochester was no place for a 22-year-old jazz musician with any ambition. New York was the only city that mattered. “Was then, is now,” he says.
Carter moved to the city during a particularly fertile period in jazz, when young players were blazing new paths and the old greats were still kicking. Yet even for Carter, who is among the youngest living musicians to have known that era, the memory of what could be jazz’s greatest year, in what is certainly jazz’s greatest city, is fast receding. His priority at the time, he said, was providing for his family, not taking mental notes for posterity. “That was 57 years ago, bud,” he keeps telling me, sounding both irritated and apologetic.
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. The jazz Carter heard when he arrived in New York had little in common with the frenetic music of the teens and ’20s, other than its core components: improvisation, blues and the elusive element of swing. 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.
Carter had a front-row seat for what might be the most controversial club engagement in the history of jazz. On Nov. 17, 1959, an audacious saxophonist from Los Angeles named Ornette Coleman made his New York debut at the Five Spot, an East Village dive frequented by artists, beatniks and bohemians. His quartet’s latest album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, released a few weeks earlier, had divided critics with its dissonant melodies and near total lack of harmonic structure. Nobody could be sure whether the cacophonous squawks emanating from Coleman’s white plastic alto sax were the sounds of groundbreaking genius or the flailings of an unschooled provocateur. Grating, frenzied, yet at times oddly beautiful, it was as bold a statement as had ever been made in jazz, and the city’s cultural avant-garde -- from Jack Kerouac to James Baldwin to Robert Rauschenberg -- poured through the Five Spot’s swinging doors to hear it in person. There, in that cramped bar that smelled of sawdust, sour beer and cigarette smoke, they would witness the birth of free jazz.
In any other city, at any other time, Coleman might have been dismissed as a hack, or worse, ignored. But jazz still mattered then -- both as popular entertainment and as an expression of roiling social change -- and it mattered there. Such was the event’s notoriety that the two-week stint turned into a 10-week “residency,” followed by a four-month stretch in 1960. The intelligentsia, for the most part, applauded Coleman’s daring. New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein leapt to his feet after a set and proclaimed the music “the best thing that has ever happened to jazz.” The New Yorker at first expressed sympathy for Coleman’s “mortally wounded alto saxophone” but soon after published an admiring interview in which it compared him to Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.
Saxophonist Archie Shepp, then 22 and fresh off the train from Philadelphia, says, “When I first heard Ornette, I wasn’t particularly impressed.” Yet something about the music kept him coming back every night, even though he couldn’t afford the $1.50 drink minimum. “Frequently they would kick me out,” Shepp, 79, says from his home outside Paris, where he spends part of the year with his French companion. “So I tried to hide among the customers.” Shepp would go on to become one of free jazz’s most fervent practitioners, and, later, a professor of African-American studies in the University of Massachusetts system.
Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, then the leading lights of New York’s contemporary jazz scene, asked to sit in. Others were less forgiving of what they considered musical anarchy. Carter, who played opposite Coleman at the Five Spot most nights, alongside pianist Randy Weston and drummer Roy Haynes, says, “I didn’t understand the definition of [free jazz] -- I thought it wasn’t free at all.” Tenor sax player George Coleman (no relation) concurs. “Nothing is free,” says Coleman, 82, when I meet him backstage at a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) concert at Flushing Town Hall in Queens. “You’ve got to work for it.” (That night, Coleman still works for it, sounding every bit as limber on his horn as when he ruled the jam-session circuit in the ’50s and ’60s.)
Drummer Max Roach, a veteran of the previous decade’s bebop scene, had perhaps the most violent reaction: He found Ornette Coleman in the backstage kitchen between sets and punched him in the mouth -- an especially devastating assault for a horn player.
Singling out one year as more significant than any other is inherently problematic, in jazz as in any cultural field. “I don’t understand the fetishism over 1959,” says longtime Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins. “A great jazz year, but why greater than 1961 or 1938, or 1946, when you could hear Bird and Diz [Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie], [Duke] Ellington, [Count] Basie and [Art] Tatum within a few blocks of each other? I think 1978 was an extraordinary year, but it hasn’t been mythologized yet.”
What distinguished 1959, however, wasn’t just the prevalence of great music but the way in which jazz reflected an adventurous spirit that cut across culture and science and politics, epitomized by John F. Kennedy’s campaign slogan “A New Frontier.” “There was an embracing of the new and the young and the outside and the unusual,” says Fred Kaplan, a Slate national security columnist, jazz critic and author of 1959: The Year That Changed Everything. “And part of this came about, I think, because of the inauguration of the space program. The Russians had put up the first rocket that reached escape velocity. [There was] nonstop coast-to-coast international air travel. It was a time of breakthroughs, of shattering barriers.” The interstate highways that Ron Carter took down from Rochester, or that trumpeter Lee Morgan took up from Philadelphia, had only just been paved.
The moment was ripe for a musical revolution, and Coleman’s was one of several that took place in 1959. Each of them was associated with a landmark album that shook the foundations of jazz in a different way.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, released in December, broke free of the 4/4 time signature common to most jazz, indeed to most popular music. Inspired by rhythms he heard on a state department tour of Eastern Europe and Turkey, Brubeck wanted every track to be written in a different, nonstandard time signature. Time Out became the first jazz album to sell more than 1 million copies, thanks largely to the hit single “Take Five,” which made 5/4 time deceptively easy to snap one’s fingers to.
Bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus transcended time itself with Mingus Ah Um, a postmodern tour de force. Rooted in bebop, it drew from swing, gospel, R&B, Latin music and early New Orleans jazz, but also featured sonic experimentations that made Ornette Coleman seem positively old-fashioned. Time sped up and slowed down and turned on a dime. In that sense, the album was an extension of Mingus’ mercurial personality, capable as he was of both tyrannical rage -- which he was known to take out on his band, audience members or even his own long-suffering bass -- and uncommon tenderness.
“He was miserable physically,” says saxophonist John Handy, 84, the band’s last surviving member. Speaking from his home in Oakland, Calif., Handy remembers the Ah Um session as having been a disaster. “He had ulcers, and that would throw him into these fits. He was a nut, he was crazy, he was unstable in many ways.” Even more problematic for Handy was Mingus’ reluctance to explain the music he wanted them to play. “We all could have played better,” says Handy, who was featured on the album’s most famous track, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” despite not knowing the chords. “We didn’t know what the hell was going on, so you did what you could.”
At the time, Handy feared the record would be an embarrassment. Today, he says, “I’m very grateful -- it helped my career a lot.” (Handy subsequently earned two Grammy nominations for his compositions.) Mingus Ah Um proved that jazz didn’t have to progress in a straight line but could loop back on itself and advance in quantum leaps. It suggested a new path, even if Mingus was the only one who could walk it.
Miles Davis’ moody masterpiece Kind of Blue would be a solid argument for the primacy of 1959 even if no other album of note had come out that year. Like Time Out and Mingus Ah Um, it was recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, a retrofitted Presbyterian church that was the site of legendary recordings in jazz, classical and rock. When they arrived in the studio on March 2, Davis’ sidemen on the gig -- including John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley on alto and Paul Chambers on bass -- had little idea what they were going to play, let alone that they were about to record the best-selling album in jazz history. They knew only that Davis and pianist Bill Evans planned to build the album around the concept of modality, which did away with traditional chord changes and instead required musicians to improvise on a given scale (just the white keys on a keyboard, for instance). The result, soulful and searching, is the sound of pure discovery.
“You’ve got great musicians on it, so anything [Miles] asked them to do, they could do,” says the session’s last living participant, 88-year-old drummer Jimmy Cobb, who wears an NEA baseball cap at the town hall concert in Queens. “Something was going on that he had in his head, and they was hearing it. So there wasn’t a lot of [sheet] music or nothing.”
Wayne Shorter, a legend at 83, replaced Coltrane on tenor in Davis’ sextet a few years later. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he remembers how abstract Davis’ musical direction could get. When, in conversation, “he’d hear something unusual out of someone’s mouth you wouldn’t expect, Miles would say, ‘Why don’t you play that?’” says Shorter, imitating Davis’ rasp.
Kind of Blue unlocked a new dimension in jazz, and modality became the dominant idiom of the avant-garde. “That had a great effect because those who could follow that new movement were able to tell a different story,” says saxophonist Jimmy Heath. (Heath, headlining the NEA concert in Queens, blows out candles for his 90th birthday onstage.) For the tenor man, who in 1959 was released from prison after serving a sentence for narcotics possession, telling a different story was more than just a matter of music.
Individual soloists were searching for new sounds as well. Since kicking a heroin habit that had gotten him fired from band after band, Coltrane pursued musical enlightenment with born-again fervor. Now sober, he studied music theory like it was scripture and practiced his horn fanatically. Archie Shepp remembers seeing him at the Five Spot around 1959. “Coltrane would descend from the stage after a set with [Thelonious] Monk, go immediately into the kitchen and play through the intermission and come back and keep on playing.”
One night during Coltrane’s Five Spot engagement, Shepp stayed until the club let out at 4 a.m. and introduced himself. “I asked him if he could help me with my instrument,” says Shepp. “He invited me to come by the next day.” Coltrane had a reputation for going home and practicing even after the gig was over, often falling asleep with his horn. Shepp was so excited for his lesson that he showed up at Coltrane’s apartment, on 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, at 10 the following morning. “His wife at the time, Naima, said, ‘John isn’t up. You’ll have to wait for him.’ ” So Shepp took a seat.
“At about one o’clock, he got up,” recalls Shepp. “His saxophone was on the sofa. He went straight to it and began to play. You might say he was playing ‘Giant Steps,’” which would become the title track of Coltrane’s debut album on Atlantic, recorded in May 1959.
Giant Steps was in some ways the antithesis of Kind of Blue: a technical triumph in which Coltrane soared through intricate chord changes at breakneck tempos with an unrelenting momentum -- all while making coherent and original musical statements. Even his pianist on the date, Tommy Flanagan, struggled to keep up. Giant Steps set a new benchmark for virtuosity and harmonic complexity, a manned probe into jazz’s exosphere.
Around the same time, 28-year-old saxophonist Sonny Rollins felt he had hit a wall. Though he had already achieved considerable recognition, he decided to quit performing so he could perfect his tone, his fingering and his ideas. “I was not where I wanted to be,” says Rollins, who maintains that he still hasn’t gotten to that point despite being universally recognized as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. “I wasn’t able to live up to my reputation. I needed to get away from the music scene.”
He, too, had managed to get clean a few years earlier and was seeking a new musical direction. He had even practiced with Ornette Coleman on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. But now he simply needed a place to woodshed, since his neighbors on Grand Street would soon lose their patience. He found one by chance while walking along the Williamsburg Bridge toward Brooklyn. “I had a spot. Trains couldn’t see me and cars couldn’t see me,” Rollins reminisces from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., to which he recently moved. “Boats below me were coming by, and I’d blow foghorn blasts and the guy would answer me.” Since his wife could cover the rent with her job in the physics department at New York University, Rollins spent 12 hours a day for months on end in his nook on the bridge, playing for himself and the East River. “It was heaven,” he says.
On the balmy evening of Aug. 25, 1959, Rollins heard news that caused him to break his self-imposed exile from the jazz world: Miles Davis had been brutally beaten by a policeman outside Birdland, on 52nd Street and Broadway. Davis was playing at the club and had come outside to get some air. The cop told him to keep moving, and when Davis responded that his name was on the door, the cop clubbed him several times on the head, spilling blood on Davis’ khaki suit.
“When it came over the radio that this happened, I went up there with my starter pistol,” says Rollins, who had frequently performed with Davis. “To do something like that today, I’d be asking to be killed.” By the time he arrived uptown, the scene had cleared. He doesn’t know what he would have done had that not been the case -- especially since he was a pacifist and his gun fired only blanks. “I wanted to fight next to Miles.”
Racial discrimination was not as codified in New York as it was in Southern states at that time -- clubs weren’t segregated and there were a number of mixed bands -- but it took insidious forms. Police exerted control on musicians by requiring cabaret cards for anyone who worked at an establishment that served alcohol, a system that existed only in New York and made life difficult for jazz’s black practitioners. A prior arrest was sufficient grounds to deny the permit, which could and did ruin careers.
The police were especially suspicious of jazz. “Some cops, notably in the Village, are unhappy when a room begins to attract Negro-white couples,” the late jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote in Dissent around that time. “When Charlie Mingus played in one club, he drew quite a number of mixed couples, and the local constabulary told the owner not to book him again. ‘That guy encourages miscegenation.’ ”
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.”
What made 1959 so great was that young trailblazers were playing and living in the same city as the men and women who invented jazz. And the old guard had a few lessons left to teach. “I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house,” says Weston, who lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as the ragtime pioneer. (Weston still calls the borough home.) “He used to tell me what would happen in the 1890s piano battles.”
Even as the crowd bustled joyously outside Birdland, a remnant of another era was vanishing across the street. The great swing saxophonist Lester Young, who lived at the Alvin Hotel and could see Birdland’s blue awning from his window, regularly invited musicians up to see him. Rollins was one of them. “Lester was our god,” recalls Rollins. “It was considered a great privilege.” Young was only 49, but decades of alcoholism made him seem much older. He was frail, subsisting mostly on Gordon’s gin. “He looked like a person that wasn’t well,” remembers Rollins. Young died on March 15, 1959. Billie Holiday, his musical soulmate, followed three weeks later. Their deaths were reminders that no golden age lasts forever.
Watch jazz legend George Coleman reflect on cabaret cards and police brutality in the video interview below. Watch sit-down interviews with Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath and Jimmy Cobb here.