1959: The Year Classic Albums Were Born
"Looking at it from the perspective of 2009, a major record label (Columbia) was really doing a pretty good job documenting jazz. If not the whole spectrum, at least it wasn't a narrow focus," says Bob Blumenthal, noted jazz critic who has received Grammy Awards for Best Album Notes and the Jazz Journalists Association's Excellence in Newspaper, Magazine, or Online Feature or Review Writing and Lifetime Achievement awards. "They had Duke Ellington at the time. His soundtrack from "Anatomy of a Murder" was also very popular that year. But if you're thinking of the iconic Ellington album on Columbia, it would be Ellington at Newport from 1956. They had Errol Garner at the time. I'd be willing to bet whatever Errol Garner was putting out in 1959 sold more copies than Miles Davis or Mingus and possibly Brubeck. But, when you think of his iconic Columbia album, it's Concert by the Sea from 1955. It's not as if there weren't other things going on at Columbia."
Gil Evans and Miles Davis in the studio in 1959
But those four projects became momentous. Sony Music, which owns Columbia, celebrates those four albums by releasing them in their 50th anniversary editions that includes expanded writing, additional music from the bands involved, and, in the cases of Kind of Blue and Time Out, DVDs documenting the making of the music and its impact. Each package is available as part of a Colombia/Legacy series.
The impact of these musicians and their creativity was not lost on the extraordinary musician/educator Gary Burton. "As I was finishing high school and becoming totally devoted to jazz, some of the greatest recordings in jazz history came along at just that moment to show the way: Miles Davis with his sextet and with Gil Evans transcended bebop, Dave Brubeck unlocked the constraints of meter, and Charlie Mingus brought Ellington's legacy into the modern era. It was truly an era of giants."
Saxophonist Gerald Albright notes, "the musical works of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Charles Mingus are wonderful examples of innovators who literally changed the face of jazz forever. In each piece you can hear the commitment, uniqueness, and the desire to strive for perfection. Each artist has inspired me to be the best that I can be, and to use the best musicians possible to fulfill my visions."
"For years, jazz's archetypal artist have been conditioned to fit the constraints of this industry and starved into acknowledgment of the insincerity that is requisite to their musical survival. Kind Of Blue, Sketches Of Spain, Time Out and Mingus Ah Um all illuminate the type of conviction these artists refined to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to compel us to listen," says the remarkable young trumpeter Christian Scott. "In my opinion, these albums prove that when an artist allows the music to work as a conduit for sincere expression, the sentiment of the group becomes more apparent and thus more captivating."
Blumenthal notes the development of these albums is somewhat tied to the artists' way of dealing with the relatively new format of the long-playing album format.
"The format of the 12-inch long-playing albums had really only come in about 1955. Some companies, 1956. So the idea that you have 20 minutes on each side. You make an album. You can make the album hang together somehow, differently than if you were just putting out singles or albums where you had a bunch of three-minute recordings. I suspect part of what was going on is people realizing, 'We can do something with this format.' One thing about all these albums is they have an impact as entire albums, even though there are certain tracks that you remember on them. I think that may have something to do with it, above and beyond the quality of musicians who were making recordings at that time."
Mingus left Atlantic Records in 1959 for the chance to sign with the bigger label, Columbia. It meant a bigger budget project was possible and Mingus surrounded himself with musicians he was comfortable with, including Jimmy Knepper, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Horace Parlan, Shafi Hadi and of course his perfect rhythm mate Dannie Richmond. All were familiar with the mercurial Mingus and his music. They went into the studio in May.
"It was kind of two bands," says Blumenthal. "He was clearly very satisfied that these guys in the band could play his music the way he wanted to hear it. To that extent, it may be his best album in terms of the entire band being on his wavelength."
The result is an album of superior energy and creativity. They brought compositions like "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," "Better Git It In Your Soul," "Jelly Roll" and "Fables of Faubus" to life in grand style. If it stands as a career summation at that point, it certainly wasn't a stopping point. Mingus was also moving forward.