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1959: The Year Classic Albums Were Born

R.J. DeLuke By

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Miles DavisWhen the year 1959 began, there were only 48 states. Alaska and Hawaii would became part of the United States during that annum, the third year of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's second term. It was the year Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba and took a goodwill tour of the U.S., two months after an interview with Edward R. Murrow on CBS television.

Mattel toy company launched the Barbie doll. In professional basketball, the Celtics beat the Lakers for the NBA crown—but it was the Minneapolis Lakers.

Bob Dylan, (then Robert Zimmerman), graduating from Hibbing High School in Minnesota might have gone that year to see the epic motion picture "Ben Hur" or the comedy "Some Like It Hot" that made cross dressing acceptable under certain circumstances—especially if it involved wooing Marilyn Monroe. Or he might have tuned in television shows like "Bonanza" and "The Twilight Zone," both premiering in 1959.

In music, the Grammy Awards were created and debuted. And on the darker side, a chartered plane transporting musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson crashed in an Iowa snowstorm, killing them and the pilot, a tragedy later termed "the day the music died" in Don McLean's song, "American Pie." Famed New York disc jockey Allan Freed at WABC Radio refused to sign a statement saying he never accepted payola—payment for getting an artist's records on the air—and was fired.

But in jazz, there was no such bad news (if one discounts the increasing popularity of rock n' roll music that was pushing jazz toward the fringes of popularity). The year 1959, for whatever reason, whatever alignment of the planets or whim of the Fates, was a glorious year.

At Columbia Records, albums were made that year that became some of the most influential music of its time. In fact, any time. Much has been written and said about Miles Davis and Kind of Blue and its great popularity and influence over the years. Two books have been written about that recording alone.

But 1959 was also the year that the first recordings for what was to become Sketches of Spain were done. It became the third major large-group project Miles did with his collaborator and trusted friend Gil Evans. In a totally unrelated way, Miles and that album captured people's fascination and took music out in a different direction. Like Kind of Blue, it attracted listeners who weren't necessarily jazz fans.

Label mate Dave Brubeck was popular among young jazz fans of the day, yet had some skeptics not only in the critical world, but among a segment of jazz musicians. His albums were popular, however. But when he released Time Out in 1959, it became food for thought for both musicians and fans, with its odd time signatures and intriguing sound. Like Miles' seminal album, it, too, was revolutionary for its day. A half-century later, it is still the album for which Brubeck and his renowned quartet are best known.

That magical year 50 years ago also saw the larger-than-life Charles Mingus come out with Mingus Ah Um, which has been hailed as a summation of his great career to that point. Compositions from that Columbia recording are still a staple for jazz groups. Mingus was at a creative peak at the time and the band he assembled to carry out his vision was exceptional.

Those are colossal recordings in the history of jazz and it's remarkable they were developed around the same time by diverse musical minds. Those minds, however different, also had things in common. Davis, Brubeck and Mingus were—and in Brubeck's case are still—all about music. And they had a penchant for exploring. Those jazz giants were enormously inquisitive about music, and, as such, willing to absorb things they heard, applying them to their art with their own inimitable stamp.

There is no way to explain why things happen as such in 1959. Music lovers certainly appreciate that things came to be. As Gil Evans once said about Miles, "I sure am glad you were born." The same can be said about the birth of these creative albums.

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