In 1959, African-American composer Ed Bland made the influential short semi-documentary film The Cry of Jazz, which explains jazz for the newbie, and situates the music in the history of black life in America. Bland used the music of avant-garde Afrofuturist composer and pianist Sun Ra as the soundtrack.
1959 was also the year that saw some of the most innovative music to date in the genre.
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz record in history.
Pay special attention to the spaciousness in the sound, and the minimalist approach to the solos.
Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um.
Pay special attention to the virtuosity of the solos and to Mingus’s compositional and arranging genius.
Ornette Coleman: playlist of all the tracks on The Shape of Jazz to Come.
Pay special attention to the balance between absolute freedom and “controlled chaos.”
Ornette Coleman’s style would come to be called “free jazz.” Some critics linked his sound with the struggle for civil rights. Nevertheless, as one critic put it:
The free jazz movement sprang from musical sources, not social forces. . .were there free jazz players who made music to express anger over civil rights struggles? Yes. . . Did [all of them] abandon [traditional jazz] chord changes because of the civil rights-related anger? No. The free-form approach came first. Were there avant-garde musicians who protested via music without abandoning preset chord changes? Yes. Charles Mingus was one (for instance, “Original Fables of Faubus,” with lyrics about Orville Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas.
Nevertheless, pianist Mal Waldron, who played with Mingus
was . . . eager to embrace the new freedoms [of free jazz]. As [Waldron] saw it, they went hand in hand with being a black musician in the era of civil rights. The bar lines in a song were, he recalled, like “going to jail for us.” “We were talking about freedom, and getting out of jails…. So everyone wanted to escape from that.”
In September, 2019, the Sounding Out! blog published a special series on the 60th anniversary of Mingus Ah Um. Check it out here.
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