Senior Year, 1954: Jazz Goes Long
by Jason Gubbels | March 21, 2013
Format wars are endemic to the music industry. In 1948, the 33 1/3 Long-Player (LP) was introduced as a replacement for the shellac 78s dominating the market since 1900. Carrying 20+ minutes of music per side, the vinyl LP would quickly prove the vehicle of choice for vocal pop and jazz artists (rock 'n' roll preferred 45 singles through the early 1960s). The year 1954 was transitional for jazz and the LP: Many performances later collected on full-lengths were released in 10-inch form. But artists were already exploiting longer playing times and better sound quality, few more notably than Miles Davis, who stretched out past 13 minutes on loping 12-bar blues "Walkin'," the premiere performance of a Davis staple (one taken at faster clips each succeeding year -- check out the "Miles in Berlin" version from 1964).
Miles was in transition, one of many bop giants releasing landmark recordings in 1954. Thelonious Monk bid farewell to a tough decade of indifference and N.Y.C. club woes with the inaugural recording of his favorite composition, "Blue Monk," in trio form with Percy Heath and Art Blakey. Blakey himself cut a legendary live recording at New York's Birdland club showcasing trumpeter Clifford Brown, who teamed up with drummer Max Roach for a notable studio set (two years later, the 25-year-old "Brownie" would be killed in a car crash). Fellow Roach alum Sonny Rollins surfaced on Moving Out, pianist Al Haig dropped three albums before drifting out of the business for decades, and the compositional genius of Charles Mingus was in full effect on his nearly-Third Stream Jazz Experiments effort.
On response to East Coast bop was the West Coast school dubbed "cool": relaxed improvisation that could be heady (Lee Konitz), smooth (pre-bossa nova Stan Getz) or dreamy (Chet Baker, in his first of many vocal sessions). Dave Brubeck continued his historic college tours, saxophonist Paul Desmond's "dry martini" tone drawing as much attention as the leader's comping. Similar crowd-pleasing material came from vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bandleader Stan Kenton and Canadian Oscar Peterson, while the jaw-dropping keyboard chops of Bud Powell and Art Tatum were captured near the ends of their troubled careers.
If modernism dominated recordings, old pros flourished: Louis Armstrong tossed out Creole patois on Ukrainian number "Dark Eyes," Ben Webster showcased his peerless way with a ballad on "Chelsea Bridge," and Benny Goodman revisited prior glories courting the hi-fidelity crowd. It was also a good year for jazz singers, as Frank Sinatra released his first Nelson Riddle collaboration (Songs for Young Lovers), Ella Fitzgerald teamed up with pianist Ellis Larkins, Billie Holiday returned to the studio after a year's absence, Sarah Vaughan went uptown on The Divine Sarah Sings, and June Christy's debut brought her icy-cool vocals to the Top 20.