Senior Year, 1959: Jazz Giants
In the late 1950s, jazz was in a strange place: Phenomena like the electric amplification of instruments (and the pop forms this could enable) were already pushing out the big band as the source of mass-culture dance-servicing and craze-making. The language of bebop -- and its post-bop descendants -- was also helping to turn jazz into more of a connoisseur pastime. But neither was jazz already pegged as a specialists' paradise: The music was still a calling card for Hip America and all its would-be aspirants.
And then, in 1959, jazz really earned this status, with a bumper crop of famous albums, all released on major labels. No less a group than Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Dave Brubeck each offered original tunes and albums -- not to mention styles -- that would cement their reputations. (And Bill Evans also showed how pushing and pulling standards would become a fixture of jazz going forward.)
It's an unassailable year to revisit. Coltrane's "sheets of sound" style and twisting chord changes on the title cut of Giant Steps also inform his playing on Miles' Kind of Blue. Brubeck brought unusual time signatures from "classical" music into a consumer-friendly, almost pop-jazz context (certainly "Take Five" has survived in the public imagination). And Ornette just blew the door off of harmony and intonation, a unique as hell sound that foreshadowed the massive avant-garde overhaul to come later in the '60s.
Meantime, Mingus Ah Um remains essential 20th-century American music. The sequence of tunes on that record -- from the locomotive "Boogie Stop Shuffle" to the mournful "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" to the sanctified "Better Git It in Yo Soul" -- matches the White Album for consistency of excellence and variety of approach, and beats it on concision, too.
The curse of 1959 is that, in some corners, it can be looked at as a "peak" moment for jazz -- as though its excellence puts to shame the music that followed this bonanza year. That's its own tragedy; after you've absorbed Coltrane circa '59, there's still much to discover in his '60s catalog. Same goes for Mingus and Coleman, who did much to push the music into exciting new places. 1959 was a great year for jazz, a coming-out party for its modernist adulthood -- but certainly not the form's death knell. If you're new to jazz listening, it's a good place to start, and a useful way to augment your culture consumption, no matter what's currently thought of as hip.