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1959: Jazz’s Vintage Year

Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans...what was in the air in 1959? The story of the Year of the Masterpiece.

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Brubeck Time Out

Photo: Album cover art

Dave Brubeck's TIME OUT: one of several landmark jazz LPs either recorded or released in 1959.

Miles Davis Kind of BlueThe year of 1959 saw an unprecedented spate of jazz masterpieces. Among the albums released or recorded that year were Miles Davis’ groundbreaking Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s blockbuster Time Out, John Coltrane’s leap forward Giant Steps, Ornette Coleman’s avant-garde salvo The Shape of Jazz to Come, Charles Mingus’ revolutionary-in-the-tradition Mingus Ah Um, and Bill Evans’ piano-trio template Portrait in Jazz. We’ll hear music from all of those albums–for more on the year 1959, see the timeline below.

1959 timeline:

January—Fidel Castro takes over Cuba. Alaska admitted as 49th state to U.S. Pope John XXIII proclaims Second Vatican Council.

Mingus Ah UmFebruary—Buddy Holly dies in plane crash.

March—Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx make their final TV appearance together. Uprising in Tibet against Chinese occupation; Dalai Lama flees to India. Mystery writer Raymond Chandler dies. Movie Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, premiers. Lester Young dies.

April—NASA announces selection of seven astronauts for first U.S. orbital flight.

May—Japanese-Americans regain citizenship. Sidney Bechet dies.

Ornette Shape of Jazz to ComeJune—Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” begins a six-week stay at #1 on the pop-rock charts. U.S. postmaster general bans D.H. Lawrence’s LADY CHATTERLY’S LOVER. America launches first ballistic-missile-carrying submarine.

July—The so-called Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate.” Billie Holiday dies.

August—Hawaii becomes 50th and final (to date) U.S. state.

Coltrane Giant StepsSeptember—WCBS in NYC bans “Mack the Knife” in response to teenage stabbings. TV show “Bonanza” begins 14-year-run on NBC. Soviet space probe Luna 2 becomes first man-made object to reach the moon. Khrushchev tours America; becomes angry when he is refused admittance to Disneyland.

October—“Twilight Zone” debuts on TV. Pan American becomes first airline to offer regular flights around the world. Errol Flynn dies of heart attack at age 50. Dr. Werner von Braun begins to work for NASA.

Bill Evans Portrait in JazzNovember—Charles van Doren admits to House subcommittee that he knew answers in advance on quiz show “Twenty One.” Ford discontinues Edsel. Chubby Checker introduces the Twist on “The Dick Clark Saturday Night Show.”

December—Walter Williams, last surviving veteran of the Civil War, dies at the age of 117. First color photograph of Earth received from outer space.

Music Heard On This Episode

Giant Steps
John Coltrane — Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1959)
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Giant Steps
John Coltrane — Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1959)
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Better Git It In Your Soul
Charles Mingus — Mingus Ah Um (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)
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Take Five
Dave Brubeck — Time Out (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)

Notes: Written by Paul Desmond.

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So What
Miles Davis — Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)
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Blue Ronda a la Turk
Dave Brubeck — Time Out (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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Cousin Mary
John Coltrane — Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1959)
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Lonely Woman
Ornette Coleman — The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959)
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Peri's Scope
Bill Evans — Portrait in Jazz (Riverside, 1959)
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Blue in Green
Miles Davis — Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)

Notes: Allegedly co-written by Bill Evans.

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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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