Jazz at 100 Hour 47: The Experimentalists – Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane (1956 – 1959)

Charles Mingus

In his book Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965, David Rosenthal outlines a group of musicians within the hard bop idiom that he identifies as “experimentalists”, describing them as “…consciously trying to expand jazz’s structural and technical boundaries: for instance, pianist Andrew Hill, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane prior to his 1965 record Ascension. This category would also include Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, whose playing and compositions were at once experimental and reminiscent of the moods and forms of earlier black music, including jazz of the 1920s and 1930s. Mingus, for example, composed and recorded ‘My Jelly Roll Soul,’ which is simultaneously a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton and a successful attempt to transmute and reformulate Morton’s compositional style in modern jazz terms… These musicians, by influencing and challenging [the other hard bop musicians], kept hard bop from stagnation. Even at their most volcanic, their performances were pervaded by a sense of thoughtful searching.”

Charles Mingus.
Few artists have had a run that was more startling than Mingus’s 1956 – 1960 sequence of releases. During this period he released “one of the truly great modern jazz albums” (Morton and Cook) – Pithecanthropus Erectus, followed by (among others) Tijuana Moods, Blues and Roots, Mingus Ah Um, and Mingus Dynasty, moving from a quartet to a septet to a dectet and then back to an intimate quartet with Ted Curson on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on reeds and Danny Richmond on drums for Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

“Fronted by [Jackie] McLean’s methol-sharp alto with  … Mingus working on a shadowy counter-melody, it’s one of the most appealing tracks Mingus ever committed to record…” – Brian Morton and Richard Cook

Profile of Jackie. Charles Mingus Quartet
(Jackie McLean-as, Mal Waldron-p, Charles Mingus-b, Willie Jones-d). From Pithecanthropus Erectus. 1/30/1956

“Fans had at least one guarantee: Mingus’s work never was boring. A visceral excitement radiated from the bandstand at his performances and lives on in his recordings. Pieces such as ‘Better Git It in Your Soul,’ ‘Jelly Roll,’ and ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ may recall the jazz tradition, but do so in a way that is tellingly alive, that could never be reduced to notes on a page—hence it comes as little surprise that Mingus delighted in teaching his pieces by ear. ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ bore an all-too-fitting title. Mingus’s music was an aural equivalent of the sanctified church, delighting in a loosely structured give-and-take, electrified with evangelical zeal. This was a musical speaking in tongues, accompanied by hand clapping, shouts, exhortations, improvised narrative, and other spontaneous outbursts.” – Ted Gioia

Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting. Charles Mingus Nonet
(Willie Dennis-tb, Jimmy Knepper-tb, John Handy-as, Jackie McLean-as, Booker Ervin-ts, Pepper Adams-bs, Horace Parlan-p, Charles Mingus-b, Dannie Richmond-d). From Blues and Roots. 2/4/1959

Of “Boogie Stop Shuffle” Giddins and DeVeaux write, “Although he has only seven instruments at his disposal, he employs multiple textures and variations on the theme. The soloists express themselves freely, yet the main impression is of a tightly organized work in which the improvisations serve to elaborate on the composer’s vision. The theme alone requires the first five choruses, with its ostinato, staccato chords, unison moaning, three-note riff, and bop variation punctuated first by cymbals (fourth chorus) and then by piano (fifth chorus). The expeditious tempo means that each of the eighteen choruses is played in about eleven seconds.” – Gary Giddins & Scott Deveaux

Boogie Stop Shuffle. Charles Mingus Septet
(Willie Dennis-tb, John Handy-as/cl, Booker Ervin-ts, Curtis Porter-ts/as, Horace Parlan-p, Charles Mingus-b, Dannie Richmond-d). From Mingus Ah Um. 5/19/1959. (The Norton Collection)

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. Charles Mingus Septet
(John Handy-as/cl, Booker Ervin-ts, Curtis Porter-ts/as, Horace Parlan-p, Charles Mingus-b, Dannie Richmond-d). From Minus Ah Um. 5/12/1959
As Mingus returned to early music forms, he brought his compositional talents to the twelve-bar blues. “While most jazz musicians typically treat the blues form as a generic set of blowing changes, Mingus transformed the twelve-bar choruses into true compositions. Only a handful of jazz artists—Ellington, Morton, Monk—were his equal in this regard.” – Ted Gioia

“In its abundance of memorable compositions and its multiple references to the Afro-American tradition in such varied aspects, Mingus Ah Um is a kind of summation of everything Mingus could do. It is also a quintessential hard-bop session, having all the qualities typical of the school: heavier use of the minor mode and strong rhythmic patterning, along with slower tempos, blues- and gospel-influenced phrasing and compositions, and sometimes lusher melodies. Mingus, of course, was as “unique” as Monk; that is, each possessed an immediately recognizable sensibility and approach. But then, that’s what makes Mingus Ah Um a high point of hard bop rather than a “typical” hard-bop date.” – David Rosenthal

Sonny Rollins.
Like Mingus, Sonny Rollins delivered an extraordinary run of LPs in the late 1950s. While Mingus expanded his ensembles to increase the depth and color of the music, Rollins moved from the quintet with Clifford Brown and Max Roach on Plus 4, to the quartets on Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus (all three recorded in 1956!) to the tenor/bass/drums trio on Way Out West and A Night at the Village Vanguard (both in 1957) and Freedom Suite (1958). He stopped recording in the fall of 1958 and, famously, practiced on the Williamsburg Bridge until he was comfortable recording again in early 1962.

“Recorded in 1956, Saxophone Colossus remains his Citizen Kane, that is, his most universally celebrated but by no means best work. It introduced the first in a long series of calypsos, ‘St. Thomas,’ and a diligent minor blues, ‘Blue 7,’ that [critic Gunther] Schuller singled out as emblematic of Rollins’s variational rigor. In a music that increasingly encouraged soloists to run changes, a musician who elaborated on a composition’s melody as well as its predetermined harmonies (he absorbed Monk better than most) was refreshing, to say the least.” – Gary Giddins

St. Thomas. Sonny Rollins Quartet
(Sonny Rollins-ts, Tommy Flanagan-p, Doug Watkins-b, Max Roach-d). From Saxophone Colossus. 6/22/1956

“No tenorist has ever played better when accompanied simply by bass and drums, as Rollins’s work from this period makes clear: Way Out West, featuring him with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne from March 1957; the seminal trio recordings from a November 1957 date at the Village Vanguard; and Freedom Suite with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach from the following February… These efforts, as well as his various guest appearances with other artists … made it clear that Rollins ranked among the premier improvisers of his generation.” – Ted Gioia

“’Come, Gone’ [from Way Out West] is an offhand sketchbook piece, a piece for blowing across changes until an improvised density is reached. He uses everything at his disposal: a Coleman Hawkins chordal approach, a raunchy gutbucket-blues sound, repeating phrases like a Jazz at the Philharmonic soloist, silences and smeared phrases, some Parker rhythms. It’s a grab bag and an endurance test, the kind of piece the Rollins excels in, then and now.” – Ben Ratliff

Come, Gone. Sonny Rollins Trio
(Sonny Rollins-ts, Ray Brown-b, Shelly Manne-d). From Way Out West. 3/7/1957

“In the late 1950s … the chief challenge to Coltrane’s preeminence as the leading saxophonist of his day came not from [Ornette] Coleman or [Albert] Ayler—little known at the time—or even from [Eric] Dolphy. The most persuasive alternative to his “sheets of sound” approach emanated, rather, from the heart of the jazz tradition, in the person of tenorist Sonny Rollins. More than any of these celebrated peers, Rollins would play the lead role in defining the mainstream sound of the tenor during these transition years. While other saxophonists were exploring the limits of dissonance, free improv and extended forms, Third Stream mergings with classical music, exotic instruments, nonets and octets and other expanded bands, Rollins stayed mostly focused on forging a classic solo style. Much of the history of Adolphe Sax’s invention found its way into Rollins’s playing. One could hear the connections that tied him to the legacy of a Coleman Hawkins or a Don Byas and other vintage horn players, seamlessly blended with hypermodern elements drawn from the current scene.” – Ted Gioia

John Coltrane.
In 1957, John Coltrane participated in recording sessions that resulted in the release of almost two dozen LPs for leaders like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Pettiford. The LPs “Coltrane” on Prestige and “Blue Train” on Blue Note that year were the first discs to come out under his name. This was a late start for the 31-year-old tenor player, yet by the time Giant Steps came out in January, 1960, coincident with Sonny Rollins absence, Trane was the dominant tenor player in jazz.

“In September [1957], Coltrane had recorded his sole leader date for the Blue Note label, Blue Train, a top-flight effort distinguished by the tenorist’s strong work on the title blues, and on ‘Moment’s Notice,’ an intriguing exploration of shifting ii–V chords played at a fast clip. This piece—half composition, half harmonic exercise—anticipated the even more complex Giant Steps of 1959.” – Ted Gioia

Moments Notice. John Coltrane Sextet
(Lee Morgan-tp, Curtis Fuller-tb, John Coltrane-ts, Kenny Drew-p, Paul Chambers-b, Philly Joe Jones-d). From Blue Train. 9/15/1957

“’Giant Steps’ has been called Coltrane’s farewell to bebop, because the chord structure is so busy and difficult to play, especially at the roaring tempo he demanded… ‘Giant Steps’ is a sixteen-bar composition in which almost every note of the melody is signaled by a new chord – playing the chord changes is practically the same thing as playing the melody… Coltrane’s solo aims for quite a different effect from bebop; unlike most of the improvisations we’ve heard, …the import of his elkeven-chorus solo here resides less in details than in the aggregate attack – the overall whooshing energy.” – Gary Giddins & Scott DeVeaux

Giant Steps. John Coltrane Quartet
(John Coltrane-ts, Tommy Flanagan-p, Paul Chambers-b, Art Taylor-d). From Giant Steps. 5/5/1959 (The Norton Collection)
“For another musician, such a record might have been the crowning achievement of a career, but for Coltrane ‘Giant Steps’ served merely as a way station on an unceasing journey.” – Ted Gioia

In the wake of Mingus, Coltrane and Rollins came a wave of players eager to experiment further within the broadening definition of jazz. Among the most durable of this next generation are composer George Russell, pianist Cecil Taylor, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and multi-reed player Eric Dolphy – in the next hour of Jazz at 100.

The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins. W.W. Norton 933796.
Charles Mingus. Pithecanthropus Erectus. Atlantic LP 1237
Charles Mingus. Blues & Roots. Atlantic LP 1305
Charles Mingus. Mingus Ah Um. Columbia CS 8171
Sonny Rollins. Saxophone Colossus. Prestige PRLP 7079
Sonny Rollins. Way Out West. Contemporary C 3530
John Coltrane. Blue Train. Blue Note BLP 1577
John Coltrane. Giant Steps. Atlantic LP 1311

Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 12. The 1950s: Cool Jazz and Hard Bop.
Chapter 13. Jazz Composition in the 1950s
Chapter 14. Modality: Miles Davis and John Coltrane
Giddins, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 45. Sonny Rollins (The Muse is Heard)
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 7. The Fragmentation of Jazz Styles
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books
Charles Mingus. Pithecanthropus Erectus
Sonny Rollins. Saxophone Colossus
John Coltrane. Giant Steps
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 48. Sonny Rollins. Way Out West (1957)
Chapter 53. Blues and Roots (1959)
Rosenthal, David. 1992. Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 3. A New Mainstream

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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