Jazz at 100 Hour 48: The Experimentalists – George Russell, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy (1956 – 1960)

Cecil Taylor

In the wake of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Sonny 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. The late 1950s recordings of Russell, Taylor, Coleman and Dolphy in this hour of Jazz at 100.

George Russell.
“A major theorist, instigator, and gadfly as well as one of the most original of jazz composers, Russell had been making his mark behind the scenes for a decade [composing for Dizzy Gillespie, among others] when he finally got the chance to record his own album. It was a turning point for him and the pianist for whom he conceived his dazzling miniconcerto. Bill Evans had appeared on a few sessions but was virtually unknown until he embarked on the avid, single-handed, stop-time whirlwind cadenza at this work’s center. Russell, who preferred modes to chords and published several editions of his explanatory Zen-like treatise, Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, aligned each musician like a layer in a cake, making the sextet resound with startling freshness. He and Evans continued to collaborate (“All About Rosie,” Living Time), and their first meeting—in the same year that Cecil Taylor debuted and Art Tatum bowed out—affirmed the rise of the new jazz intellectual.” – Gary Giddins

Concerto For Billy The Kid. George Russell Sextet
(Art Farmer-tp, Hal McKusick-as, Bill Evans-p, Barry Galbraith-g, Milt Hinton-b, Paul Motian-d). From Jazz Workshop. 10/17/1956 (The Norton Collection)

Ezz-Thetic. George Russell Sextet
(Art Farmer-tp, Hal McKusick-as, Bill Evans-p, Barry Galbraith-g, Milt Hinton-b, Joe Harris-d). From Jazz Workshop. 3/31/1956

Cecil Taylor.
“On September 14, 1956, in Boston, with Dennis Charles, Buell Neidlinger, and on two selections, Steve Lacy, he made his first album, one of the most remarkable statements of the ’50s. Jazz Advance consists of three originals, two romantic standards, and one piece each by Monk and Ellington. What makes it more fascinating today than at the time it was first issued is our awareness that Taylor was already employing many of the pianistic techniques and figures associated with his more mature period, especially evident in his boldest achievement, ‘Rick Kick Shaw.’ The album is dated only by his attempt to parse those figures over a steady beat and wed them to predetermined harmonies. It aroused sufficient interest to secure him a spot at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival in a program devoted to ‘experimental’ jazz…” – Gary Giddins

“Taylor’s first record remains one of the most extraordinary debuts in jazz, and for 1956 it’s an incredible effort. The pianist’s ’50s music is even more radical than Ornette Coleman’s, though it has seldom been recognized as such, and, while Coleman has acquired the plaudits, it is Taylor’s achievement which now seems the most impressive and uncompromised.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Bemsha Swing. Cecil Taylor Trio
Cecil Taylor-p, Buell Neidlinger-b, Dennis Charles-d). From Jazz Advance. 9/14/1956

Rick Kick Shaw. Cecil Taylor Trio
(Cecil Taylor-p, Buell Neidlinger-b, Dennis Charles-d). From Jazz Advance. 9/14/1956

Ornette Coleman.
“No jazz musician has so comprehensively and irremediably divided opinion. To some… he is a visionary genius who has changed the shape of modern music; to others – though one must say a diminishing and somewhat chastened number – he is a fraud, innocent or otherwise, whose grasp of musical theory is either shaky or so solipsistic as to be meaningless. Long before anyone had heard of ‘harmolodics’ it was thought that Coleman represented the third spur of the modernist revolution, a shift in approach to melody and rhythm to match Coltrane’s skyscraping harmonics and Cecil Taylor’s atonality.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

“The combination of his eldritch saxophone sound – he was shown on the cover cradling an acrylic instrument, which is partly responsible for his bleached, small but dynamically supple delivery – Cherry’s tinny, raw trumpet-playing and Haden’s awesomely capacious bass shapes is electrifying, and Higgins’s drumming suggests not so much polyrhythms in the Elvin Jones sense as a new conception of time as asynchronous and malleable… From the very first phrases of ‘Lonely Woman’, it is clear that this is an epoch in modern jazz and that something new and essential has arrived.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Lonely Woman. Ornette Coleman Quartet
(Don Cherry-tp, Ornette Coleman-as, Charlie Haden-b, Billy Higgins-d). From The Shape Of Jazz To Come. 5/22/1959

Focus On Sanity. Ornette Coleman Quartet
(Don Cherry-tp, Ornette Coleman-as, Charlie Haden-b, Billy Higgins-d). From The Shape Of Jazz To Come. 5/22/1959

Eric Dolphy.
Much of Eric Dolphy’s best work was in bands led by John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Oliver Nelson, but several of his solo efforts remain classics of the era and landmarks of exploration. While he followed Charlie Parker, and others, as an alto sax virtuoso, he was one of the first new flute voices in decades and singularly established the bass clarinet as a front-line jazz instrument.

“Far Cry … marks the first recorded appearance of Dolphy’s most celebrated composition, ‘Miss Ann’, a delightful 14-bar theme that he was to play until the end of his life… [Trumpeter Booker] Little drops out for ‘It’s Magic’, one of the first times one feels Dolphy is doing something special on bass clarinet…– Brian Morton & Richard Cook

“Like [Charlie] Parker, his music was played with urgency, at times explosiveness, daring to linger at the tenuous juncture where the human cry and musical scale meet. But the differences between the two were equally notable. Dolphy’s solos were more angular, zigzagging from interval to interval, taking hairpin turns at unexpected junctures, making dramatic leaps from the lower to the upper register, and belting out insistent flurries of notes. And, in time, Dolphy would push his music to an even more pronounced modernism than Parker’s, ultimately breaching the conventional limits of tonality and structure.” – Ted Gioia

Miss Ann. Eric Dolphy – Booker Little Quintet
(Booker Little-tp, Eric Dolphy-as/bcl/fl, Jaki Byard-p, Ron Carter-b, Roy Haynes-d). From Far Cry. 12/21/1960

Its Magic. Eric Dolphy – Booker Little Quintet
(Booker Little-tp, Eric Dolphy-as/bcl/fl, Jaki Byard-p, Ron Carter-b, Roy Haynes-d). From Far Cry. 12/21/1960

While Russell, Coleman and Taylor continued to contribute vitally into the 21st century, Eric Dolphy was silenced at age 36 in 1964, but not before he had made a groundbreaking series of recordings with John Coltrane in 1961.

Many jazz singers of the 1950s continued the tradition of recording with major instrumentalists who were given the space to improvise, feeding off the collaboration. In 1954, EmArCy records matched three of their singers, representing the wide range of their offerings – Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and Helen Merrill – with jazz ensembles featuring their rising star, trumpeter Clifford Brown. Brown’s quintet partner, Max Roach anchored several outings that featured his wife, Abbey Lincoln with the all-star ensembles. In the next hour of Jazz at 100, we will explore the 1950s contributions of jazz vocalists Sarah Vaughan, Helen Merrill, Dinah Washington and Abbey Lincoln.

The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins. W.W. Norton 933796.
George Russell. Jazz Workshop. RCA 6467-2-RB
Cecil Taylor. Jazz Advance. Transition TRLP 19
Ornette Coleman. The Shape Of Jazz To Come. Atlantic LP 1317
Eric Dolphy. Far Cry. New Jazz NJLP 8270

Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 13. Jazz Composition in the 1950s
Giddins, Gary. 2004. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 118 Postwar Jazz: An Arbitrary Roadmap (1945–2001)
Giddins, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 50. Cecil Taylor (Outer Curve)
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
George Russell. Jazz Workshop
Cecil Taylor. Jazz Advance
Ornette Coleman. The Shape Of Jazz To Come
Eric Dolphy. Far Cry
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 54. Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come 1959 – 1960)

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

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