Believe it or not, jazz used to be cool and edgy.
That was about 100 years ago.
Guys used to go to jazz concerts to meet flappers. Flappers were the “bad girl” alterna-chicks of the 1920s. They wore “shockingly” short skirts. They bobbed their hair. They wore “scandalous” amounts of makeup. They smoked cigarettes and drove fast cars.
Over the years, jazz music lost its edge. In the 60s, rock music took over and jazz faded away. Jazz made a comeback in the 80s. But by then, it had become commercialized, watered-down and lame.
These days, when people think of jazz they either experience dental surgery flashbacks… or they picture this dumbass.
With a few notable exceptions, modern jazz generally sucks.
Most experts agree that 1959 was the peak year for jazz. Jazz legends John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis came out with truly groundbreaking music that year and also later on in the early part of the 1960s.
The four jazz legends mentioned above pushed the boundaries and moved jazz forward as an art form in that period, yet they also stayed true to what made jazz popular in the first place– sizzling solos, infectious bass grooves and memorable hooks.
Here are 6 numbers from the golden era of jazz that may just change the way you think about this tragically underrated musical genre.
1. Epistophy – Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk was the mad genius of jazz. Jazz fans either love him or hate him. Known for his percussive style, eccentric hats and bizarre behavior during live performances, some people came to Monk shows simply to see if he’d do something crazy.
Epistrophy sounds a little bit like Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse.” Most people know “Powerhouse” from Looney Tunes cartoons.
This song sounds dark in an off-kilter kind of a way, but it’s also a little bit nuts. In other words, it’s a perfect example of what Thelonious Monk is all about. There are many renditions of this song, including a recorded version with John Coltrane on sax. Be sure to check them all out.
2. Giant Steps – John Coltrane
If you think jazz is only good for filling in the awkward moment of silence while standing in an elevator with a stranger, you’re dead wrong.
Coltrane’s album Giant Steps is the exact opposite of elevator music. Jazz musicians say that the speed of the changes make “Giant Steps” very hard to play. The rapid chord progressions convey excitement and energy. With the exception of “Namia,” you can listen to every song on this album while working out.
Multiple listens are very rewarding… especially if you listen after taking a stroll down Doobie lane. Chord changes progress through three entire keys, shifted by major thirds. Coltrane pulls off some amazing technical musical stuff as he solos over the changes.
3. Moanin’ – Charles Mingus
The late 1950s was all about hard bop. “Moanin'” is a perfect example of the style. Its creator Charlie Mingus was one of the best jazz composers of all time.
This is a song whose title definitely matches up exactly with the feeling conveyed by the music. The song literally sounds like someone complaining about a bad day. If you’re into blues-based music, you’ll like this song.
Unlike the other artists featured on this list, Mingus played bass. There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on in this song, but the funky rhythm section holds it all together. Mingus holds it down on bass while drummer Art Blakely punctuates the song in key moments throughout.
4. So What – Miles Davis
The previous 3 songs prove that jazz can be as exciting, weird and energetic as any other type of music out there. Now that you’ve heard all those, it’s time to chill out for a second with a little taste of… cool jazz.
In 1959, “hard bop” jazz players pushed that sub genre just about as far as it could go. It was the perfect time for “cool jazz” to emerge. Cool jazz is still just as cerebral and musically interesting as bop, but it is far more laid back compared to other forms of classic jazz. This is the most popular song off the best selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue… Listen closely. The solos are so lyrical that it seems as though the performers are talking to each other at times.
5. A Love Supreme – John Coltrane
After nearly overdosing on drugs in 1957, John Coltrane had a spiritual revelation. The result of his journey was a four part ode to the infinite he called A Love Supreme.
With its Latin-influenced percussion and ecstatic solos that build up and then burst like fireworks, A Love Supreme communicates a feeling of connecting with something endless and divine.
6. Off Minor – Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane
The last song on this playlist is a moody, smoldering piece that features both John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
The first song on this list “Epistrophy” featured whimsical, almost silly playing by Monk. This song, however, is almost the exact mirror opposite. The music conjures up smoky barrooms and dimly lit alleyways. Monk and Coltrane’s expressive solos convey a world-weary, sarcastic feeling.
Ray Copeland’s more laid back trumpet playing contrasts nicely with Coltrane’s energetic, acrobatic approach.Dig around on YouTube to find all the versions. Each take features totally different solos.