1960 Jazz: Atlantic Records, part 2

I started the previous article in this 1960 jazz albums series with the goal to dedicate one episode to Atlantic Records. 4,000 words into it I only covered albums by The Modern Jazz Quartet and its members. I quickly realized that another article about Atlantic Records was due. This second article focuses on John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. We will spend most of this review covering the two legendary reed men, who both recorded multiple sessions for Atlantic in 1960. We start with John Coltrane.

John Coltrane with Miles Davis

John Coltrane spent the first three months of 1960 with Miles Davis, touring multiple cities in the US and Europe. In April of that year he left the trumpeter’s band, this time permanently. In June and July he was booked to play almost every day at Jazz Gallery in New York City, a club ran by Five Spot Café  owner Joe Termini. His band at the start of the engagement included pianist Steve Kuhn, bassist Steve Davis and drummer Pete LaRoca. A major shift in personnel took place during that time. Here is a great story by Benny Golson who formed his sextet with Art Farmer in 1960 and hired a new pianist for the band. The pianist drove from his hometown of Philadelphia to New York City. Golson remembers: “I got a call. ‘We broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike. Can you come out and pick me up?’ ‘McCoy, I don’t have a car. What am I gonna do?’ Then I said, ‘Wait a minute’—he gave the phone number of where he was—‘I’ll call you back.’ I called John Coltrane, who had a car. John came out to our house, and we went out and picked McCoy Tyner up and brought him in. A little later, you know, he left us and joined John’s quartet. I said to John, ‘Fine friend you are. I went out and picked up a piano player to join our group and you stole him!’ We laughed about that for years.”

John Coltrane with McCoy Tyner

McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane, having both spent much of the early part of their lives in Philadelphia, knew each other since the mid 1950s. In 1958 Coltrane recorded Tyner’s tune The Believer, released in 1964 on a Prestige album of the same name. Tyner replaced Steve Kuhn in May of 1960 while the band was booked at Jazz Gallery. The new lineup gigged steadily in July and August and reached the west coast in September. Drummer Elvin Jones was invited to join the band for that trip but declined. Billy Higgins filled the drummer seat for a number of performances, including the Monterey Jazz Festival. Jones joined the band later on that tour when they continued to Denver in September. This lineup of the John Coltrane Quartet now remained stable for the rest of 1960 and was featured on most of the recordings Coltrane made for Atlantic that year.

Monterey Jazz Festival 1960 – Steve Davis, Billy Higgins, John Coltrane

But before continuing with the quartet we have an interesting collaboration with a different lineup. On two dates in June and July 1960 Coltrane co-led sessions for Atlantic Records with Don Cherry. The two first played together when Cherry sat in with Coltrane’s group in 1959 at the Sundown club in Los Angeles. After Ornette Coleman’s group moved to New York City at the end of 1959, the two met frequently although they did not record together. On June 28 Coltrane, Cherry and the rest of Ornette Coleman’s rhythm section, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell, met in the studio. A week later they met again, with bassist Percy Heath replacing Charlie Haden. Fittingly, three of the tunes they picked to play on these sessions were composed by Ornette Coleman and recorded when the group was still in the west coast. One of them is The Blessing, originally from Coleman’s 1958 debut album Something Else!!!! The track as played by Coltrane is significant for capturing on record for the first time Coltrane playing the soprano sax, a few months before he immortalized the instrument with the recording of My Favorite Things. The sessions that Coltrane and Cherry recorded in 1960 resulted in the album The Avant-Garde.

In 1961 Coltrane told Newsweek the following story about how he started playing the soprano saxophone:

“Three of us were driving back from a date in Washington late in 1959. Two of us were in the front seat and the other guy, a sax player, in the back. He was being very quiet. At Baltimore, we made a rest stop, then got back in the car and 30 miles later realized that the guy in the back wasn’t there. We hoped that he had money with him, and drove on. I took his suitcase and horn to my apartment in New York. I opened the case and found a soprano sax. I started fooling around with it and was fascinated. That’s how I discovered the instrument.” The soprano sax was returned to its owner, but more importantly Coltrane discovered an instrument that gave his music a new dimension. He continued the story in another interview:

“Last February (1960), I bought a soprano saxophone. I like the sound of it, but I’m not playing with the body, the bigness of tone, that I want yet. I haven’t had too much trouble playing it in tune, but I’ve had a lot of trouble getting a good quality of tone in the upper register. It comes out sort of puny sometimes. I’ve had to adopt a slightly different approach than the one I use for tenor, but it helps me get away—lets me take another look at improvisation. It’s like having another hand.”

John Coltrane playing the soprano sax, 1961

Ed Blackwell said that when he lived together with Ornette Coleman in Los Angeles, Ornette played the figure that The Blessing is based on to warm up his alto in the morning. He heard it as a working tune for the first time when he came to work with Ornette at the Five Spot. There is a particularly elaborate muted trumpet solo by Cherry here reminiscent of Miles Davis, and a subtle mallet solo by Blackwell, reflecting his study of bata and African drumming.

John Coltrane – tenor and soprano saxophone

Don Cherry – cornet

Charlie Haden – double bass

Ed Blackwell – drums

Don Cherry had nothing but compliments to his band mates in the album’s liner notes. First the drummer: “Blackwell really had his chops up on this record. He plays the drum set as a whole, so that its sound is total. But at the same time he maintains separate rhythms. All this with an even-handed balance.” And the bass player: “Charlie plays more melody than Percy – like, Charlie tells a story, and Percy concentrates on chords. You can hear that Charlie’s notes are rounder than Percy’s, since Percy cuts his notes off to keep them in the precise rhythmic pattern.”

A Downbeat review of the album in June 1966 (the album was only released that year) also singled out Charlie Haden’s playing: “Haden, who is present on Cherryco and Blessing, is very strong behind Coltrane and Cherry; his bass notes arc like huge cushions for the horns to ‘bounce off, while at the same time his lines constitute melodies in themselves.”

John Coltrane

The new lineup of John Coltrane’s quartet with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones performed throughout the month of October 1960 at the Half Note jazz club in NYC. His arrangement of My Favorite Things from the recent 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music (the movie adaptation with Julie Andrews did not come out until 1965) was a standout. The tune became a showcase piece of his playing on the soprano sax. A review of the performance said: “He doesn’t indulge in the many-note flurries of his tenor style, rather he plays small melodies, little motifs or scales repeated, or explored fast past ordinary limits. No one except Sidney Bechet has given the instrument anything approaching this dignity.” The reviewer may have been ignorant of Steve Lacy, whose sole focus was on the instrument, which he showcased on his debut solo album titled Soprano Sax in 1957.

The review also mentioned Coltrane’s fantastic rhythm section: “McCoy Tyner plays the changes in large block piano chords while Elvin Jones, without actually soloing, does so many marvelous things supporting Coltrane that I am convinced that this is actually his tune. He uses everything—he does so much with his sock cymbal and bass drum that it sounds like two drummers.”

Cecil Taylor recalled how he was unable to convince several young musicians sitting in the club that it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein song, rather than East Indian folk music they took it to be.

On October 21, 1960 The John Coltrane Quartet met at Atlantic Studios, NYC for the first of four sessions it would record for the label that week. These sessions will contribute tracks to a number of albums Atlantic Records would release in the next four years.

The session started with the track Village Blues, which ended up on the album Coltrane Jazz in 1961. We will skip that one, as it is not the session highlight by a long shot. That honor goes, of course, to the title track for Coltrane’s next album, My Favorite Things. We have already discussed the tune as it was performed prior to this recording, but a lot more has been said about it after the album’s release. Here is one album review by Pete Welding from the June 1961 issue of Downbeat: “Coltrane sets the mood and character of the piece in his initial solo, which consists primarily of a straightforward exposition of the theme, with little embellishment. A definite Middle Eastern flavor is established through his sensitive use of slight arabesques and shrill cries. This is picked up and amplified in his second solo, which is developed through a series of long lines that can be described only as sinuous and serpentine. At times there is employment of a pinched, high-pitched, near-human cry of anguish that is most effective, and at one point near the end of this surging, extended improvisation, he uses a device that sent chills along my spine, he seems to be playing a slithering, coruscating melody line over a constant drone note!” Lots of adjectives, but you get the idea. A brilliant performance by all members of the group.

John Coltrane – soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone

McCoy Tyner – piano

Steve Davis – double bass

Elvin Jones – drums

The tune was attempted a number of times during the session, but Coltrane wasn’t fully satisfied even after the master take was completed. Pointing to the soprano sax he said to the engineer: “Between what I think and what you hear there’s this damned instrument.”

After listening to such a powerful performance on the soprano sax, it is interesting to read an interview Coltrane gave several months after this recording. In May 1961 he talked about the instrument: “On soprano so far I haven’t used much in 4/4. Most of the tunes I’ve played soprano on are 6/8 or 3/4. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it feels to me. It doesn’t seem to have the power to really dig in on those 4/4 things, I don’t feel that power there, which I do on tenor.”

And we cannot ignore McCoy Tyner’s fantastic contribution to My Favorite Things. This was his first studio recording session with John Coltrane, who said this about the gifted pianist: “McCoy is a beauty, isn’t he? There’s so many things that he does and I don’t tell him to do. I couldn’t tell him because when I hear it I say, man, that’s just like I would want it, I would have done it myself if I’d have thought of it. And it happens so often until it’s just, I don’t know, he’s just that sensitive, he’s very sensitive.”

Three days later, on October 24, the quartet was back in the studio for two recording sessions, one in the afternoon and another in the evening. Most of the tunes they played in the second session were blues numbers that ended on the album Coltrane Plays the Blues, released in 1962. In the album’s liner notes Joe Goldberg relates a typical three-set club engagement with Coltrane’s group on the bill. Coltrane plays the crowd pleasers My Favorite Things and Greensleeves on soprano sax in the first two sets of the evening. “The last set generally starts at around two in the morning, when the audience is composed of hard-core believers. Coltrane almost always choses to play the tenor that set, and almost always plays the blues.”

Here is a unique blues number, one that he played on soprano sax and dedicated to another soprano master, Sidney Bechet:

The last track attempted on the last day of recording on October 26, 1960 became a jazz standard although John Coltrane rarely performed it live. Equinox, which he played at the Monterey Jazz Festival a month ahead of this recording, features a mantra-like accompaniment that creates an interesting tension. At times the tune reminds me of “All Blues” from Miles Davis’ classic album Kind of Blue, also featuring John Coltrane. Interestingly an equinox, which happens twice a year when day and night are of the same length, occurred on John Coltrane’s birth date – September 23, 1926.

Equinox, along with other tracks recorded on October 24 and 26, 1960, were released on the Atlantic album Coltrane’s Sound in 1964.

That week of October 1960 was the most significant and impressive recording spree Coltrane made for Atlantic Records. It was the twilight of his contract with the label, and he recorded one final album for Atlantic in 1961. 1960 was a significant year for Coltrane, just before signing with Impulse! Records and starting a legendary run of albums with that label. In December 1960 he won the Downbeat Readers poll in the best tenor sax category.

Tenor Sax Downbeat Readers Poll 1960

While John Coltrane neared the end of his Atlantic contract, another innovative saxophone player was in the middle of his own contract with the label in 1960. Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1960 that “It is hard to see how anyone who really listens to music can regard John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and others of the new jazz movement as anything but major contemporary artists reflecting tensions, anxieties, thrilling hints of the future and searing immediacy of the nuclear age.” Quite a mouthful, yet a great segue to the music Ornette Coleman made in 1960, which was quite intense. Just how intense, listen to Coltrane, who said this about Ornette: “I have only played with him once in my life. I went to listen to him at a club and he asked me to join him. We played two pieces – twelve minutes to be exact – but I think that was the most intense moment of my life.”

Ornette Coleman

1960 started with a Downbeat issue featuring Ornette Coleman sitting in for the esteemed blindfold test organized by Leonard Feather. The veteran music journalist was very complimentary about Coleman in his introduction: “Though it is much too soon to determine how important his contribution will really be, the indications are that he has indeed found a style both of writing and playing that is valid, fresh, and exciting. Coleman’s first Blindfold Test revealed him as no less unusual in his verbal as in his musical expression.” This was just a couple of months after Coleman shook the jazz world during his performances at the Five Spot Café in NYC. Regardless of what Ornette Coleman had to say about the albums Feather played for him, which was mostly favorable regardless of style, I was impressed by his knowledge. He was able to identify most of the musicians without being told anything about the music: Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Charlie Mingus, Hal McKusick, Art Farmer.

The same issue of Downbeat also included an article about his performances at the Five Spot Café, citing the wide range of responses in the press: “He’ll change the entire course of jazz.” “He’s a fake.” “He’s a genius. ’’ “I can’t say; I’ll have to hear him a lot more times.” “He has no form.” “He swings like HELL.” “I’m going home and listen to my Benny Goodman trios and quartets.” “He’s out, real far out.” “I like him, but I don’t have any idea what he is doing.” With that frame of mind in the critics’ world, Ornette entered the studio in 1960 to record his next album.

Prior to the recording of This is Our Music in July and August 1960, drummer Billy Higgins lost his cabaret card due to drug problems. He could not perform in New York City and focused instead on recording sessions. He had to be replaced in the group and Ed Blackwell, who knew Ornette Coleman in LA, joined with his unique style of drumming. I can’t do justice to this fantastic group of musicians with my own praises, so here is Ornette Coleman in the original album sleeve notes:

“Ed Blackwell, the drummer, has to my ears one of the most musical ears of playing rhythm of anyone I have heard. This man can play rhythm so close to the tempered notes that one seems to hear them take each other’s places.”

“Donald Cherry, the trumpeter, knows more of my compositions then I can remember. He is in the avant-garde of the younger trumpeters since he himself is only twenty-four, and he keeps his playing in his vivid image.”

“Charlie Haden, the bassist, is twenty-three years old of age and as they say in the jazz world ‘he can cook like crazy.’ This man has an ear and feeling for music that one can’t help but hear and feel when he is playing.”

“The experience of playing with these men is unexplainable and I only know that what they know is far beyond a technical explanation for me to convey to you.”

Ornette Coleman – alto saxophone

Don Cherry – pocket trumpet

Charlie Haden – bass

Ed Blackwell – drums

Charlie Haden recalled the change that went through the group between their 1959 and 1960 recordings on Atlantic: “There is a slight evolution between the L.A. records, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century and a big evolution with the New York record, This Is Our Music, where there aren’t ANY chord progressions during the improvisations any more: just modulations through keys. I would just grab the most important note I could hear from Ornette’s phrases. This would enable him to go to the next thing he wanted to do.”

The album includes one jazz standard, a rare appearance on an Ornette Coleman album of that period. Charlie Haden has a funny story to tell about that one:

“Dexter Gordon came to see us rehearse at the Hillcrest. After listening quietly for a while in the back, he came up to stage, sat on a bar stool, and asked, ‘You cats ever play any standards?’

Ornette said, ‘Sure, man! What would you like to hear?’

‘How about ‘Embraceable You’?’

Ornette picked up his horn and played two phrases. Then he put his horn back down, looked at Dexter and said, ‘That’s it.’

Dexter scratched his head, took another puff of his cigarette, and said, ‘Thank you, man.’

I think that moment is one of the reasons we recorded that song on This Is Our Music.”

The Ornette Coleman Quartet

Another major change went through the Ornette Coleman quartet in September of 1960 when Charlie Haden left temporarily in an attempt to kick his Heroin habit. He remembers: “I was already pretty mixed up personally, and after coming to New York, it got worse and worse. It finally reached the point where I was coming late on the gig every night. Ornette was upset, and told me please to try and straighten out, but then one night I was two hours late, the second set was already on, and I told Ornette: ‘You don’t have to say it – I’m going to a hospital.’” Haden was replaced by Scot LaFaro, and interestingly both of them play on Ornette Coleman’s next album.

Free Jazz, recorded in December 1960, consists of a single track. This is a continuous piece of improvisation performed simultaneously by two quartets, recorded on separate channels: Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Scott LaFaro and Billy Higgins on the left, and Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell on the right. This must be one of the best collection of jazz musicians assembled under one roof that I know of.

Martin Williams writes in the original sleeve notes:

“This is an exceptional record – exceptional in so many ways that it is hard to know where to begin! It is a continuous free improvisation with only a few, brief, pre-set sections. It was done in one take at a single recording session. No one knew how long it would last. Two tape machines were simply kept going and when Free Jazz was over, it had taken 38 minutes – the length of an LP. There was nothing more to play, there were no re-takes, no splices.”

Ornette Coleman continues: “The most important thing was for us to play together, all at the same time, without getting in each other’s way, and also to have enough room for each player to ad lib alone – and to follow this idea for the duration of the album. When the soloist played something that suggested a musical idea or direction to me, I played that behind him in my style.”

The album was recorded on December 21, 1960, marking an extremely productive day for Eric Dolphy, who after this session proceeded to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio to record the album Far Cry for Prestige New Jazz label.

Left channel:

Ornette Coleman – alto saxophone

Don Cherry – pocket trumpet

Scott LaFaro – bass

Billy Higgins – drums

Right channel:

Eric Dolphy – bass clarinet

Freddie Hubbard – trumpet

Charlie Haden – bass

Ed Blackwell – drums

Here is the full track, all 37 minutes of it:

A January 1962 Downbeat magazine issue featured two reviews of the album. Two years after the large divide in the jazz world over his music and the opinions were still miles apart:

Pete Welding: “On repeated listening the form of the work gradually reveals itself, and it is seen that the piece is far less unconventional than it might at first appear. It does not break with jazz tradition; rather, it restores to currency an element that has been absent in most jazz since the onset of the swing orchestra—spontaneous group improvisation. Yet Coleman has restored it with a vengeance.”

John Tynan: “If nothing else, this witch’s brew is the logical end product of a bankrupt philosophy of ultra-individualism in music. “Collective improvisation?” Nonsense. The only semblance of collectivity lies in the fact that these eight nihilists were collected together in one studio at one time and with one common cause: to destroy the music that gave them birth. Give them top marks for the attempt.”

Charles Mingus, 1960

Another jazz giant to record an album for Atlantic Records in 1960 was Charles Mingus, who had a productive recording year, with additional albums recorded for Mercury and Candid Records. In July of that year Mingus performed at the Juan-les-Pins jazz Festival in Antibes, France, featuring one of the best incarnations of his ensemble. This was the first year of that festival, which later inspired Claude Nobs to start the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival.

At Antibes Mingus played the tune Better Git Hit In Your Soul, previously featured on the milestone album Mingus Ah Um a year earlier. Together with Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, also performed at Antibes, this represents Mingus’ focus on black folk and roots music in a jazz context, what was labeled as freedom-with-structure.

From the re-release sleeve notes by Robert Palmer: “Better Git Hit In Your Soul is church music, first pew front and center. Ervin’s solo sounds very heavily influenced by the Texas folk preaching the Lomaxes recorded for the Library of Congress during the 1930s, and Dolphy is incredibly expressive, bringing out a remarkable range of tonguing techniques and modes of attack. Curson captures King Oliver’s spirit with his dirty, broken tone and vocalized wah-wah phrasing on the out-choruses, and Mingus bangs on the piano and shouts ‘My Jesus!’ before the concluding Amen.”

Charles Mingus – bass, piano

Ted Curson – trumpet

Eric Dolphy – alto saxophone

Booker Ervin – tenor saxophone

Dannie Richmond – drums

And now for something completely different. We end this review with a flute player who after releasing 20 albums on various labels since 1954, recorded his debut on Atlantic Records, starting an extremely productive collaboration with the label that yielded over 40 albums into the 1980s. Time to introduce Herbie Mann in this article series.

In 1959 Mann formed an Afro-Cuban band with percussionists from Cuba’s legendary Machito Orchestra including Ray Mantilla and Carlos “Patato” Valdez. His next album was titled “Flautista! Herbie Mann Plays Afro Cuban Jazz”. In 1960 the U.S. State Department funded a trip for Mann to visit Africa. Mann said of that trip: “My group and I were invited earlier this year to tour 17 African countries. Our 14-week trek began at Dakar and went on through Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Congo, Mozambique, Southern and Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Ethiopia, Sudan, Morocco, and Tunisia. We listened to as much native music as we could. I picked up 20 different flutes and a variety of percussion instruments.” The list of countries tells you that the African map changed since 1960, but Herbie Mann did absorb plenty of that continent’s wonderful music.

Herbie Mann

Coming back from his trip to Africa, Mann signed with Atlantic Records and in August 1960 recorded the album Common Ground. His band is truly an international mix of cultures, as he points out: “We are a group of many nationalities. Knobby Totah is Arabic, born in Palestine, Rudy Collins is an American Negro, Olatunji is from Nigeria, Ray Mantilla and Ray Barretto are Puerto Rican, Johnny Rae is of Italian Descent – and I am Jewish of Russian and Romanian descent.” The album also features a group of four trumpeters led by Doc Cheatham.

Herbie Mann described his fascination with Afro-Cuban music: “The indigenous African music I heard, the Afro-Cuban synthesis, and modern jazz are different branches of the same family tree.” Talking about his eclectic tastes in music he said: “I always thought, ‘Why shouldn’t you enjoy yourself and why should you limit yourself to any one diet?’ So I went to Brazil, Africa, Jamaica, and all these things had validity for me. When I brought (Nigerian drummer) Olatunji to Birdland and they saw his robes, it turned the place inside out.”

Herbie Mann – flute

Doc Cheatham, Leo Ball, Jerome Kail, Ziggy Schatz – trumpet

Johnny Rae – vibraphone

Knobby Totah – bass

Rudy Collins – drums

Ray Barretto – congas

Ray Mantilla – bongos

Michael Olatunji – percussion, vocals

Maya Angela, Dolores Parker – vocals

Read part 1 of this article, focusing on albums recorded by The Modern Jazz Quartet in 1960:

Categories: A Year in Music

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you! Fantastic year for jazz and fantastic write up of all the reasons to be excited about it. Somehow atlantic records goes with mainstream, easy listening in my fantasies, and the records listed have largely become mainstream canon in the best, most rewarding ways. This set of records together would form an accessible primer to ‘avantgarde’ jazz for any curious listener, including the still surprising impact of free jazz. Great work

    • Agreed. Back then record labels that catered to the mainstream audience were still interested in releasing risky albums for the sake of the art. Free Jazz is a good example. In some ways, the Third Stream albums that the Modern Jazz Quartet and John Lewis recorded in 1960 (reviewed in part 1) are even more intimidating to a casual jazz listener than the albums reviewed here.

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