The jazz critics love a horse race, especially when they help create it. The late 1950s saw what is arguably their greatest fabrication. Trumpeter Miles Davis, with his high-profile contract with Columbia Records (not to mention his impeccable style in clothing and Ferarris), was already a star, and the jazz press was on the lookout for the next young trailblazer who would ascend to the pantheon. It found not one, but two contenders, who had contrasting approaches to the same instrument, who had worked with heavyweights like Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk, and who seemed to be only a few sessions away from greatness themselves. They were tenor saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, who quickly became the stalking-horses of two camps of critics, each of which wanted to shape jazz's future.
Then as now, the jazz press was split between the keepers of the flame: establishment-anointed critics (the precursors of Stanley Crouch, who, in the continuing debate over what jazz is and what it is not, argued for a jazz orthodoxy based on 4/4 swing, the standard repertoire, and blues and Latin rhythms) and the rebellious modernists (whose cause was the new). When Rollins was championed by the flame keepers of the swing era, like The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett (then as now, establishment critics held forth in major newspapers and upper-crusty magazines, while the rebels' strongholds were the feistier jazz magazines), it was to secure the future dominance of a tradition-friendly version of jazz. And hard as it is to imagine today, the now universally venerated Coltrane was deemed a heretic by the jazz establishment for his torrential, labyrinthine--and altogether unfamiliar--lines, which modernist advocate Ira Gitler called "sheets of sound."
In other words, the critics' own polemics became the story instead of the music. It's a syndrome the jazz establishment still suffers from today, as it still periodically fails to recognize that jazz's next direction will always be determined by the musicians themselves.
The real story of Coltrane and Rollins can be traced in two new CD box sets of late 1950s recordings. The five-CD set The Freelance Years: The Complete Riverside & Contemporary Recordings (Fantasy/Riverside) is a mix of Rollins's sideman dates with singer Abbey Lincoln, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and, most instructively, Monk, as well as Rollins's own early sessions as a leader. The six-CD set Miles Davis with John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961 (Columbia/ Legacy) documents Coltrane's last stint as a sideman.
The Rollins box set includes two early performances that make it clear why he, and not Coltrane, was the early establishment favorite. The first is Monk's "Brilliant Corners," the title track of the pianist's 1956 album. The tune is a perfect demonstration of how Monk created minefields of off-center phrases and then compounded the navigational problem by sending every second chorus into double time. And the 26-year-old Rollins meets the challenge, melding his burly tone and buoyant phrasing to produce a solo that is alternately gregarious and sly. Yet even this prickly composition revealed Rollins's inventiveness to be unthreatening to the status quo. In Rollins, establishment critics heard a synthesis of the familiar, a blending of the swing era's two great tenors, the rhapsodic Coleman Hawkins and the lyrical Lester Young.
The other signal track is "I'm an Old Cowhand," which opened the excellent 1957 trio date Way Out West. That album's classic cover photo shows Rollins mugging it up in a 10-gallon hat, his right hand pushing back his jacket to reveal an empty holster from which his horn seems to have been drawn. The cover captures his appeal; he is funny, irreverent, and likable. Built upon drummer Shelley Manne's corny syncopation, which is lassoed into a firm walking tempo by bass player Red Mitchell, Rollins's performance is the musical equivalent of twirling a six-shooter before firing off a half-dozen bull's-eyes. With Way Out West, Rollins winked at jazz's gunslinger stereotype, a self-mocking gesture that scored big with critics and fans alike.
In marked contrast, Coltrane's relentlessly hard tone, his speed, and his almost unfathomable complexity in Gordian knot-like solos made him an easy target for the establishment in these years. Even Nat Hentoff, though a modernist, was initially cool to this quiet and chronically unsmiling man who practiced obsessively. It took Davis's endorsement of Coltrane to get him a continued hearing. Luckily, the changes in Davis's music during the Columbia years forced Coltrane to streamline his own playing. The first hints of this are heard in the new box set's 1955 sessions, which produced tracks for the later albums 'Round About Midnight and Milestones. Tucked among bebop flag-wavers like Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha," which are rendered with sophisticated verve by Davis's quintet (with pianist Red Garland, bass player Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones), is "Little Melonae." This cut's jagged theme is built upon a slower moving set of chord changes than classic bebop, pushing Coltrane to emphasize his bluesiness and use a simpler syntax.
Coltrane rapidly matured over the next two and a half years, as he also worked with Monk and led his first Prestige recordings. The new box set contains 1956 gems--the Monk ballad "'Round Midnight" and Cole Porter's "All of You"--that exemplify the changes. In the Monk ballad, Coltrane begins to transform raw intensity into articulate emotional conflict, as he chokes off phrases and dramatically stretches high notes in a well-designed solo. Also coming into its own is the soaring quality of his phrasing, later to become the spiritually exultant signature of his work; here, it is already beginning to suggest that under the expressionless exterior is an anguished romantic. In "All of You," Coltrane breaks out in yet another way: His virtuosity reinforces the tune's graceful, elegant swing to show off his easygoing side. Yet these human dimensions were ignored by his increasingly hostile critics.
The establishment all but called the race won when Rollins and Coltrane, in 1956, made their only recording together, the title tune of Rollins's Tenor Madness (a Prestige album not included in the latest box sets). Despite the number's obviously cordial musical banter, these critics considered it a one-sided fight, ruling Coltrane's insistent 16th-note patterns ineffectual against Rollins's groove-mining phrasing. For the establishment, nothing that followed prompted a reassessment, as Rollins continued to give them what they wanted with records like his 1957 Riverside debut as a leader, The Sound of Sonny (included in The Freelance Years), on which he again demonstrated a winning way of turning kitschy ditties like "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" into witty jazz vehicles and an ability to write catchy tunes like the aptly titled "Cutie."
But in February 1958, both Coltrane and Rollins hit new strides with seminal recordings--Coltrane with Miles Davis's "Milestones" and Rollins with his "Freedom Suite." These performances illustrate how quickly and thoroughly jazz artists can reinvent themselves, leaving the media far behind. With "The Freedom Suite," Rollins ceased being merely hip and became a socially conscious artist. On "Milestones" Coltrane found a conduit between his prodigious technique and his blossoming spirituality, which eventually won him his place among the greats.
"The Freedom Suite," the title piece of Rollins's last Riverside LP, was inspired by his encounters with discriminatory apartment rental practices in New York. It is the first Rollins performance to make real demands of the listener, clocking in at just under 20 minutes. Additionally, Rollins recorded the piece just with bass player Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach; while a pianoless trio was already a Rollins favorite, it was still daring for him to use this stripped-down configuration for his defining statement. Even by today's standards, the five-section "Freedom Suite" is an imaginatively designed work. The opening and closing movements are briskly paced: In the first, with its well-honed eight-bar theme, Rollins's swagger begins to morph into steely determination; the last has a vague resemblance to "Lover Come back to Me." The interior of the piece is beguiling. A somber, minor-keyed theme, drawing on the work songs and spirituals then in vogue, encases the third movement, a lovely Ellington-tinged ballad. Throughout the piece, Rollins, Pettiford, and Roach are masterful, making "The Freedom Suite" a pinnacle in modern jazz improvisation as well as small-group composition.
"Milestones" is similarly pivotal. Though Davis's 1959 album Kind of Blue (also included in the Columbia collection) is always cited as modal jazz's breakthrough recording, it is little more than a refinement of the innovations first drafted in "Milestones." Davis's compositional structure here is a paradigm of simplicity. A four-note phrase is played three times and then slightly altered to include a fifth note; the sequence is then repeated to conclude the eight-bar A section. The melody of the eight-bar bridge is too closely related to provide the necessary contrast. Instead, the contrast between the two sections lies in their rhythms: The A section has a spry swing, while the bridge hovers as if suspended in midair. As both sections are played over a single chord (rather than a traditional set of chord changes), the soloists must exploit the rhythmic contrasts with melodic lines accentuated by pungent, oddly placed notes. Davis and alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, in their solos, do so with polish, but Coltrane's solo is the most visionary, as his newfound interest in Asian music begins to seep into his playing, and his soaring quality crystallizes. Coltrane's performance on "Milestones" foreshadows not only his approach to "So What" and other modal tunes from Kind of Blue, but also his 1960s glory.
A year and a half after recording "The Freedom Suite," Rollins was disillusioned not only with fame, which had failed to inoculate him against racism, but with the jazz game as a whole, and he took a famous two-and-a-half-year sabbatical from recording and live performance. In short, Rollins quit the race in disgust while he was in the stretch. Coltrane, on the other hand, within weeks of Kind of Blue, recorded Giant Steps (Atlantic), the album that secured his financial future and artistic legacy. By 1961 he had won over early modernist skeptics like Hentoff and was voted Down Beat's Jazzman of the Year. Nonetheless, Coltrane's rapidly evolving art continued to prompt virulent attacks from many establishment critics like The New York Times's John S. Wilson, until Coltrane's popularity and centrality to the next generation of musicians eventually sealed his position. ¤