When Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra trombonist Christopher Crenshaw began working on compositions for The Fifties: A Prism, he was mining some of the music's richest terrain, synthesizing influences ranging from bebop and modal to free jazz and beyond.
Now, you can read an excerpt of the album's liner notes, which were written by the JLCO's Ted Nash and shed light on the nuances that set the foundation for an era of explosive musical and artistic expression. Christopher Crenshaw's The Fifties: A Prism is out now on all digital platforms—listen to the album on Apple Music or download it from our webstore.
To understand the 1950s is to truly know jazz music. At that time in the United States, jazz was a convergence of past, present, and future. This was a decade of revolution and traditionalism, a time of breaking down boundaries and the creation of new order. The invention and detonation of the atom bomb in 1945 forever changed our worldview, and we saw what was once whole become divided. A fragmentation of vision was seen in visual art (one can reference the representational work of artists like Pollock and Rothko evolving from figurative to abstract) as well as heard in the sounds of music as it moved from the sweet ease of the swing era to the frenetic and expressive sounds of bebop and beyond. The 50s continued the journey of both division and coalescence and forwarded new norms that voiced the friction of a restless evolution.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education furthered the slow march toward civil rights that was, and continues to be, so defining to the Black American experience, and, as such, for the sound of jazz. A period of economic prosperity and suburban comfort created a new kind of jazz fan who listened on a turntable at home rather than in the dance halls. Curiosity about cultures, styles, and sounds from other nations was offset by McCarthyism, and the tension between social progressivism and fear-based conservatism created a tectonic pressure that yielded artistic diamonds.
The unique gifts that the 50s created are even more compellingly evidenced by the sheer number of significant artists creating powerful work throughout that decade. The founding fathers of jazz—Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Nick LaRocca, to name a few—were working alongside modern innovators such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and Lennie Tristano. Many of today’s living legends like Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Lou Donaldson were just coming on the scene at that time. The temptation of history is to define an era by one style, but the jazz music of the 50s defies such lazy categorization.