The Jazz Glories of 1959, One Day at a Time: A Conversation with Critic Natalie Weiner

Jan 4, 2019

No one needs to be reminded that 1959 was an exceptionally good year for jazz. 

Among other things, it gave us some of the most celebrated jazz albums ever made: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, to name but a few. Most historical treatments of the subject — like 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz, a documentary film produced for television in 2009 — naturally focus on those touchstones, reinforcing an aura of distant legend. 

Meanwhile, many other moments go undervalued or overlooked, and the larger context around the music remains a blurry abstraction. What was the culture like at ground level 60 years ago? What did it feel like to experience that exalted year in something like real time, from day to day? 

These are among the questions posed by Natalie Weiner in The 1959 Project, an online series that made its debut on the first day of 2019.

Weiner’s byline has appeared in Billboard and JazzTimes, but her regular gig is in sports media — at SB Nation, and previously at Bleacher Report. (She’s a big deal on Seahawks Twitter.) On Thursday, I gave her a call to talk about The 1959 Project, her research obsessions, and her relationship to jazz journalism. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Congratulations on the early enthusiasm for The 1959 Project! As I said earlier, it’s the perfect alignment of subject, writer, and medium. So how did it come about?

When I was working at Billboard, my editor asked me to put together something around the great jazz musicians who were still around from that era. He had seen a show somewhere, I don’t remember who it was, and he was impressed that we still had this living history. That was when I first had the idea to do a timeline. There’s really such an abundance of information from this period — newspapers and magazines and video and audio. I pitched it to them, but wound up leaving Billboard before the project was completed. They did do a feature, which was cool, but I still was like: “This is a thing that I’m interested in.”

Yeah.

So really, the research I’ve been doing for this goes back to 2016. That’s when I sort of started pulling together – basically I went through the Tom Lord jazz discography and literally wrote down every single recording session that would be relevant that year. Then it was a matter of filling in the blanks — looking at New Yorker listings, New York Times listings, the Village Voice — going through all of that stuff and trying to draw out any sort of moment that I could pinpoint.

Speaking of isolating a moment: your entry for January 3 discusses the Miles Davis Sextet at Birdland. Does that mean we won’t see a March 9 post for the recording of Kind of Blue?

No, I’ll definitely include that. I haven’t totally figured out how the narrative is going to line up. There will be some repeat appearances. Probably a lot. Especially for Miles – it’s such a seminal year for him, and for John Coltrane. The fact that I’ve limited myself means that there’s going to be people who come up more than once. My hope is that I can draw some connections that maybe haven’t been drawn before, or some that have faded into obscurity. Ideally I do want to spend some time in actual physical archives. Most of my research has been online, using ProQuest and other digital archives. For me, it is actually fun. This is what I’ve been doing in my spare time when I want to have a Zen moment.

Do you think it’ll be tough to keep this going? We’re a few days into a 365-day campaign.

I’m going to do my best. Some of the posts might just be two sentences. It’s hard for me, because I have a tendency to go down the rabbit hole. I had wanted to have a few things backlogged before the year started, but that didn’t end up happening.

As a jazz journalist, so much of your published work has revolved around contemporary figures, like Esperanza Spalding and Makaya McCraven. Does this effort, which is so much more historical and research-forward, feel like balancing the plate?

In my dream world, this is kind of what I would do all the time. That’s really not sustainable, though, unless I go to graduate school. So this is my compromise: I can make use of the resources I have without completely casting aside the work I’ve done up to this point and starting over, which is what grad school would be. But also, I really love that period: 1950 to 1970, basically. I ultimately want to write books that have some kind of relevance in part to that period. Music history books is where I want to go.

Speaking of books: this project naturally calls to mind Fred Kaplan’s 1959: The Year Everything Changed. I want to read a passage from Page 1 of that book, and see whether it resonates with you.

OK.

Here goes:

1959 was the year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when humanity stepped into the cosmos and also commandeered the conception of human life, when the world shrank but the knowledge needed to thrive in it expanded exponentially, when outsiders became insiders, when categories were crossed and taboos were trampled, when everything was changing and everyone knew it — when the world as we now know it began to take form.

So, that’s a bold and somewhat grandiose set of claims. Do they ring true for you?

I haven’t read the Fred Kaplan book, but I know about it and will check it out. There certainly is a narrative about 1959 as a point of change. I don’t think that narrative is wrong – but the thing that I really want to draw out is the idea of jazz as borne of a community, if that makes sense. Because we fall back on a history of jazz from that period that really relies on a “Great Man” angle: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk. Which, you know, is not necessarily a bad angle, because they’re all great. I’m not here to dispute that they were geniuses. But there were so many people who surrounded them who were also really fascinating. And the atmosphere that allowed them to create, or inhibited them, is also interesting. The way the world functioned around them is kind of lost. There’s so much there that you could talk about it forever.

Yeah, totally.

I also think it’s an interesting juxtaposition, the way we think about jazz history vs. the way we look at other artistic movements in the United States. Like The Beats, or hippies, or rock ‘n’ roll – they all sort of get a scene, and for some reason jazz doesn’t get a scene. Obviously these are broad strokes, and there are exceptions, but when we’re talking about U.S. history writ large, we give all of The Beats some importance, but with jazz it’s just a few big names. Their scene was super-rich, and we can’t really overstate its importance. Just even looking at the stuff I’ve posted so far, thinking about the fact that Quincy Jones is talking about what Count Basie taught him about tempo — and then you consider what Quincy went on to do in his career. It’s pretty amazing.

There are a lot of discoveries like that ahead, I’m sure.

Even just thinking about the place that women occupied in that era. There’s this great picture I found of Billie Holiday and Hazel Scott together. The caption didn’t say where they were, they’re just chatting. That’s amazing! Why is this not a part of our conception of this year? There’s so many women out there. Blossom Dearie, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day. Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Wiliams. And plenty of others who have not gotten the attention they probably deserve. I’m sure I’ll be exploring that idea too.

How does the day-by-day exercise help restore that larger sense of context around the music? And how else is it helpful for you?

People love anniversaries. It allows you to position yourself there in the audience in this very immediate way. At one point I sort of thought about this as a book, or an actual website that’s not on Tumblr. But doing it myself allows me to really put in a lot of different media. If it’s a book, you can’t put a video in. Obviously not every post is going to have a video — but to the extent that you can, I’m trying to let people see the abundance of what was there. The day-by-day thing is a way to communicate: It’s not just Kind of Blue. There was so much going on. It’s hard to comprehend because it’s so vast: The idea that you could see Louis Armstrong one day and Billie Holiday another day and Ornette Coleman arriving at the Five Spot. I have an emotional investment in this, which why I’m able to do it.

You just mentioned Ornette at the Five Spot. That historic engagement began on November 17. Faced with such a red-letter date, are you inclined to hit it squarely? Or will you pull some counterprogramming move, and swerve toward something else?

No, I’ll definitely address it. I don’t know what I’ll do yet; that’s a long ways off! But I won’t avoid the obvious targets; I don’t want this to be just for the super jazz nerds. Actually, I was surprised that so many people wanted to read this! I guess more people are interested than I had assumed. It’s always a tough line to cross, because I don’t want to sit there and explain who everybody is. I definitely am going to write about all the big album sessions, because that’s an accessible window for people. But by default I want to make it inclusive to a lot more than the greatest hits. You can’t not talk about Ornette. Those are the places where, hopefully, if I have it together, I will be able to go visit some real archives and look through the materials.

What you haven’t said just now is that you have a following, in part because of your work in other fields. One of your most prominent recent pieces was a Billboard cover story about Ariana Grande. And your main gig has been in sports media. Do you think having a diversified field of coverage, rather than sticking to a lane, is something that would benefit more jazz journalists?

Trying to understand where my career has gone is difficult even for me. I feel really lucky that I have been able to sort of pursue so many different avenues at once. I always am conflicted about whether being a generalist is a benefit or detrimental. Like, am I doing something wrong by trying to do so many things at once? There’s obviously a benefit to deep and thorough expertise. I think philosophically, yes, I wish it were more common for more people to write about jazz who aren’t jazz writers – though in practice it sometimes annoys me, because understanding jazz history is crucial to covering it. Jazz has such a long and complicated and rich history that’s so connected to what’s happening now. I do think that visibility-wise, there’s a benefit to having your hand in a lot of different things, and having jazz be accessible. I will say, though, that I’ve gotten 300 new Twitter followers just by this thing happening! So there were people who probably didn’t know who I was before I started this.

If someone has an advocacy pick for you — some moment from 1959 that’s worth a look — do you suggest they hit you up on social media?

I don’t know if I want to actively encourage that, because I think a lot of random dudes will be like: “By the way, have you heard of Giant Steps?” But I did put an email on the site, and I’ve gotten a couple of nice emails already. Mostly what I’m really interested in is whether anybody knows of good memoirs from that period, or can connect me with people who were there. One of the things I’m considering is setting up an internet fundraising campaign to buy two microphones and do a little mini-podcast thing. We’ll see whether that happens.

What are three pieces of music recorded in 1959 that have personal meaning to you?

Wow, that’s tough. OK… Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à La Turk” was a big one in high school jazz band, for me. It was a heady thing for me, when I was just getting started as a musician. I play bass, so it was one of the more interesting things I got to play.

Then I have to do something from Kind of Blue, because that was formative. But specifically I remember listening to it and thinking how different each soloist sounded: hearing Miles improvise, vs. Coltrane, vs. Cannonball. I remember when I was 14, I went to my bass lesson and said: “They balance each other out in this interesting way.” My teacher approved that take, and I felt like, OK, maybe I am starting to understand jazz. That album was also the beginning of my one-sided love affair with Cannonball Adderley.

For a third pick… part of me wants to say Dinah Washington. She was huge that year. She did “What a Diff'rence a Day Makes” in 1959. That’s just an incredible song. So those are all things that I heard really early on, and things that I loved when I was in high school.

We’re heading into Winter Jazzfest, and so I’m wondering: does this project, and the research you’ve been doing, alter your perception at all when you go out and hear new music?

I don’t know if it’ll change anything. Well, two parts. My college thesis, the takeaway was not fundamentally dissimilar from the way you ended your recent column. Basically that, at the time, they kind of thought everything was falling apart. They were either arguing that it was the best of times or the worst of times, in 1959. I think my argument was, we have as much diversity now as we ever have. And in keeping with that: literally today, when I was writing the post about Miles Davis, I was reading an excerpt from his autobiography. He talked about how modal jazz was, for him, a way to escape the west and go more toward the east, aesthetically. That’s not a new takeaway, but I hadn’t really thought about it since I started writing about Shabaka Hutchings, who said he wanted to move away from western tonality and look to Africa for inspiration. That’s such an interesting little echo there. It’s cool to see: there’s always a continuity. It’s always going to come full-circle.

Right.

I also want it to motivate me to go out and see more music. I mean, I live in New York, and there’s still a bajillion things going on.

Follow Natalie Weiner on Twitter