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Jazz in TimeThe Sixties
The Sixties, History in the key of jazz Poor People's Campaign March in New York City, 1968
Other Jazz in Time Sections
The Sixties

excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music

Audio Feature Jackie McLean, musician
How the turbulence of the sixties is reflected in the music
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


Civil Rights March
Civil Rights March
Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Memphis

When the English historian and sometime jazz writer Eric Hobsbawm visited the United States for the first time in 1960, he "found the nights too short to listen to everything that could be heard in New York from the Half Note and the Five Spot in the Village to Small's Paradise and the Apollo in Harlem." Two years later, when he came back to America, eager to hear more music, he wrote, "'Bird Lives' could still be seen painted on the lonely walls, but the celebrated New York jazz venue named after him, Birdland, had ceased to exist" and "jazz had virtually been knocked out of the ring."

What had happened? The tenor player Johnny Griffin blamed those who had taken jazz "out of Harlem and put it in Carnegie Hall and downtown in those joints where you've got to be quiet. The black people split and went back to Harlem, back to rhythm and blues, so they could have a good time." Meanwhile, the pianist Hampton Hawes wrote, "white kids were jamming the rock halls and the older people were staying home and watching TV. Maybe they found out they couldn't pat their feet to our music anymore." And after 1963, the astonishing popularity of the Beatles and other British rock groups — their sound initially derived from African-American blues performers, precisely as the music of white American rockers had been a decade earlier — produced a second, still more spectacular surge in the sales of rock music, and a still deeper decline in public enthusiasm for jazz. Even promoter John Hammond now edged away from the music he had always loved most and applied his scouting skills to rock and folk music instead, signing Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and later, Bruce Springsteen, for Columbia Records.

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: A Love Supreme
Eric Westervelt has the story of John Coltrane's 1964 classic, a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


Some desperate jazz musicians took jobs wherever they could find them — in cocktail lounges, studio orchestras, playing background music for the movies, backing rock n' roll performers on records. Others abandoned performing altogether. Tenor saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, a veteran of the Count Basie band, became a booking agent for rock groups. Dicky Wells, who had played trombone with Basie, as well as Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, and Teddy Hill, took a job as a bank guard on Wall Street, in part, he said, because there were "at least a hundred" other musicians already working in the financial district with whom he could hang out at lunchtime. Still other musicians left for Europe in search of an audience: Chet Baker, Donald Byrd, Don Cherry, Art Farmer, Bud Freeman, Stan Getz, Jimmy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, Oscar Pettiford, Bud Powell, Stuff Smith, Art Taylor, Lucky Thompson, Ben Webster, Randy Weston, Phil Woods.

Civil Rights March in Memphis
Civil Rights March in Memphis
Image courtesy of Archive Photos

The country these men left behind was entering an era unlike any it had ever experienced before, a period of selfless struggle and shameless self-indulgence; of unprecedented progress in civil rights and deepening divisions between the races; of calls for collective action and relentless focus on the individual; and of the mushroom growth of a youth culture powerful enough to begin to dictate America's tastes. Jazz music would struggle to deal with it all, and in the process would increasingly find itself divided into factions, so many factions, Duke Ellington said, he didn't see how "such great extremes as now exist can be contained under the one heading." The debate over what was jazz and what was not raged as it never had before, and for a time, the real question would become whether this most American of art forms could survive in America at all.

No book, nor shelf of books, could adequately map the course of jazz after 1960, let alone trace the meandering paths of all its proliferating tributaries. No "Great Man" can be said to have towered over everyone else, as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker could be said to have done in their time, but John Coltrane and Miles Davis were surely among the most influential of all post-bebop musicians, and their careers touched upon many of the most important developments in the music, for both good and ill. During Coltrane's too-brief career — he began recording with Miles Davis in 1955 and died in 1967, at the age of 40 — his music would first exemplify the idealism that may have been the most admirable quality of the 1960s, and then prefigure what Cecil Taylor called "the hysteria of the times," the chaos that characterized the decade's end.

A Love Supreme

In 1961, saxophonist John Coltrane formed an extraordinary quartet. Jimmy Garrison brought both ferocity and steadfastness to the bass. McCoy Tyner played the piano; his love for the blues, percussive block chords, and riffs and vamps (brief patterns played over and over to produce something like the drone's effect in Indian music), worked out with Garrison, helped provide the perfect setting for Coltrane's increasingly relentless musings. Elvin Jones played drums — all the drums. For him, as Stanley Crouch has written, the trap set was an "ensemble" on which rhythm was not merely played but "orchestrated." "It may sound like a duet or duel," Jones once said of his ruffling, swirling work, filled with cymbal splashes, that sometimes seemed not to back Coltrane so much as engulf the whole group, "but it's still a support I'm lending him, a complementary thing."

The men with whom Coltrane played shared his visionary belief in the importance of what they were doing. "Many years later," the tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis recalled, "a lot of younger musicians were hanging around with Elvin Jones, and they were talking about, 'Man, you know, you guys had an intensity when you were playing with Coltrane. I mean, what was that like? How do you play with that kind of intensity?" And Elvin looks at him and says, "You gotta be willing to die with the [guy]." They started laughing like kids do, waiting for the punch line, and then they realized he was serious. How many people do you know that are willing to die — period? Die with anybody! And when you listen to those records, that's exactly what they sound like. I mean, that they would die for each other."

On December 9, 1964, the Coltrane quartet made one of the best-selling and best-loved jazz albums of all time, a four-part devotional suite called A Love Supreme. For Coltrane, music and religion had now become one: "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being ... When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups ... I want to speak to their souls." Divided into four sections — Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm — it is a personal affirmation of Coltrane's faith in a Creator, and during the fevered 60s its air of meditative serenity struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of young people. It continues to be a favorite among young musicians to this day. "I think that record is one of the purest jazz records ever," said the tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman. "The intent is so pure and the feeling is so pure, you just feel than John Coltrane is laying his soul out there, you know. That's one of the first records I ever heard and I hope it's the last record I ever hear."

Born Out of Oppression

The 1960s had begun with the unshakable optimism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the conviction that Americans were fully capable of realizing the nation's promise of full equality that jazz embodied at its best — but they would end with the Black Panthers and the all-too-pervasive belief that America's racial divisions could never be bridged, that black and white Americans were fated perpetually to live apart. Nineteen sixty-five marked a kind of turning point. The non-violent civil rights movement and the political skills of President Lyndon Johnson had combined to force Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act the previous year, empowering the attorney general to bring suit for discriminatory practices in public accommodations. But that victory had come at a fearful cost — civil rights workers murdered, marchers beaten and killed. Malcolm X was shot to death in February 1965. In March, Alabama state troopers on horseback clubbed some 70 citizens asking for the right to vote at Selma. In June, Dr. King led a march for desegregated housing in Chicago that was met with mob violence as bad as any he'd encountered in the South. In August, the Watts section of Los Angeles exploded in riots. For many young black Americans, impatient for justice, it was all taking far too long and amounting to far too little. Stokely Carmichael would not formally call for "Black Power" until the following summer, but despair and anger had already fueled the growth of a kind of self-defensive nationalism, a growing conviction that if whites were unwilling to share power, black people would have to wrest it from them.

That idea gripped the imaginations of many of the musicians identified with the New Thing. The grievances of black musicians were older than jazz itself. "What's new?" a friend once asked Louis Armstrong. "Nothing," he answered, "White folks still ahead." From the minstrel era to the age of rock, much of the music white Americans loved most had been created out of African-American forms, yet with only a handful of exceptions, white performers had always reaped the profits. Whites continued to own most of the clubs and concert halls in which jazz was played. They ran the companies that recorded and distributed it, decided how much musicians got paid, defined the conditions under which they had to work, determined who got critical attention and who did not.

Some young musicians now saw it as their mission not only to revolutionize the music but to reclaim it for their community, to reassert what they believed to be its African roots, to reject every vestige of the European tradition that had been an integral part of it from the beginning. Much of their music was meant to aggravate, not please; one of its most ardent journalistic champions gleefully confessed that he enjoyed recommending to his readers only those records he was sure they would dislike. When another writer suggested that the tenor saxophonist and sometime playwright Archie Shepp and his colleagues were undercutting their own message by being "too angry," Shepp answered, "We are not angry men. We are enraged. You can no longer defer my dream. I'm gonna sing it. Dance it. Scream it. And if need be, I'll steal it from this very earth." Jazz, Shepp assured another interviewer, was then and had always been revolutionary music, "anti-war; it is opposed to Vietnam; it is for Cuba; it is for the liberation of all people ... Why is that so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people."

Not a Memory Yet

By 1969, George Wein remembered, even the Newport Jazz Festival was in trouble. "It was slipping in the eyes of the press because at that time, if you were over 40, you were finished. This was when corporations were hiring 21 year-old kids to tell them about what the youth market was." Rock had taken over so completely that Wein finally decided he had to include it on the program and called friends to find out which rock musicians could actually play. "Well," they told him, "Jethro Tull plays the flute and Frank Zappa plays good guitar, and Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin plays good blues." "So I hired all these groups. I had a rock festival, but I also had some good jazz. On the last night I had poor Stephane Grappelli playing with the World's Greatest Jazz Band with Yank Lawson, and right after them, I had Sly and the Family Stone, so you can see what a mess it was."

The astonishing popularity of rock and funk had not been lost on jazz musicians, especially on the more youthful among them, who had grown up dancing to rock and R&B rather than listening to swing and bebop. In 1967, saxophonist Charles Lloyd had started what would become something like a stampede of jazz musicians eager to find a way of getting in on the action. With a quartet that included the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the pianist Keith Jarrett, he was a hit at the Fillmore. Time heralded "the arrival of the first psychedelic rock group," and Lloyd seemed to fill the bill. "I play love vibrations," he said. "Love, totality — like bringing everyone together in a joyous dance." His band soon dissolved, and for a time Lloyd became a teacher of transcendental meditation. But other musicians had been watching. "I wanted a wider audience," said the alto saxophonist John Handy. "I was a little tired of playing for those who sit all night saying, 'yeah, yeah, yeah,' all 35 of them. I wanted to know what is was like to play for a stadium full of people. I wanted to see black women in the audience."

Miles Davis had been watching, too, and he was listening to the funk music of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, with its overwhelming backbeat, its heavy use of vamps and electronic instruments. His music had already begun to reflect what he'd been hearing. The electric guitarists George Benson and Joe Beck made appearances on his records. His group's harmonies no longer shifted as they once had. The beat grew ever more dominant. Herbie Hancock began playing electric piano, and was joined by other keyboardists, including Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Joe Zawinul; and two Britons, Fender bassist Dave Holland, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin. Davis had realized, he remembered, "that most rock musicians didn't know anything about music ... But they were popular because they were giving the public a certain sound, what they wanted to hear. So I figured that if they could do it — reach all those people and sell all those records without really knowing what they were doing — then I could do it, too, only better... I wasn't prepared to be a memory yet."

On August 16, 1969, a little over a month after the Newport festival, some 400,000 young people gathered in a cow pasture near Woodstock, New York, willing to endure hours of rain and mud and discomfort just to be together in the presence of their rock idols. Three days later, Miles Davis made his bid to become one of those idols and began recording the curious melange of jazz and rock he called Bitches Brew. Even before it was released, Davis agreed to appear at the Fillmore East, the New York equivalent of the San Francisco venue he'd turned down as beneath him just a few months before. He would be the opening act for Laura Nyro, a rock singer less than half his age.

Bitches Brew was a commercial triumph. It sold 400,000 copies in its first year, more than any Miles Davis record ever had sold before. During the next six years he would make 13 more albums, each one less like jazz than the last. "We're not going to play the blues anymore," he'd told Herbie Handcock even before making Bitches Brew. "Let the white folks have the blues. They got 'em, so they can keep 'em. Play something else."