The year 1959 was a watershed for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history—which is saying a lot). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Charles Mingus’ Ah Um. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music, all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to cause a stir that still reverberates today: Ornette Coleman, who created the provocatively titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.
Kind of Blue is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music and as a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; Giant Steps is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; Ah Um is an encyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. Each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But The Shape of Jazz to Come was incendiary and complicated; it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins—representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene.