Opinion: “The Shape of Jazz to Come” by Ornette Coleman is the most influential jazz album to come out in 1959

Coleman playing in 2011 (Michael Hoefner/Wikimedia)

“A Kind of Blue” was recorded 50 years ago this month. In celebration of this, NPR published a piece in which Nate Chinen gives a few of albums which he feels are the most important from 1959— saying “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, “Giant Steps” by Coltrane, “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus and Brubeck’s “Time Out” are the most important jazz albums to come out in 1959.
The cover of Coleman’s 1959 album “The Shape of Jazz to Come”
Chinen says of “A Kind of Blue”:
“When we talk about the 1950s, bebop — which had come out of the ’40s — has really reached a sort of maturity. And bebop is all about frenetic tempos and this real sort of virtuosic mastery; Miles Davis cut his teeth on bebop. But with this album, he really makes a concerted effort to move in a different direction, and so he brings all this space and openness and these kind of languid tempos, and creates a mood. It’s no secret why people love it: It just feels good.”
While albums like “A Kind of Blue,” are undoubtedly classics from this important time for jazz music, Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come” is the most innovative album to come out in 1959.
On “The Shape of Jazz to Come” Coleman introduces the world to free-jazz— an interpretation which rejects the use of chords altogether. While albums from the late 40s and early 50s experimented with a sort of prototype for free-jazz, Coleman’s 1959 contribution is much more avant-garde, and went on to influence artists such as Coltrane. At this time bebop, which involved quick tempos and fast changes, was at the forefront of jazz.
Coleman’s blend of free-jazz took bebop to an extreme. Standards like “Giant Steps” by Coltrane released in 1959 took bebop and elevated it, utilizing fast II-V-I’s modulating in major thirds— a large jump to make harmonically, giving the track its name. This had never really been done before, and Coltrane’s effortless playing was impressive.
Coleman took this to another level and rejected chord changes altogether. Each song would begin with a brief repeated motif, and then Coleman would delve into free improvisation for several minutes. Logically, completely freeing oneself from the restrictive natural of harmony was the next step in creating music that focused purely on self expression.
Without artists like Coleman, the trajectory of jazz may have not shifted. It is well documented that artists like Coleman and Sun Ra were heavily influential on Coltrane after “A Love Supreme,” and this influence manifested itself in albums like “Interstellar Space.”
The stylistic properties of free-jazz later manifested themselves in other musical movements, such as the no-wave movement in New York during the late 70s and early 80s. Bands like DNA, James Chance and the Contortions and Mars rejected chordal music and instead adopted an atonal approach in their songs.
For these reasons “Shape of Jazz” represents an important moment in jazz music, and will stand forever as a timeless classic.