East Coast, West Coast; Jazz in the ‘50s

At the end of the 1940s the big bands of the swing era were too expensive to maintain, and small groups began to take their place. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were among those who introduced bebop and changed the course of jazz. In the early ‘50s jazz musicians from the West coast were becoming popular. Magazine and newspaper articles noted the differences between the two styles.

West Coast Jazz

The music labeled West Coast Jazz wasn’t as frantic and more lyrical than bop. The music paid homage to the smooth sound of Lester Young. The movement started with a series of 10-inch recordings made in 1949 – 1950 and collected on the LP, Birth of the Cool. Miles Davis, an East Coast style trumpet player who had worked with Charlie Parker, made these recordings, Gil Evans, and Gerry Mulligan arranged the tunes.

Bands on the West coast such as the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Shelly Manne and others became popular. Many of the musicians that performed with them came under the banner of West Coast jazz. Bud Shank, Lennie Tristano, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Ray Brown, Jimmie Giuffre, and Shorty Rogers were among them. Many had played with the Claude Thornhill or Stan Kenton big bands. Most of the musicians were white, and that was a drawback according to some critics.

One of the criticisms of West Coast Jazz was it pandered to a non-jazz audience. Shelly Manne and Andre Previn made jazz albums of Broadway shows such as My Fair Lady. Manne also recorded for movie and TV sessions. He appeared in several movies such as The Man With the Golden Arm, and was occasionally on screen in the Peter Gunn TV program. This didn't appear to be serious music to East Coast Jazz fans.

West Coast jazz also included The Modern Jazz Quartet, MJQ, and Ornette Coleman Quartet which didn’t quite fit anywhere. The MJQ was a group that played precise, organized jazz. Ornette Coleman was a free jazz performer that played music that often didn’t have musical structure. Neither of these groups didn’t quite fit in either the East Coast or West Coast format, but were stuffed in the West Coast box.

East Coast Jazz

East Coast Jazz was easier to define and more obvious. East Coast jazz was harder, not as laid back or mellow, tenser and seething, and some said it is real jazz. Mainstream Jazz was another label attached to East Coast jazz to differentiate it from West Coast jazz. The players were often at the top of the jazz scene. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Chambers, Philly Jo Jones, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Brown and Miles Davis to name a few. These musicians were well established, or on the way to becoming the biggest names in jazz. John Coltrane was well known and respected, he recorded Blue Trane in the late ‘50s, but not yet an icon.

The 1950s and early ‘60s was a productive time for jazz. In the late 1950s Miles Davis recorded Gil Evans’s big band arrangements for Columbia that still sell well today. Davis recorded Kind of Blue, the best selling jazz album ever. The Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond recorded the first jazz record that sold a million copies, Time Out, which contained the tune Take Five.

The difference was perhaps overblown. Magazines such as Downbeat and Metronome had articles on the issue and asked musicians about it. Meanwhile, jazz fans bought and played their favorite records from either coast. While some fans may have had a preference, few restricted their listening to one sound. As for the players, there was intermixing and wasn’t apparent they embraced the difference. West Coast players played on East Coast records and vice versa. Shelly Manne made a classic album with Sonny Rollins, an East Coast player, called Way Out West. If nothing else, the album featured one of the more interesting record covers of the time. Art Pepper used Miles Davis’s East Coast rhythm section to back him on a record. Clifford Brown was on an album called, Best Coast Jazz and Gerry Mulligan did one named Mainstream of Jazz.

It was an exciting time for jazz. Movies like American Graffiti idealized the ‘50s as a peaceful and idealized time before the turbulent ‘60s. It was great for jazz too. It wasn’t quiet or peaceful, it was vital and exciting. East or west coast, jazz from both coasts was great.

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