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1959: Sex, Jazz, and Datsuns

Change (But Not Enough of It)

Just before midnight on August 25, Miles Davis was nearing the end of a two-week gig at Birdland to celebrate the release of his new album, Kind of Blue. It would become the best-selling jazz album of all time—and the spearhead of an artistic revolution. Mainstream modern jazz had been structured on chord progressions; Davis’s new music was built around scales instead of chords: You could do anything as long as you stayed in key. On this night, between sets, Davis escorted a young white woman to a taxi and paused on the sidewalk to light a cigarette. A cop told him to move along. Davis replied, in his defiant hoarse voice, “I work here” and, pointing to the club’s marquee, “That’s my name up there.” A plainclothes cop, misreading the exchange, rushed over and beat the trumpeter over the head with his blackjack—“like a tom-tom,” as Davis later put it. The two cops cuffed and jailed him; he was released on $1,000 bail, and doctors had to sew five stitches in his head. That summer, Miles Davis was rich and famous, the dark prince of cool. But to a couple of white cops—not in the Deep South but in midtown Manhattan—he was just another uppity Negro.


On October 4, at the Reuben Gallery, a bearded artist-philosopher named Allan Kaprow staged the first of many Happenings, which he defined as “events that, put simply, happen” and that involve the audience not merely as observers but as fellow artists in the spectacle. For a few years, Happenings were the rage and came to be reflected in the love-in, the be-in, the collective acid trip, the riot—the caricature of the sixties’ most dark and frothy incarnations. Later, the spread of cell phones and the Internet sparked a revival in the form of “flash mobs” and “smart mobs”: Happenings for the cyber-century.