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1959: Sex, Jazz, and Datsuns

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The First Indie

On November 11, Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 club screened Shadows, a new film by John Cassavetes. Inspired by the Italian neorealists, Cassavetes used a semi-improvised script about an interracial romance and a group of young men who talk in jazz lingo and carouse around the city (a sort of Beat version of Fellini’s I Vitelloni) and filmed it in Times Square, Central Park, and the MoMA sculpture garden—all without permits. It was, in effect, the first American “indie” film. When Martin Scorsese saw it at NYU, it made him realize that “cinema could be made anywhere.”


Freed Jazz

On November 17, hundreds of New Yorkers lined up in the cold outside the Five Spot, a small, dank jazz club in the Bowery, to hear an alto saxophonist who had been hyped for months as the harbinger of a new wave, the next Charlie “Bird” Parker, a 29-year-old with the strange name of Ornette Coleman. If Miles Davis had caused a stir with an album built on scales instead of chord changes, Coleman’s music—which he played on a white plastic horn in a tone that struck many as a yelp or a moan—had no apparent structure. Yet it was exhilarating, emotionally intense, ripe with a haunting beauty. Each player in his pianoless quartet seemed to go in separate ways, but they all shifted on cue, it all held together. That night marked the birth of “free jazz,” or, as the album that would come out soon after was called, The Shape of Jazz to Come. Charles Mingus, who would run hot and cold on Coleman for the next twenty years, came away with this key insight: “I’m not saying that everybody’s going to have to play like Coleman, but they’re going to have to stop copying Bird.”

This article is adapted from the book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan (out this month from Wiley). © Fred Kaplan.


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