Jazz History From 1950 to 1960

Miles Davis Jazz Trumpet
Courtesy of Blue Note Records

Charlie Parker, despite a severe drug problem, was at the height of his career. In 1950 he became the first jazz musician to record with a string ensemble, the album Charlie Parker With Strings.

John Coltrane began to immerse himself in the study of music theory at the Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, his heroin addiction prevented him from being taken seriously as a performer.


Pianist Horace Silver introduced bluesy, boisterous boogie-woogie piano figures into his bebop playing on his 1953 album Horace Silver Trio. The result came to be known as hard bop and was a precursor to funk.

Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Bud Powell recorded a 1953 concert at Massey Hall in Toronto. The album, The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall, became one of the most famous in jazz because it brought together the best musicians of bebop.


In 1954, 24-year-old Clifford Brown brought virtuosity and soul to his recordings with Art Blakey and Max Roach. His aversion to drugs and alcohol presented an alternative to the drug-addled bebop lifestyle.


On March 12th, 1955, Charlie Parker died of drug-related illnesses. Bebop, mainly through hard bop and cool jazz, managed to stay alive.

The same year, Miles Davis hired John Coltrane over Sonny Rollins to be in his quintet. Coltrane was Davis’ second choice, but Rollins turned down the offer so he could recover from drug addiction. The next year, Davis fired Coltrane for showing up to a gig inebriated. However, that was not the end of the pair’s collaborations.


On June 26th, 1956, Clifford Brown was killed in a car accident on the way to a gig in Chicago. He was 26 years old.


After leaving Davis, Coltrane joined Thelonious Monk’s quartet. In 1957, the group earned prestige for regular performances at the Five Spot. A recording of their 1957 concert at Carnegie was released in 2005 as Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. Later that year, Miles Davis rehired Coltrane, who was by that time a jazz star.


1959 saw the deaths of both Lester Young, who died on March 15th, and Billie Holiday, who passed away on July 17th. Despite these great losses, the future of jazz seemed bright as the 1950s drew to a close.

Ornette Coleman moved to New York City in 1959, and began a famous stint at the Five Spot, where he introduced the provocative style that became known as free jazz.

That same year, Dave Brubeck recorded Time Out, featuring the song “Take Five” by saxophonist Paul Desmond. Also that year, Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue, featuring Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, and Charles Mingus recorded Mingus Ah Um. All three albums became are now considered seminal jazz records.

At the start of the 1960s, jazz had become elementally forward-looking and sophisticated.