Listening to the History Of Jazz: “It’s Not Just About Notes Anymore!”

By KMHD Jazz Radio host Mark Montesano

It’s not just about notes anymore!” – A quote from Albert Ayler on the New Jazz circa 1965.

Like all great art, jazz has always reflected the times: The carefree chaos of roaring 20’s; the escapist romanticism of the depression; the giddy self-confidence of post-war America; were all expressed in the music of these times.


Cecil Taylor

African-Americans, coming home from World War II saw the freedom and dignity that they helped secure for Europeans often denied them at home. In response, many began to re-examine traditional values that perpetuated prejudice and hatred. This spirit of rebellion eventually found voice throughout and across all of America.

In jazz, also, the standard ideas about rhythm, harmony and melody, which had been developed by bebop innovators as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, were challenged by a small group of adventurous and restless young musicians. In this column you can sample some of the revolutionary sounds from this era. Here are four musicians that led the way.

Cecil Taylor ( Early on his iconoclastic style of piano made it hard to find gigs. He kept growing as a musician by working as a dishwasher and playing regular ‘concerts’ in his apartment. In an early 1956 recording Taylor interprets Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.”

Ten years later, from his 1966 album Unit Structures, made the final break away from mainstream jazz styles. “Tales (8 Whisps).”


Ornette Coleman


Ornette Coleman ( His emergence on the jazz scene in the late 50’s, playing a white plastic alto sax, caused widespread, and often bitter debate about his skill and legitimacy as an artist and the future of jazz.

1958: from his debut album for Contemporary Records, Something Else!, when he was still using a piano in the hard bop tradition.

His 1965 live Blue Note album, At the Golden Circle Vol. 2 won the DownBeat Critics poll for Album of the Year. The group has only his alto, bass and drums, freeing him from the harmonies of piano exemplified in “European Echoes.”




John Coltrane


John Coltrane ( up through the ranks with Johnny Hodges, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. By the late 1950’s he was considered one of the finest tenor saxophonists in hard bop jazz.

1957: His classic album Blue Train, the title track is a straight-ahead blues where he plays lots of notes that fit into rapidly passing, passing chord changes. This was the extreme of the bebop innovations.

From 1967, on one of his last studio recordings, Expression, hear the cut “Ogunde”, a more meditative, non-linear rhythm. By the end of his life he abandoned all trappings of hard bop jazz and was considered the musical and spiritual inspiration for many young innovators.


Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler ( began his musical career less grounded in traditional forms than the others above.  He took the music to extremes of intensity and sound possibilities of his saxophone more than and other musician of his time. 

From his 1963 album My Name is Albert Ayler, he plays the standard “On Green Dolphin Street” with a traditional rhythm section, but in a way no one had yet heard.

From his 1967 release, Live in Greenwich Village, the selection “Holy Ghost” finds a group style that is more consistent with his unique solo experiments and emotional intensity. His solo begins at 1:15 minutes. The wailing in the background is drummer Sunny Murray’s voice.



Love them or hate them, these musicians helped changed the jazz landscape forever, opening it to limitless possibilities.


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.