For its first 50 years, jazz was the first globally popular African-based form of dance music; from ragtime to Dixieland to swing, it was both catchy and sophisticated. The world was fascinated by the African-American invention, which explored the tension between improvisation and structure, yet, in America, jazz as a mass cultural phenomenon ceased with the advent of bebop in the late 1940s. Critics calling jazz "America's classical music" firmly placing it in the realm of "art" music. Jazz was no longer just about entertainment; it featured self-conscious virtuosos who drew from a variety of influences.

The invention of the 12-inch LP opened up new possibilities for composition impossible on the much shorter 78. It could capture the new, extended bop solos pioneered by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon. Popular melodies, especially Broadway show tunes, were turned into the "head" of a tune, and soloists would extrapolate on the original notion. Bop vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald were just as skilled improvisers as the instrumentalists. "Cool" or "chamber" jazz (misnomers applied to many, usually white, musicians) was a highly arranged and introspective offshoot of bop made by Gil Evans, the Modern Jazz Quartet. By the end of the ‘50s, bop was extended by the increasing use of unusual modal, and harmonic ideas, as well as musicians using their instruments as sound effect devices. Miles Davis encouraged minimal, subtle statements, John Coltrane developed "sheets of sound" and Eric Dolphy used bass clarinet to create speech-like tones. These new developments could hardly be called bop at all, and were leading toward another revolution.

Recommended records: The Charlie Parker Memorial Album (Savoy, 1944-48)
Thelonious Monk Genius of Modern Music (Blue Note, mid 40's)
Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Benny Green Trombone By Three (Prestige, 1949-51)
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Blue Note, 1958)
Miles Davis/Gil Evans Birth of The Cool (Capitol, 1949)

Albert Ayler

Free jazz
The break from bop occurred in the late 50's with musicians who dispensed with set arrangements and metric 4/4 time. This was the genesis of "free jazz." Ornette Coleman caused a furor with his first records, which paid no mind to fixed chord changes. Cecil Taylor's blindingly fast piano clusters were answered drummer by Sunny Murray's cymbal-heavy assault. Albert Ayler used gospel and folk themes as devices in which to blow the hell out of his alto with anger and passion. These concepts were to have a profound influence on European players who added their own harmonic, folkloric and improvising traditions to the jazz vocabulary. Players as diverse as Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, and the Ganelin Trio owe a debt to Ayler.

Recommended: Ornette Coleman Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960)
Cecil Taylor Winged Serpents (Soul Note, 1984)
Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse, 1969)
Peter Brotzmann Machine Gun (FMP,1968)
Albert Ayler Lorrach/Paris 1966 (Hat Hut, 1989)

Soul jazz
Jazz didn't abandon its groove sensibility after 1950. With the invention of the Hammond B3 organ in the ‘50s, a chugging, more repetitive small-combo jazz style arose. Uptight critics tend to dismiss the work of Horace Silver (originator of the term "funk") and Jimmy Smith as lightweight, compared to the less audience-friendly innovations of bop. Yet R&B and gospel-steeped jazz were still vital parts of Afro-American urban entertainment until the decline of American inner city nightlife in the ‘70s. Records of this type were some of the biggest selling jazz titles from the ‘50s to the early ‘70s. Blue Note in the 60's and Prestige and Fantasy in the 70's featured studio bands pumping out breakbeat-infused covers of the latest soul and funk hits of the time on countless releases. Its legacy has been preserved and celebrated in all kinds of hip-hop, house and other electronic dance styles in the last decade and a half.

Recommended: Lee Morgan The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964)
Jack McDuff Down Home Style (Blue Note, 1969)
Lonnie Smith Live at Club Mozambique (Blue Note, 1969)
Charles Earland Black Talk (Prestige, 1970)

Sun Ra

Different fusions of jazz with outside groove influences date back to the CuBop movement of the 1940s. From the ‘50s onward, many musicians looked to South America, Africa and Asia. Yusef Lateef, Sun Ra, and Randy Weston and each developed wildly different concepts beyond jazz's grounding in Afro-American culture. Many consider Miles Davis In A Silent Way, which referenced contemporary rock and psychedelic influences, to be the first fusion album. Whatever you associate with the word itself, fusion has produced the some of the most exciting contemporary jazz since 1970 because it continues to absorb new influences into that dynamic of improvisation versus arrangements. In the late 70's, Ornette's Harmolodics and New York's No Wave movement combined jazz with the energy of punk. Today, cross-cultural artists doing really cool stuff include Graham Haynes, Henry Threadgill and Jane Bunnett. The Chicago scene, most notably the Thrill Jockey label, has produced many worthy post-jazz rock records.

Miles Davis On the Corner (Columbia, 1972)
James Blood Ulmer Tales Of Captain Black (Artists House, 1979)
Codona (ECM, 1977)
Material Memory Serves (Elektra, 1982)
Sun Ra The Solar Myth Approach Vol 1 & 2 (BYG, 1970)

Miles Davis