Just over six decades ago, jazz experienced its most pivotal artistic year—1959—which saw a new collection of leaders emerge with music that pushed, and in some cases pushed away, the rules of the reigning jazz forms, bebop and hard bop.

The creativity of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and others connected that year on a commercial level in a way instrumental music rarely did: Davis’ Kind of Blue, his influential exploration of modal jazz, has been certified quintuple platinum, and Brubeck’s Time Out, filled with revolutionary time signatures, hit #2 on the pop chart and featured the first million-selling jazz single, “Take Five.” (Lest we think jazz had a widespread groundswell of support, however, 1959 is also the year a cop beat Miles Davis outside Birdland, where he was headlining.)

Commercial success, as we see consistently in entertainment, begets artistic freedom; within four short, turmoil-filled years, a time when soundtracks and Sinatra ruled the album charts in a pre-Beatles world, jazz musicians took the opportunity to incorporate messages of social justice into the music’s framework.

From 1959 to 1964, jazz was revolutionized across the board—in compositional styles, on record and in musicians’ taking greater control of their careers, as well as the subject matter they addressed.

Ornette Coleman, an oracle of improvisation, presciently released The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959; he would deliver another five blisteringly original albums for Atlantic by the end of 1961.

It was a period of profound experimentation: The iconoclastic bandleader Sun Ra brought bebop to the large ensemble for the first time, the pianist Randy Weston incorporated African elements, beginning with 1960’s Uhuru Afrika, and Duke Ellington composed music for Otto Preminger’s 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder, the first significant score by a Black composer where the performance was not a visible element in the film.

John Coltrane’s 1960 debut for Atlantic, the landmark Giant Steps, turned out to be as influential on saxophonists as The Velvet Underground would be on indie rockers. His song titles were tributes to family members and musicians, and he (indelibly) interpreted show tunes. But his gravitation toward that repertoire shifted with his 1963 composition “Alabama,” a reaction to the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four Black girls. It joined a list of early-’60s songs and albums evoking messages of social change: Art Blakey’s “Freedom Rider,” Sonny RollinsFreedom Suite, Max Roach’s We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite) and Speak Brother Speak, and Jackie McLean’s Let Freedom Ring.

No musician, however, tackled injustice as broadly as Mingus. His landmark 1959 set, Mingus Ah Um, was his first for a major label (Columbia). Boasting his largest band to date and songs that would become among his best known—“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Better Git It in Your Soul,” “Bird Calls”—the album is notably home to “Fables of Faubus,” Mingus’ reaction to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus’ 1957 blocking of the integration of a school by calling in the National Guard. The 1959 version is an instrumental; live and on a 1964 recording he included lyrics:

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan! 

In 1960, Mingus and Roach even became concert promoters for the cause. Incensed that the fledgling Newport Jazz Festival’s mainstream performers were mostly white and outraged by a lack of security at the previous year’s festival, Mingus and Roach set up their own event, the Newport Rebels Festival, a few blocks away on the same Fourth of July weekend. In addition to Mingus and Roach, the bill included Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Dorham. Point made, the Newport Rebels Festival lasted only one year.

Mingus and Roach would soon be paired again, though—on a presidential ticket. It started as a joke. Dizzy Gillespie for President was the name of a live album recorded in 1963, and the trumpeter’s booking agency issued “Dizzy Gillespie for President” buttons to sell as a fundraiser for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the equal-rights crusade of Martin Luther King Jr.

But Gillespie decided it wasn’t just a gag and mounted a campaign as a write-in candidate. “I could threaten Democrats with a loss of votes and swing them to a more reasonable position on civil rights,” he explained in his autobiography.

If elected, he promised to rename 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue “The Blues House.” Ellington would be Secretary of State, Miles would head the CIA, Ray Charles would be named the Librarian of Congress and Thelonious Monk would serve as traveling ambassador. Roach’s job would be Secretary of Defense; Mingus would take on the newly formed role of Secretary of Peace.

Gillespie failed to secure a majority of votes, obviously. But the work he and his colleagues produced from the waning days of the 1950s into the thick of the 1960s nonetheless won a mandate from listeners, and from posterity.

“Jazz speaks for life,” MLK declared in 1964 in an essay coinciding with the first Berlin Jazz Festival.This is triumphant music. Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”

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