Year By Year: Five Essential Jazz Albums of 1955

Jazz may not have an official yearbook, but it does have a vast and well-documented discography. ‘Year by Year’ is our attempt to bring you the most noteworthy albums of each year, complete with audio samples and fascinating backstories. We hope you join us as we travel through the music’s endlessly fascinating history, stopping every 12 months along the jazz timeline. 

Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, Satch Plays Fats: The Music of Fats Waller (Columbia)

Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller had similar personalities. They were both immensely talented, boisterous showmen full of the love of love. They had even worked together on two separate occasions. In 1925, they were briefly both part of Erskine Tate’s band, and they were both on Connie’s Hot Chocolate review four years later. On these occasions, Waller had made an indelible impression on the young Armstrong. Many years later, in 1955, he was encouraged by producer George Avakian to record an album of his own takes on nine of Waller’s best-known compositions. Satch Plays Fats was Armstrong’s follow-up to his acclaimed Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy from the previous year, and is now known as one of the most delightfully inventive records from his All-Stars period. The All-Stars orchestra itself, often criminally underrated, shines on these lively and fun tracks. Velma Middleton, Satchmo’s premier backing vocalist, also adds great energy and humor to an already vigorous set.

 

Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol)

A gloomy-looking man smokes a cigarette, alone, lost in his own thoughts, in a deserted blue-lit city street. That’s the iconic cover art for In the Wee Small Hours, one of Frank Sinatra’s most celebrated albums. It is also an image that perfectly captures the sadness felt by Ol’ Blue Eyes at this time, shaken by his troubled well-documented love affair with actress Ava Gardner. Released by Capitol Records and featuring dramatic orchestral arrangements by Nelson Riddle, In the Wee Small Hours is a concept album; all of its tracks are introspective Great American Songbook compositions dealing with lost love, failed relationship, depression and loneliness. This LP marked the beginning of Sinatra’s “mature” singing style, defined both by a depth of expression and rhythmic experimentation.

 

Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Study in Brown (Capitol)

In the mid-’50s, trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach co-led the hottest quintet in town, one that became a high-water mark of the hard-bop style. It featured tenor saxophone Harold Land, pianist Richie Powell and bassist George Morrow, with all members but Morrow contributing original compositions. Study in Brown arguably documents the group at the peak of their creative powers; Brown particularly shines on such moments as his acclaimed solo on their take on Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” and by contributing his “George’s Dilemma,” an original composition that has since become a standard. Brown was one of the most talented trumpeters of his generation. He had a huge impact on later musicians, including Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. While he managed to stay clean at a time when hard drugs had taken a hold of the jazz world, his career was tragically cut short in 1956, when he died in a car crash, aged 25.

 

Erroll Garner, Concert by the Sea (Columbia)

Pianist Erroll Garner never learned to read music and never received any formal musical education, yet he was able to develop his own distinctive style of playing and improvising that lacked any direct resemblance or relation to that of his contemporaries. Concert by the Sea has come to represent his finest hour; an 11-track live set of standards plus two originals performed alongside bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best, the LP was originally recorded at Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, on rudimentary equipment by an Armed Forces Radio Network engineer solely for the benefit of his fellow servicemen but later released by Columbia despite its poor acoustics, the imbalance of the instruments and Garner’s out-of-tune piano. In fact, it is perhaps these imperfections that make it an even more fascinating listening experience and helped Concert by the Sea become a best-selling record that solidified Garner’s reputation as one the greats of his time.

 

Julie London, Julie Is Her Name (Liberty)

Julie London was a shy and introverted actress and nightclub singer, who suffered from terrible stage fright and had a soft, low voice that was in no small part the result of a chain-smoked habit she had developed from an early age. Speaking to Life magazine, she once described it as “only a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate.” Intimacy was precisely the secret of her success; at a time when vocal jazz records tended to feature large orchestral arrangements, London was accompanied tastefully by only guitar and bass on her debut LP, Julie Is Her Name. This minimalistic approach not only made the album stand out but also enhanced the qualities of London’s interpretation of this set of seductive standards, which opens with her signature song “Cry Me a River,” a song that was famously originally rejected by Ella Fitzgerald. To this day, Julie Is Her Name sounds very modern and is one of the best records to listen to in the still of the night.

Honorable mentions: Sarah Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan (Columbia), Kenny Dorham, Afro-Cuban (Blue Note), Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (Riverside), Dinah Washington, For Those In Love (EmArcy), Stan Getz, West Coast Jazz (Norgan)

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