The 50s

Miles Davis And Kind Of Blue

Miles Davis was an American jazz musician and composer, mainly playing the trumpet. He started music at a very young age and said: “By the age of 12, music had become the most important thing in my life.” In the early 1950s, Davis struggled with a heroin addiction that began to impair his playing and people began to stop booking him for gigs for this reason. After getting over this, he started to abandon the bebop style and wanted to pursue new sounds and styles. He was then inspired by pianist Ahmad Jamal, blues and hard bop. He is said to be one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, because of his revolutionary playing and writing, especially from the album ‘Kind Of Blue’.

This album was released on August 17th, 1959 and the name represents the album’s mood. It was recorded without almost any rehearsals with the band which shows how talented the group and Davis was. The album went on to be deemed the most impressive and important jazz album of all time; it has five certified platinums in the United States and two in the UK. The album was revolutionary for its time mostly because of the use of Modal jazz to create a whole new feeling of music. This idea of modal music instead of using chords was a theory made by George Russel. He showed Davis this theory and he was immediately drawn to it and inspired. George said “You’re free to do anything, as long as you know where home is” as modal music has lots of changes and allows more freedom compared to chords but it always ends correctly.

Davis got Bill Evans, Davis’ old pianist, back into the group after he decided to go solo. He knew Evans was very creative and loved to challenge himself with new theories, genres and ways of playing music so Davis knew he would come to help with Kind of Blue. Also in the group was Julian Adderly on alto-saxophone, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Some songs on the album were blues-inspired and he used the 12 bar blues but with the modal style. The modal theory went on to influence other jazz albums, R&B and even rock in the decades later. It also inspired classical music because of the musical freedom it allowed.

12 Bar Blues

The 12 bar blues is a type of blues structure which became popular in America in the 1900s amongst African-Americans. The first recording of such structure was called ‘Memphis Blues’ by W. C. Handy, often referred to as ‘the Father of Blues’. Miles Davis’ album, ‘Kind Of Blue’, had some songs which were inspired by the 12 bar blues and he used his modal style to change the feeling. There are many variations of this structure, however, here is a picture of the standard ‘shuffle’ version:

Some other variations may include the quick to four which changes the tonic chord (I) in the second bar to the sub-dominant (IV). There is also a turnaround version; where the tonic chord (I) in the last bar changes to the dominant chord (V). In different versions, some chords may be changed to 7th chords. The added 7th note is commonly used in the last chord before a change.

Many songs use the 12 bar blues, especially older music from the 50s and 60s but it is still used even today. Some older and hugely popular songs examples might include Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, Can’t Buy Me Love by The Beatles, Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash. Many more recent songs still use this structure; it is timeless. Some of these would be Black Or White by Michael Jackson and even more recently, Ball And Biscuit by The White Stripes.

Rock n Roll

American artists like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry ruled the rock n roll music in the 50s. Recording in the 50s didn’t use many mics or processing (editing) techniques compared to today, which meant tracks were recorded using tape. This meant artists couldn’t edit the sound after so at least one of the takes had to be perfect. This also meant you could not use many microphones at once; for example, the drums in Presley’s song ‘Jailhouse Rock’ were recorded using just one microphone above the whole kit. The Rock n Roll style derived from other genres like blues and RnB; this made rock n roll sound upbeat, fast, and quite happy with its melodies and lyrics. Presley made rock n roll and blues more commercialised because he was white. Many rock and roll artists stole country songs and black artist’s songs and classed them as their own cause they knew it would make the song popular if a white rock and roll artist made it as they were much more popular. This links with the civil rights issues in the 50s. This made the genre more popular as Chuck Berry came around, another hugely influential rock n roll artist, even to this day. His songs have been covered over time by The Beatles, David Bowie, and even ACDC.

Young girls and boys were huge fans of rock n roll as the music was new, revolutionary and the artists were attractive to them. However, the older generation seemed concerned about this new genre; they preferred more traditional music, they thought the musicians were being too sexual and revealing in their music videos and they also believed it encouraged teen rebellion. Rock n roll brought together different communities and social and racial groups, appealing to the youth however not to older generations. This concern was expressed in the comic book ‘There’s No Love In Rock And Roll’ published bu Ajax. It expresses a parents concern when their daughter starts dating a rock n roll fan until she finds a boy who likes traditional music and her parents are thrilled. The girl then realises that rock n roll and its connotations are no longer for her.

Civil Rights

The American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s abolished slavery, however, in the 1950s racism and equal rights for African Americans were still major issues. This started the civil rights movement; a fight for equality. Many historic moments helped the fight for equality and the civil rights movement. After years of racial segregation because of the Jim Crow laws, (these laws didn’t let African Americans vote, get jobs/education or even do something as simple as drink from the same water fountain as a white person), the supreme court illegalised segregation in public schools in 1954. Then in 1957, a school in Little Rock, Arkansas had nine black students join the school. These students, called the Little Rock Nine, attended the school but were faced with racial prejudice and even violence from other students. This group then had to be escorted around by guards in school to ensure their safety. This was a major turning point in the movement; people saw the issues that African Americans were facing which fueled protests in the fight for equality.

Another monumental moment for the movement would be in 1955 when Rosa Parks, often referred to as ‘The First Lady Of Civil Rights, refused to give up her seat on the back of a bus when a white man wanted to sit in her place as there were no seats left. Buses were segregated so that white people sat at the front and black people sat at the back. Parks’ refusal had her arrested. This caused public outrage and influenced the Montgomery Bus Boycott; when African Americans refused to go on buses for over a year until the segregated seating was removed.

Also hugely involved in the movement was Martin Luther King Jr. During and even after the bus boycott, he became one of the most prominent faces of the fight for equality. This is because he was the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). He believed in peaceful protesting and using civil disobedience to make a change instead of violence. As well as MLK, Malcolm X was another figure in the movement, but he believed in violence, not peaceful protesting. He fought against racial segregation, but had much stronger views from the teachings he was given whilst involved in the Nation Of Islam which said that black people were the original people on earth and described white people as ‘devils’.

In 1957, the Civil Rights Act was signed by President Eisenhower. This made it much easier for African Americans to be able to vote, especially in the South, where they made it extremely difficult for them to register to vote. The act made it illegal for anyone to take away someone’s right to vote or make it harder for them to vote.

Rowland Scherman for USIA, Photographer. Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.


The youth loved listening to new music like rock n roll through jukeboxes in cafes and restaurants, and music stores. Icons like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe influenced music, acting and even fashion. However the older generation didn’t approve of these celebrities; they thought they promoted rebellion, sex and drugs. Some Recreational Activities included using hula hoops, Roller skating and dancing (especially rock n roll dances which are usually fast and quite physically demanding compared to earlier dances). Still popular amongst the youth today, bowling, shopping and drive-in movies allowed for a fun day out with your friends.

Family activities included boating and playing games like cards, marbles and board games (such as the newly introduced ‘scrabble’, which was a huge hit.) during rainy days. Food like burgers, hot dogs, fries and ice cream were some of the most popular foods because they were easy to make. They were liked amongst the younger generation because they were cheap and there was a place to buy them on almost every street. Compared to rationing and what people had to eat during and after the war especially in the UK, these foods were like a delicacy.


The younger generations and fans of rock n roll tended to wear clothes inspired by Elvis and American actor James Dean. These celebrities wore plain t-shirts, leather jackets and working-class looking jeans, along with a slicked-back hairstyle. Many people call this the ‘greaser’ look. Jeans were only associated with farmers and they were not seen as casual wear until the youth transformed this and started wearing them in their everyday looks. The ‘Teddy Boy’ look was popular amongst men in the UK however it was seen as slightly more formal than the American fashion. This usually consisted of narrow trousers, collared jackets and, again, slicked-back hair. These clothing items gave them the reputation of being rebellious and rejecting their parent’s traditions. Older men stayed more traditional, with their formal/office-type wear. This was made up of a shirt and tie with baggy pants and smart shoes. However, suits were not just your typical black or brown colours anymore; more vibrancy started to creep into this fashion like yellows and blues.

In the early 50s, women wore dark dresses with long skirts and nipped-in waists. Then, with the rise of youth fashion, these waists became straighter and much less formal. Dresses showed bright colours like green and red, and interesting patterns (probably the most popular was the polka dot pattern). A good example of a slightly straighter, colourful and patterned dress would be the pea motif. Other types of dresses would have included a pencil dress, a swing dress and a sheaf dress. Blouses and long skirts were also popular, however, pants were not quite socially acceptable for women to wear yet. Accessories like white gloves, purses, jewellery and hats showed formality in older women and the only style of formality for the youth was a prom dress. Some younger women wore more textured knitted sweaters or jackets and were called ‘Sweater Girls’. Again, women wore jeans however these were more for farming or gardening.