Cool Jazz

History of Jazz: Part 5

Ted Gioia, one of the writers who has given significant attention to cool jazz, writes “The cool aesthetic has always found a few lonely champions in the jazz arena–fascinating individuals who have provided an alternative to the dominant hot stylists. As such, they stand as double outsiders in the already counterculture world of jazz.”

Clip from The Miles Davis Story DVD

The very term “cool jazz” conjures up images of martinis, bachelor pads outfitted with the latest stereo equipment, and sophisticated women dressed in modern fashion. The word ‘cool’ denotes a detachment, a less emotional approach to the music. In short, cool jazz is something of a college-educated form of jazz, often influenced by other musical forms such as classical music. Cool jazz features arrangements that are generally more complex than those found in bop, where the head is played, followed by solos, then played again. Often complex harmonies were played behind the solos in cool jazz–it is much more a style that emphasizes the composer and arranger.

The first ‘cool’ jazz recordings were by a nonet (or nine-piece) combo led by Miles Davis and recorded on a group of sides that came to be known as The Birth of the Cool (a title that was applied after the fact, by the way). The Davis group was more collaborative and marked some of the first influences of composer/arranger Gil Evans, who later worked with Davis on a groundbreaking group of albums that sought to combine delicate, complex arrangements with improvisation.

Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who later became a major player in cool jazz on the West Coast, also played on the Birth of the Cool sessions, as did John Lewis (Modern Jazz Quartet), a pianist whose approach was certainly cerebral in nature.

The instrumental voices in the Davis nonet were fused in such a way as to make them all equals rather than competing sections like those of a big band. More tonal colors worked their way into the palette as well, with French horns and tuba being added. These were musicians who were well grounded in bebop, having come up playing this style, so it is not a question of their possessing virtuosity. Rather, they chose to express themselves in a way that left the technical virtuosity that was obvious in bebop behind.

Gerry Mulligan Quartet w/Chet Baker, “Stardust”

The Birth of the Cool nonet was not commercially successful and their recorded sides were few. Recent CD releases have combined the total studio output of the group with a live radio broadcast from the Royal Roost to collect virtually all of the group’s recorded music under the “Birth of the Cool” title, but at the time there was no real sense that the group had recorded a large or even unified body of work. Nonetheless, their music became highly influential as the various members who had contributed to the nonet spread out and began to lead their own ensembles.

Gerry Mulligan’s piano-less quartet featuring trumpet player Chet Baker certainly did much to increase the profile and popularity of cool jazz. Mulligan and Baker played counterpoint around and against each other’s lines, sounding more like a relaxed version of a Bach fugue than contrapuntal New Orleans jazz. Space opened up by the lack of piano or guitar not only helped further define the cool sound as a basically minimalist style, it also left considerable room for Mulligan and Baker to solo in a relaxed, unhurried style. When Baker left the group, Mulligan brought in trumpeter Art Farmer, a supremely lyrical improviser who also played off well against Mulligan’s baritone sax. Baker continued to play the cool style right up until his death in 1988, sometimes offering world-weary vocals that seemed like extensions of his trumpet sound.

The Lighthouse, a club located in Hermosa Beach, CA, became the focus of the cool school in California, with musicians such as Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, and Jimmy Giuffre holding forth almost nightly. The music they created still sounds relatively fresh, which is quite an accomplishment considering most of it was created in the mid-50s.

Very little cool jazz produced through the end of the ’50s and into the 1960s is strictly cool, but it all has recognizable elements that link the different practitioners of the sound together. For example, Dave Brubeck’s work, while retaining many elements of the cool movement, is often very agitated, searching, and experimental. His quartet’s work with “odd” time signatures opened the door for late-’60s experimenters like Don Ellis and Brubeck’s piano work has sometimes been described as “bombastic” by jazz critics.

But the quartet also featured alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, who played every bit as lyrically as Chet Baker or Lee Konitz and had a gorgeous, thin sound that went against what any alto player has done before or since. An intellectual and talented wordsmith, Desmond became, in many ways, the perfect example of a cool jazz artist–cerebral, clever, humorous, and with a penchant for good scotch and sexy models. Brubeck, too, came across as an intellectual and something of an avant-gardist because of the fact that he had studied with composer Darius Milhaud. The group’s music is anything but an exercise in intellectualism, though–with drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright, the group could swing fiercely in any time signature.

Pianist John Lewis, who had also played on the Birth of the Cool sessions, formed The Modern Jazz Quartet (or MJQ) with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay (who replaced original drummer Kenny Clarke).

Lewis was clearly interested in exploring new forms with the group, frustrated by the bop format of the theme (head), followed by improvisation (solos), and a final repeat of the head. He was interested in composing music that utilized more elaborate (and frequently classical) structures–the sonata, for example–within which bop-style improvisation would remain an important ingredient. This led many purists to complain that he had fallen under the sway of European (read: white) influences and that what the group was playing was not, essentially, jazz. Nonetheless, many of Lewis’ compositions, such as ‘Django’ have become part of the standard jazz repertoire, performed by a variety of artists. In 1953, Lewis earned a Master’s degree in Music Theory from the Manhattan School of Music and led the MJQ as a pianist and musical director until they disbanded in 1974.

Lee Konitz, another Birth of the Cool graduate, is the other major player in the cool school of jazz, along with his cohorts pianist Lenny Tristano and tenor man Warne Marsh. While their music was highly complex and often beautiful, it never really caught on with the public at large the way that the Mulligan and Brubeck quartets and the MJQ did. They recorded some very interesting and significant albums for Atlantic Records in the ’50s, but their music has generally been judged as too cold and distant, too abstract and lacking in emotion even for many cool jazz fans.

The cool school of jazz is credited with bringing jazz music back into popularity with many listeners who were alienated by the intensity and emphasis on virtuosity of bebop. The bossa nova jazz craze started by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto owes a lot to cool jazz as well and so do many musicians who came along through the 1960s and 70s.

Cool jazz really never disappeared as an inspiration, and the recordings of the Davis nonet, the Brubeck Quartet, the Mulligan groups, and the Modern Jazz Quartet have remained among the best selling jazz works of all time. The meditative sound of cool jazz certainly inspired many later musicians, both inside and outside of jazz, including many artists who record for ECM Records and Miles Davis’ own In A Silent Way.

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