The torrid pace of bebop improvisations reached a point in the late 1940s that prompted a musical reconsideration and Miles Davis was there at the conception. Davis had been with the Charlie Parker Quintet since 1945, when he began to woodshed with composer/arrangers John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans, all of whom would become major long-time contributors to the music. In three recording sessions starting in January 1949, this arrangers’ super-group created a body of music which, when rereleased at the beginning of the LP era, was known as the “Birth of the Cool.”
John Lewis had apprenticed with Diz and Bird since early in bebop and by 1947 was recognized as a formidable composer and arranger. Miles turned to him when he first recorded under his own name in 1947.
“As a gift to Davis, [John] Lewis presented [Miles Davis] with ‘Milestones,’ a line with so many harmonic bottlenecks that Parker insisted he’d play just the bridge because the tune was too hard for a country boy like him. That gave Davis and Lewis something to ponder, but not enough to deter them from a taste for cool intellectualism.” – Gary Giddens
Milestones. Miles Davis All Stars
(Miles Davis-tp, Charlie Parker-ts, John Lewis-p, Nelson Boyd-b, Max Roach-d). 8/14/1947.
The “Birth of the Cool” Sessions.
“In 1949, Davis demonstrated for the first time his powers as a visionary and persistent organizer. He assembled some of the finest writers and players in New York to put into practice the ideas they’d been discussing and that Gil Evans—at thirty-seven, the senior conspirator—had been developing in his arrangements for Claude Thornhill’s dance band. They met at Gil’s pad, a cellar room on West Fifty-fifth Street, to consider new methods of instrumentation, improvisation, and orchestration that would offset the steeplechase rigors of bebop… The prolific Gerry Mulligan [who also arranged for Claude Thornhill] did most of the writing, but Miles was in charge. He formulated the nine-piece combination (heavy on brass), … and contracted for three record dates, producing twelve sides eventually collected as Birth of the Cool.” – Gary Giddens
“John Lewis and Max Roach from the [Charlie] Parker quintet participated, along with Lee Konitz, Mulligan, J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and bassist Al McKibbon, plus four guys … alternating on French horn and tuba. A perfectly integrated ensemble, racially and musically, it configured improvisers and writers, soloists and ensemble, hot and cool. As the public was indifferent, the nonet went straight from cult to classic, and the celebrated sides—‘Boplicity,’ ‘Israel,’ ‘Godchild,’ ‘Moon Dreams,’ ‘Move,’ ‘Rocker,’ “Jeru,’ ‘Rouge’—endure as an indelible achievement, uncontaminated by the musty imitations that came to be associated with West Coast jazz. Its musicians redesigned jazz in the ’50s, calming bop’s fevers, soothing its brow, bringing wreaths to the entombment. Counterpoint and polyphony reappeared, tempos slowed, timbre lightened.” – Gary Giddens
“The Birth of the Cool album came from some of the sessions we did trying to sound like Claude Thornhill’s band. We wanted that sound, but the difference was that we wanted it as small as possible.” – Miles Davis
Moon Dreams. Miles Davis Nonet
(Miles Davis-tp, JJ Johnson-tb, Sandy Siegelstein-frh, Bill Barber-tu, Lee Konitz-as, Gerry Mulligan-bs, John Lewis-p, Nelson Boyd-b, Kenny Clarke-d). 3/9/1950. (The Norton Collection of Jazz Recordings)
Arranged by Gil Evans.
“’Moon Dreams,’ one of two arrangements written by Gil Evans for the group, is a radical example of the nonet’s ambitions… [Evans’s] version represented something new in modern jazz, in that it has no sustained improvised solos. Instead, there are brief interludes by alto saxophone [Lee Konitz], baritone saxophone [Gerry Mulligan], and trumpet [Miles Davis], which serve as transitional episodes in an orchestration that constantly calls attention to its subtly shifting harmonies, instrumental voices, and contrapuntal phrases.” – Gary Giddens & Scott DeVeaux
Rocker. Miles Davis Nonet
(Miles Davis-tp, JJ Johnson-tb, Sandy Siegelstein-frh, Bill Barber-tu, Lee Konitz-as, Gerry Mulligan-bs, John Lewis-p, Nelson Boyd-b, Kenny Clarke-d). 3/9/1950.
Composed by Gerry Mulligan.
Boplicity. Miles Davis Nonet
(Miles Davis-tp, JJ Johnson-tb, Sandy Siegelstein-frh, Bill Barber-tu, Lee Konitz-as, Gerry Mulligan-bs, John Lewis-p, Nelson Boyd-b, Kenny Clarke-d). 4/22/1949. (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz)
Arranged by Gil Evans.
“This ensemble began as a rehearsal band. It had one public engagement, made a few recordings, and disappeared. But its influence was widespread and sustained. The ‘cool jazz’ of the 1950s was chiefly the work of this group, Tristano’s work, Konitz’s subsequent work, Gerry Mulligan’s work and that of a group of tenor saxophonists, all of whom in various ways were indebted to Lester Young – and the most prominent of whom was Stan Getz. Boplicity was an early collaboration of Davis and arranger Gil Evans. Evans’s abilities in giving properly sonorous settings to the trumpeter’s glowingly detached, yet paradoxically forceful style were exceptional.” – Martin Williams in the notes from Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz
“In 1952, John Lewis organized the Modern Jazz Quartet, renovating the blues with counterpoint. That same year, Mulligan created the pianoless quartet with Chet Baker, unleashing ‘cool’ as a popular movement. Roach created the last classic bop band in collaboration with Clifford Brown, then embraced an encompassing postmodernism with political and historical implications. Schuller coined the phrase ‘third-stream’ to formalize the merging of jazz and classical traditions. Johnson and Winding organized a quintet that employed counterpoint while stimulating a vogue for trombonists. Konitz abided as a maverick soloist, one step ahead of the sheriff and beyond category.” – Gary Giddens
It should also be added that Gil Evans went on to collaborate with Miles on a series of significant projects through the 1950s and into the 1960s: Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), Sketches of Spain (1959), and Quiet Nights (1962).
Gerry Mulligan Quartet.
After the Birth of the Cool sessions, Mulligan relocated to Los Angeles, joined Stan Kenton’s big band for a spell, then started a ten-piece band as a vehicle for his writing. “He was obliged to use a smaller combo, however, when he secured a weekly Monday night job at The Haig, a kitschy little restaurant with a white picket fence that stood across the street from the Coconut Grove. He assembled a quartet: Chet Baker on trumpet, Bob Whitlock or Carson Smith on bass, and Chico Hamilton on drums. In no time he attracted a faithful following (a story in Time didn’t hurt) for a balmy and breezily swinging music that forever identified Mulligan with a coast he spent little time on, a temperature (cool) unequal to the fevers of his improvisational purpose, and an instrumentation (no piano) he rarely used.” – Gary Giddens
“In a series of memorable performances—‘Bernie’s Tune,’ ‘Line for Lyons,’ ‘Lullaby of the Leaves,’ ‘My Funny Valentine,’ and others—Mulligan exploited the potential of this limited instrumentation to the fullest through a variety of techniques: counterpoint between the two horns; use of the bass and drums as melodic voices; sotto voce bass lines with the sax or trumpet; and stark variations in pulse and phrasing, ranging from Dixieland two-steps to swinging fours to pointillistic bop beats.” – Ted Gioia
Line for Lyons. Gerry Mulligan Quartet
(Chet Baker-tp, Gerry Mulligan-bs, Carson Smith-b, Chico Hamilton-d). 9/2/1952.
“’Line for Lyons’ is a good example of how the unit worked, and why a piano was unnecessary. The first chorus of the recording states the seductive thirty-two-bar melody, an exemplary cool tune that has stymied many would-be lyricists: trumpet states the theme, backed by the baritone’s chords and counterpoint. In the second chorus, Mulligan and Baker each improvise sixteen measures, the latter again shadowed by Mulligan’s chords. The third begins as a canon (with Baker echoing Mulligan’s riff-like phrases), becomes a round in the bridge, and restates the melody in the final eight bars.” – Gary Giddens
Walkin’ Shoes. Gerry Mulligan Quartet
(Chet Baker-tp, Gerry Mulligan-bs, Bob Whitlock-b, Chico Hamilton-d). 10/15/1952.
“The music [of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet] doesn’t demand much of you; it is lazily reflective, very diatonic, mid-tempo, and its individual instruments don’t make much of their textural qualities… It is pretty and compact, and it didn’t hurt that is the opposite of the perfervid, intimidating sound that black beboppers had already canonized and stylized back east” – Ben Ratliff
Modern Jazz Quartet.
Arising from the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, the MJQ was founded in 1952 and settled into its final lineup in 1955 to became one of the most durable musical groups of all times, recording together with one break until 1988. Anchored by the writing and musical direction of pianist John Lewis and the bluesy vibraphone of Milt Jackson, the combo was designed to be a “collaborative” in all senses of the word. There was no soloist and rhythm section, there was a group of four musician’s working cooperatively. John Lewis continued his exploratory writing with the group for decades.
All the Thing You Are. Modern Jazz Quartet
(John Lewis-p, Milt Jackson-vib, Percy Heath-b, Kenny Clarke-d). From Modern Jazz Quartet. 12/22/1952. (The Norton Jazz Collection)
“At the beginning, Lewis’s arrangement isolates each individual layer in the ensemble. The rapidly running bass line and sporadic drumming fit strangely against the unison played by the vibes and piano. Gradually this framework is displaced by a more conventional bebop-oriented one: but at no point do we feel that we are hearing a lone soloist accompanied by a rhythm section. The quartet always sounds like a quartet, with the primary melodic voice shifting between vibes and piano.” – Gary Giddens and Scott DeVeaux
Django. Modern Jazz Quartet
(John Lewis-p, Milt Jackson-vib, Percy Heath-b, Connie Kay-d). From Django. 4/12/1960. (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz)
Originally introduced on the second MJQ record, “’Django’ is perhaps John Lewis’ finest work as a composer and finest achievement in form as musical director of the Quartet. The piece is, of course, a funeral processional for the Belgian gypsy guitarist-turned-jazzman, Django Reinhardt. Its main melody seems to imply all that – a French, gypsy, and jazz elegy. But the performance demonstrates that there was something else in Lewis’ mind as well- the tradition in New Orleans culture, and in early jazz, of consolation and rejoicing at death, of funeral processions with musicians who offer both reverent hymns of mourning and redeeming songs of joy.” – Martin Williams from the notes of the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz
JJ Johnson & Kai Winding.
“Trombonists found it hard to keep up in bebop, but J.J. developed an agile and pure-toned bop voice for the horn that was influenced by saxophone phrasing. He frequently hung an old beret over the bell of his horn to soften his tone and bring it into line with the sound of the reeds around him… The first volume of the Blue Note set [The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson: Volume 1] is one of the central documents of postwar jazz. Johnson – who was working as a blueprint checker at the time of the earliest sessions – sounds fleet and confident, and he has a marvellous band round him, including a young Clifford Brown.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook
Sketch One. JJ Johnson Sextet
(Clifford Brown-tp, JJ Johnson-tb, Jimmy Heath-ts/bs, John Lewis-p, Percy Heath-b, Kenny Clarke-d). From Jay Jay Johnson with Clifford Brown. 6/22/1953.
Composed by John Lewis.
Reflections. JJ Johnson – Kai Winding Quintet
(JJ Johnson-tb, Kai Winding-tb, Wally Cirillo-g, Charles Mingus-b, Kenny Clarke-d). From Jay and Kai. 8/26/1954.
Composed by JJ Johnson.
Gil Evans Orchestra.
Gil Evans and Miles Davis collaborated on several projects throughout the 1950s. “The duality of high art and mass sensibility is at the heart of Miles Davis and Gil Evans work. Miles Ahead – to my mind the most successful of those collaborations (the others are Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain) – is music of fantasy, of dreaming. The drums, usually so central to jazz, are generally rendered secondary by the intricately accented horns within the nineteen-piece ensemble sound. The orchestra gathers around the soloist, rather than the soloist trying to ride the waves of the orchestra, and every move is keyed to Davis’s sighing sensibilities.” – Ben Ratliff
“…Miles Ahead is peerlessly seductive. Not since Ellington had any arranger extended the cross-harmonization between orchestral sections as rigorously as Evans, who for the first time was granted complete freedom. And not since Ellington had any composer adapted the concerto to jazz as ingeniously as Evans, who recognized in Davis the ideal partner. The singularity and expressiveness of Davis’s voice encouraged Evans to try for the most intrepidly burnished settings he could devise. Evans realized that the cornerstone of Davis’s eloquence is his strength. Imbalance is not an issue. The ensemble motivates the soloist and is parried by him—the melancholy veracity of Davis’s timbre matches the plush brassy brilliance of Evans’s voicings.” – Gary Giddens
I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone But You). Gil Evans Orchestra
(Carisi, Glow, Taft Jordan, Mucci, Royal-tp, Miles Davis -flh, Bennett, Cleveland, Rehak-tb, Mitchell-btb, Buffington, Miranda, Ruff-frh, Barber-tu, Caine, Cooper, Penque-fl/cl, Bank-bcl, Lee Konitz-as, Paul Chambers-b, Art Taylor-d). From Miles Ahead. 5/27/1957.
Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and JJ Johnson would be central of the future of jazz – as composers, arrangers, players and band leaders – for decades to come.
With The Birth of the Cool sessions, our review of jazz history history crosses over from the 1940s – dominated by the transition from big band swing to bebop – to the 1950s where the fragmentation of jazz – swing, big band, cool, hard bop, experimentalism, free – became the norm. Over the next several hours of the program we will listen to what came out of the Big Band format in the 1950s, review the next steps for the bebop pioneers, follow the graduates of the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands (like Stan Getz and Anita O’Day), and we’ll follow the emergence of Hard Bop.
The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddens. W.W. Norton 933796.
The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Columbia P6 11891.
Charlie Parker – The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes. Savoy 92911-2 8CD.
Miles Davis – The Birth of the Cool. Blue Note 94550.
The Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Pacific Jazz 9341.
Gerry Mulligan – the Original Quartet with Chet Baker. Blue Note 94407-2 2CD.
The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson. Blue Note 32143-2.
JJ Johnson & Kai Winding – Jay and Kai. Savoy Jazz 163.
Miles Davis – Miles Ahead. Columbia CK 65121.
Miles Davis – Porgy & Bess. Columbia / Columbia/Legacy CK-40647.
Carr, Ian. 1998. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography. Philadelphia. PA. Da Capo Press.
Davis, Miles & Troupe, Quincy. 1989. Miles: the Autobiography. New York. Simon & Schuster.
Gavin, James. 2002. Deep in a Dream: the Long Night of Chet Baker. Chicago, IL. Chicago Review Press.
Giddens, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 12. The 1950s: Cool Jazz and Hard Bop.
Giddens, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 38. Miles Davis (Kinds of Blues)
Chapter 39. Gerry Mulligan (Beyond Cool)
Chapter 42. Modern Jazz Quartet (The First Forty Years)
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 6. Modern Jazz
Chapter 7. The Fragmentation of Jazz Styles
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Charlie Parker – The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes
Miles Davis – The Birth of the Cool
Gerry Mulligan – the Original Quartet with Chet Baker
The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson
Miles Davis – Miles Ahead
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 31. Gerry Mulligan, the complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker (1952-1957)
Chapter 43. Miles Davis, Miles Ahead (1957)
Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100