Styles & Forms | Cool Jazz

In the wake of the pyrotechnic manifesto that Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie jointly issued on their first recording together in 1945, most musicians on the New York jazz scene began fanning the flames of bebop. Tempos picked up speed, intensity increased on the bandstand and blazing virtuosity became a means to an end, in a fiery pursuit of Bird and Diz.

And yet, the task of topping the two trendsetters who originated and mastered the art of bebop seemed insurmountable to many of their disciples, who, at best, might be considered great imitators but never originators. This frustrating fact caused several forward-thinking musicians to break from the extroverted bebop mould and forge a new, more reflective and deliberate musical path. Like pouring water on the flames of the bebop movement, these thoughtful young player-composers came to epitomize a ‘cool school’ in jazz.

Velvety, Sensuous And Swinging

The roots of this antidote to the hyperactivity of bebop can be heard in the work of Claude Thornhill & His Orchestra, a dreamy-sounding ensemble from the early 1940s that utilized such unusual instrumentation as French horns and tuba as melodic voices. Some of the finest charts in the band’s book, circa 1946–47, were contributed by the composer-arranger Gil Evans, who brought his own boppish inclinations to the ensemble’s softer, inherently sweet quality. By the end of 1947, Evans had become acquainted with Miles Davis, a promising 22-year-old trumpeter from East St. Louis who had apprenticed alongside Parker at the height of the bebop craze.

While Davis did not possess the dazzling, high-note virtuosity of his idol Dizzy Gillespie, he began developing a sparser, middle-register approach to trumpet soloing, contrasting with the explosive bravura of the beboppers. This quieter, cooler style finally came to fruition on Davis’ Birth Of The Cool, the 1949 recording that helped usher in a new musical movement in jazz.

Davis’ landmark nonet sessions of 1949–50 were characterized by a relaxed yet disciplined integration of elements, featuring cool-toned soloists such as alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, trombonists J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding, and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Working with the larger canvas of a nonet, the arrangers Evans (‘Boplicity’, ‘Moon Dreams’), Mulligan (‘Venus De Milo’, ‘Darn That Dream’), Johnny Carisi (‘Israel’), John Lewis (‘Move’) and Davis (‘Deception’) incorporated the lush tones of French horns, trombone and tuba increating a velvety, sensuous yet swinging body of work, that has stood the test of time.

Offshoots Of The Cool School

Key participants in the seminal Birth Of The Cool sessions went on to incorporate various musical precepts of the Davis nonet experience in their own work: Gerry Mulligan with his celebrated, pianoless quartet, featuring trumpeter and kindred spirit Chet Baker; John Lewis with the chamber like Modern Jazz Quartet; Lee Konitz in his mid-1950s work with tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh. So pervasive was the influence of Birth Of The Cool among musicians that it spawned a separate movement,...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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