TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
Listening My Way Through Chris Smith’s 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music 3. Birth of the Cool– Miles Davis (1957)
I will admit right from the start that I was not looking forward to listening to this album. Prior to listening to it in its entirety, the only tracks I had heard before were “Moon Dreams” and “Boplicity.” Both of these were a bit too mellow for my taste, and they had rather turned me off from the notion of cool jazz, which I equated with “boring.”
So, what is cool jazz, and, if it was only a temporary stop on Davis’s stylistic journey, can we definitively say that at “changed popular music,” as the title of Smith’s book suggests? Well, yes and no. Cool jazz began to emerge in the late 1940s as a response against the extreme virtuosity of bebop from artists like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Cool jazz takes the frenetic pace of bebop and slows it down, eschewing feats of instrumental prowess for a mellow, subdued, muted sound. The harmonic complexities that helped to define bebop as distinct from earlier swing music, however, remained and became even more extreme as dissonances were prolonged and allowed to gel before moving on to other chords. Cool jazz also expanded the timbre of earlier jazz styles, using instruments with a significantly warmer and more mellow sound, such as the French horn, flugelhorn, and tuba.
There seems to be some disagreement on cultural and social message of cool jazz. Novelist Ralph Ellison viewed cool jazz as a response to racial discrimination rampant in 1940s and 1950s America, writing, “One countered racial provocation by clocking one’s feelings in the psychologically inadequate equivalent of a plaster cast – a bulletproof vest – known as ‘cool.’”Later critics, writing after the style has been successfully appropriated by white musicians, attributed the cool sound as an attempt to curtail one’s fear of yet another alarming reality of the age, the Cold War and constant threat of nuclear annihilation. A 1959 critic stated, “Co0ol jazz…reflects the resignation of men who live well, yet know that H-bombs are being stockpiled. Whether cool jazz musicians were suppressing their anger at an unjust society or their fear of one that could end at the touch of a button, it seems that the goal of avoiding excessive expression and projecting an attitude of indifference remained common among cool jazz artists.
Among the earliest artists to experiment with this new sound were pianists Lennie Tristano, Tadd Dameron, and Claude Thornhill, alto sax man Lee Konitz, and, arranger Gil Evans, who would go on to play a huge role of theBirth of the Cool project. Music focused more on sonic experimentation, combining previously unused instruments to create sounds they described as “sensuous” and “pastel.” These clouds of sounds had a rather static quality, owing to the slow tempos, that allowed listeners to simply bask in the sonorities they created.
In Birth of the Cool, Davis would borrow the enveloping effect of Tristano and Thornhill’s music and add his own distinctive ear for harmony and a slightly more active rhythmic base.
So despite my initial hesitation, I was somewhat curious. I only really discovered the wonders of Miles Davis about ten years ago, and I adore Kind of Blue, though I’ve yet to develop a taste for fusion or later jazz. I guess I’d settled on the idea that jazz’s sweet spot for me was in the late 1950s and early 1960s with modal forms of the style.
So, imagine my surprise when I heard Birth of the Cooland discovered that it was far more interesting and harmonically inventive than I had suspected! While the work definitely has a fuller sound than Davis’s later work, the richness of the harmonies definitely marks a departure from the bebop sound, which had dominated jazz in the previous years. But at the same time, those harmonies are not overly traditional. In fact, some critics at the time equated the sound with Impressionist works like those of Maurice Ravel.The inclusion of instruments one would not typically associate with jazz, such as the tuba and French horn, also give the project added weight and color.
Throughout the album the nine instruments work in pairs of high voices (trumpet and alto sax), medium voices (trombone and French horn), and low voices (tuba and baritone sax), along with the rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. This creates a texture that is almost choral in feeling and envelops with listener with its richness. Davis said of the arrangements, “I looked at the group like it was a choir.”The idea was to create more of a blended sound than virtually all previous jazz styles, which highlighted contrasts in timbre, such as that between a soloist and a full band or between woodwinds, brass, and piano.
While several of the instrumentalists floated in and out of the ensemble, the nucleus of the group was formed by Davis’s work with Gil Evans, who became a kind of den leader for the burgeoning cool jazz movement, offering his apartment to performers who wanted to listen to recordings, discuss the future of jazz and collaborate on new ideas. Evans went on to arrange the songs for the album, though only one of his compositions, “Boplicity” (credited to a pseudonym, Cleo Henry) was released on the recording.
What kind of influence did Birth of the Cool have on later jazz artists? Well, despite the success of the album placing the birth of the cool jazz style squarely in New York, the biggest and most successful artists to continue performing in the style largely came from California, earning the style a new name of West Coast Jazz. West Coast Jazz continued to flourish for decades with artists such as tenor sax man Gerry Mulligan and his notably piano-less quartet, trumpetist Chet Baker, pianist Dave Brubeck, and, perhaps the group with the greatest lasting power, The Modern Jazz Quartet, who released no less than 44 albums between 1952 and 1992. So, even if cool jazz did not stick with Davis as a primary style of choice, I think it cannot be denied that its influence long outlasted its initial brush with fame.
All things being equal despite my original reservations, I found I was intrigued by Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool. While is definitely at times “too cool” for my tastes, the overall sound is exotic and complex – a true departure from earlier styles of jazz. And while I, for one, definitely prefer the later works of modal jazz like Kind of Blueand John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Giant Steps, it is clear that these albums would never have come to exist without this project as a starting point.
Deveaux, Scott and Garry Giddens. Jazz: Essential Listening. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011, 236.
Winthrop Sargeant. Jazz, Hot, and Hybrid, 3rded. (New York: DaCapo Press, 1975), 257.
Miles Davis and Quincy Thorpe. Miles: The Autobiography. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 118.
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.