Davis Develops 1950’s Cool Jazz

The landmark Birth of the Cool recordings by the Miles Davis Nonet had an incalculable influence on the course of modern jazz. They inaugurated the reaction against bebop known as cool jazz, and they also spawned a later reaction against cool jazz known as hard bop.

Summary of Event

During the late 1940’s, a small group of jazz musicians working together closely made a conscious effort to go beyond the bebop style of jazz then popular and create a new kind of jazz. The features that characterized their work—emphasis on smooth lines rather than on harmonies or rhythm, soft dynamics, and a light, spare sound—gave their music an emotional pitch lower than that of bebop, and the new style came to be known as “cool” jazz. Jazz;cool jazz
Birth of the Cool recordings (Davis)
[kw]Davis Develops 1950’s Cool Jazz (Jan. 21, 1949-Mar. 9, 1950)
[kw]Cool Jazz, Davis Develops 1950’s (Jan. 21, 1949-Mar. 9, 1950)
[kw]Jazz, Davis Develops 1950’s Cool (Jan. 21, 1949-Mar. 9, 1950)
Jazz;cool jazz
Birth of the Cool recordings (Davis)
[g]North America;Jan. 21, 1949-Mar. 9, 1950: Davis Develops 1950’s Cool Jazz[02840]
[g]United States;Jan. 21, 1949-Mar. 9, 1950: Davis Develops 1950’s Cool Jazz[02840]
[c]Music;Jan. 21, 1949-Mar. 9, 1950: Davis Develops 1950’s Cool Jazz[02840]
Davis, Miles
Mulligan, Gerry
Lewis, John (musician)
Konitz, Lee

Miles Davis performing with the Miles Davis Quintet.

(Jan Persson/Courtesy, Sony Music)

Instrumental in the evolution of cool jazz was the Miles Davis Nonet Miles Davis Nonet , which in 1949 began making a series of influential recordings for Capitol Records Capitol Records
Record labels;Capitol . The band’s fresh and distinctive sound, which would have an important influence in the 1950’s, stemmed in part from pioneering work done during the previous decade by members of the Thornhill Orchestra Thornhill Orchestra , especially pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Claude Thornhill Thornhill, Claude and arranger Gil Evans Evans, Gil . Other important ingredients were alto saxophonist Lee Konitz’s cool lines, which were inspired by pianist Lennie Tristano Tristano, Lennie , and Konitz’s light, dry, almost vibratoless sound.

The Capitol recording sessions also included Gerry Mulligan, a baritone saxophonist who also had a light, dry tone and who had played and arranged for Thornhill. Davis’s nine-piece band was unusual in that it did not include either a guitar or a tenor saxophone. The instrumentation was filled out by trombone, French horn, tuba, and a rhythm section.

Drawing some of its members from the Thornhill Orchestra and others from several of the bebop groups active in New York City, the Miles Davis Nonet, after extensive rehearsals, consolidated the influences of Thornhill, Evans, and Tristano in three high-quality Capitol recording sessions. Two of these sessions were held shortly after the recording ban was lifted, on January 21 and April 22, 1949. A third followed almost a year later, on March 9, 1950. Each session produced four tunes. The bulk of the arrangements was penned by Gerry Mulligan (“Godchild,” “Jeru,” “Venus de Milo,”“Rocker,” “Darn That Dream”) and John Lewis (“Move,” “Budo,” “Rouge”). Gil Evans contributed two arrangements (“Boplicity” and “Moon Dreams”), and Davis and John Carisi Carisi, John one arrangement apiece (“Deception” and “Israel”).

Originally released in the era’s 78-rpm format, these performances were later issued by Capitol on a long-playing record (LP) entitled Birth of the Cool. Of all the late 1940’s recordings made by groups employing “cool” concepts, the Davis Nonet recordings are remembered and cited the most. The recordings mark the first of many instances in which Davis was closely involved with major innovations in jazz.

In its music, the nonet tried to realize a number of interrelated goals. Foremost among these was the development of an approach to ensemble writing that combined the immediacy and freshness of improvised music—in which were fused elements from bebop Bebop
Jazz;bebop , especially from Charlie Parker’s music—with a light, vibratoless tonality and a more subtle approach to rhythm than that of the boppers. The band also made an effort to achieve the broadened textural and coloristic palette of a large orchestra while using a relatively small number of instruments. A corollary goal was the production of a more seamless, balanced integration between the music’s improvised and written elements than was characteristic of bebop. The arrangement, in effect, would lead and anchor the soloist, who was expected to resolve the improvisation in reference to the written segment that followed.

An emphasis on arrangements was not common in bebop, and the nonet’s arrangements gave bebop tunes distinctive twists. Most bebop groups assigned the melody to the horns, which played in unison before and after a series of long, improvised solos; the Davis Nonet replaced that approach with a scheme that wove short improvised solos into written arrangements, much as Duke Ellington had done. Some arrangements also placed attractive melodic figures underneath some of the solos. Orchestral textures were occasionally altered, always gracefully, within a single arrangement.

The dry, mellow textures achieved by the nonet’s unique instrumentation and the subdued feeling that Davis, Konitz, and Mulligan brought to their solos created a truly delicate, cool sound. The band was not brassy, loud, or massive-sounding. Its music was light and sophisticated and, at times, resembled classical chamber music. Recordings of the same period by groups led by pianist Lennie Tristano also achieved this effect.

Some have argued that these 1949 recordings of Tristano—made with a group of followers that included guitarist Billy Bauer and saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh—may have had more to do with the development of cool jazz than the Miles Davis sides did. Influenced as much as his studies in European concert forms as by the jazz tradition, Tristano put aside easy musical excitement and focused on linear invention. His music was deliberately unemotional—some proclaimed it cold-blooded—and his rhythm sections were reduced to playing the role of timekeepers. Though acquiring a small in-group reputation, these recordings, reluctantly released by Capitol, had no immediate influence on jazz developments of the day.

Initial sales of the Birth of the Cool recordings must have disappointed Capitol officials, and the poor sales probably account for the lengthy gap between the second and third sessions. Jazz audiences of the late 1940’s were seemingly indifferent to the music of the nonet and did not support its New York club dates. Nevertheless, the Birth of the Cool recordings received favorable critical reaction and caught on quickly among fellow musicians, who recognized not only the beauty and creative audacity of the music but also the quietly revolutionary approach of the nonet. The nonet sides remain a milestone in the discography of jazz.


In the wake of the Birth of the Cool sessions, a number of small jazz combos could be found sporting a cool sound. One example is the fleet, subdued interplay of the George Shearing Quintet, which made several best-selling records. The Red Norvo Trio was also definitely of the cool persuasion. Perhaps the most versatile and, beyond question, the most durable of all the small combos to emerge in the cool tradition was the Modern Jazz Quartet Modern Jazz Quartet , led by pianist, composer, and theorist John Lewis.

Skilled in both classical music and jazz, Lewis imposed his quiet but unbending will on his responsive cohorts to achieve a unique blend of piano, vibraharp, bass, and drums, with all four instruments playing equal, rather than dominant or supportive, roles. Though the group showed a meticulous concern with structure, it never lost touch with the lifeblood of improvisation. Both Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s supreme soloist, vibraharpist Milt Jackson, came out of the Charlie Parker combos and the Dizzy Gillespie big band of the 1940’s, another instance of cool jazz’s debt to bebop.

The Birth of the Cool sessions spawned a working alliance of Los Angeles-based musicians—the West Coast School—that nearly cornered the jazz market in the early 1950’s. With hindsight, it can be seen why certain traits of cool jazz would appeal to this group. Many of these musicians were casualties of the breakup of one or another of the big bands of the 1940’s; almost all were alumni of those bands. They were drawn to Southern California by the congenial climate and, given their technical and arranging skills, the possibility of securing lucrative jobs in the motion picture and recording studios. For the most part, these musicians, most of whom were white, had received more formal musical training than had their black counterparts. Not surprisingly, the theoretical and disciplined approach of the Miles Davis Nonet appealed to them. When they in turn began recording, they reflected a similar approach in their performances.

The cool style of the West Coast School employed lightweight, bright-colored tones that had dry, soft textures. Although it incorporated the harmonic and melodic advances of bebop, the West Coast style, with its restrained and understated approach, had a smoother, more tuneful sound than did bebop improvisation. In contrast to the intensity of bebop, this music often projected a relaxed feeling. Drummers in this style played quietly and less interactively than did bebop drummers. Though the West Coast was the primary center for such music, the cool style of jazz was not the only one played on the West Coast in the 1950’s, and the cool style could be heard on the East Coast as well.

One important West Coast stylist was Gerry Mulligan, the baritone saxophonist and composer-arranger in the Miles Davis Nonet. Mulligan moved to California in 1952 and began a series of pianoless quartets consisting of himself on baritone saxophone accompanied by another horn player, a bass player, and a drummer. The pianoless quartets of Mulligan, who had a dry, light-colored tone and an unhurried and subdued approach to improvisation, had a lighter, clearer, simpler sound texture than did quartets using a piano. In 1953, Mulligan led a ten-piece band that included a French horn and tuba. His writing also played a significant role in his East Coast-based Concert Jazz Band, which featured a light, dry sound and simple, relaxed playing.

California pianist-composer Dave Brubeck Brubeck, Dave led a series of small bands during the late 1940’s that employed approaches similar to those of the Miles Davis Nonet. From 1951 to 1967, Brubeck led a quartet—probably the best-known jazz combo of the period—with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. Though Desmond’s light, dry tone resembled that of Lee Konitz, his approach to improvisation was his own. His playing was extremely economical, quite melodic, and very cool.

A saxophonist-clarinetist who composed for the Woody Herman band, Jimmy Giuffre, wrote much West Coast-style music. Based on the West Coast from 1946 to 1960, he produced original compositions and jazz improvisations that were the essence of cool jazz. He played with a soft, diffuse sound, his lines understated and melodic; he ranks with Miles Davis in his mastery of silence and economical attitude in constructing solos. A trio he led in 1958 and 1959 with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and guitarist Jim Hall produced light and lyrical jazz and featured close, three-way cooperation in the creation of gentle, contrapuntal improvisations.

Another prominent figure associated with the West Coast style was trumpeter-composer-arranger Shorty Rogers, who wrote for Woody Herman. Rogers led jazz quintets and produced music that was similar to that of the 1940-1950 Miles Davis Nonet and the 1953 Mulligan ten-piece band.

During the 1950’s, Miles Davis collaborated again with arranger Gil Evans on some notably successful examples of orchestral jazz. Their music surpassed the soloist-with-strings approach by integrating the solos with the arrangements on such albums as Porgy and Bess (1958) and Sketches of Spain
Sketches of Spain (Davis and Evans) (1959). The latter album, which explored a Latin theme with great sensitivity, was a commercial success and made Davis’s name virtually synonymous with modern jazz.

In the early 1950’s, many found cool jazz a disciplined, lucid, quietly audacious music bringing to jazz a refreshing new musical sensibility. By the middle of the decade, however, the cool style was suffering from over-arranging, bland solos, and lifeless rhythm sections. Suddenly, black musicians, mainly working in the East, launched a musical-ideological revolt that brought down the polite, cerebral sound of cool jazz almost overnight. Disdaining cool as “white man’s music” that had wandered far afield from the soul and down-home, body-based impulse of black music, they mounted a self-conscious revival of the black gospel and funky blues roots of jazz, resulting in a new style of jazz known as “hard bop.” Ironically, Miles Davis, a founding father of the cool style, was among the first to drive a nail in its coffin with a 1954 recording of “Walkin’,” “Walkin’” (Davis)[Walkin (Davis)] a twelve-bar blues characterized by straight-ahead funkiness. By decade’s end, Davis was seen as an innovator once again, this time as a founding father of the hard-bop school of modern jazz. Jazz;cool jazz
Birth of the Cool recordings (Davis)

Further Reading

  • Berendt, Joachim. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond. Rev. ed. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1987. Translated by Helmut Bredigkeit, Barbara Bredigkeit, and Dan Morgenstern. In a concise discussion of jazz developments in the 1950’s, Berendt finds hard bop, which eventually undercut the cool style, creating something new without sacrificing vitality.
  • Carr, Ian. Miles Davis: A Critical Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1982. Highly recommended. Provides a detailed examination of Davis’s life and musical development. Sees Davis as responsible for many innovative approaches to jazz, one of the first being the Birth of the Cool sessions.
  • Cole, Bill. Miles Davis: A Musical Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1974. Contains a good discussion of the Birth of the Cool sessions, which, according to Cole, more than anything else established Davis as a leader.
  • Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. Davis insists that Birth of the Cool came from black musical roots, but he acknowledges that cool jazz was, unlike bop, a style of jazz that white listeners could understand and appreciate.
  • Early, Gerald, ed. Miles Davis and American Culture. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001. Compilation of scholarly essays examing Davis’s effects not only on the history of jazz but also on the larger American culture of which it is a part. Bibliographic references.
  • Lajoie, Steve. Gil Evans and Miles Davis—Historic Collaborations: An Analysis of Selected Gil Evans Works, 1957-1962. Rottenburg am Neckar, Germany: Advance Music, 2003. Based on the author’s doctoral dissertation, this extensive study looks at the collaborations between Davis and Evans during the hard-bop period. Bibliographic references; transcribes scores of several important recordings.
  • Tirro, Frank. Jazz: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Especially helpful is chapter 11, “The Fifties—A Proliferation of Styles,” which relates cool jazz to other jazz styles developed during the period.

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