top of page

Birth Of The Cool:
75 Years On

by Robin Kidson

Birth_of_the_Cool 2.jpg

75 years ago, a group of musicians went into a recording studio in New York City and laid down the tracks which were later collected together under the heading, Birth Of The Cool. The tracks introduced a new sound into jazz and spawned a whole movement which dominated much of the 1950s jazz scene.


The musicians didn’t consciously intend to invent “the cool” though they were aware that what they were doing was something new. In part, they were reacting against aspects of bebop, the cutting edge of jazz in the 1940s. Bebop was the sometimes frenetic, often complex music played by incredibly skilled performers such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and relying much on improvisation. When it came blazing out of the clubs of New York  and Kansas City during the Second World War, it must have seemed like a breath of fresh air after the increasing commercialism and sentimentality of Swing. But by the late 1940s, some of the novelty and sheen was rubbing off. Technical virtuosity and the urge to want to cram as many notes into the bar as possible sometimes seemed to trump melody and a greater – and, perhaps, more satisfying - variation of texture and tone.


One musician beginning to recognise the limitations of bebop was trumpeter, Miles Davis. He had been there at the very beginnings of bebop and was a key member of Charlie Parker’s Quartet from 1944 to 1948. He began to develop his own style of playing. He couldn’t really match the dexterity of Dizzy Gillespie – though he came pretty close. On the other hand, he was beginning to realise that you didn’t need to play with Dizzy’s intensity to make great inventive music.


Other musicians were coming to similar conclusions including composer and arranger, Gil Evans. Evans worked as an arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra between 1941 and 1948. On the surface, the Orchestra was a conventional dance band but Thornhill was interested in incorporating other influences into his music including modern classical music. He used unusual combinations of instruments and also experimented with arrangements of bebop standards. The result was a music which was both easy listening and inventive enough to attract the admiration of some of the best jazz minds of the day – including Miles Davis. Here is Thornhill’s Orchestra in 1947 with a particular favourite of Miles – a Gil Evans arrangement of Robbin’s Nest:

Around 1947, a group of musicians started meeting together in Gil Evans’s New York apartment, all with similar ideas for moving beyond bebop. These included people like Max Roach, J.J Johnson and John Lewis who had played with Bird and Diz and were well versed in the bebop arts. They were joined by musicians from Claude Thornhill’s band like baritone saxophonist and arranger, Gerry Mulligan, and alto saxophonist, Lee Konitz. Miles Davis also began joining in their discussions.


In 1948, frustrated by both Bird’s increasingly erratic behavior and the constraints of bebop, Miles left Charlie Parker’s Quartet. Claude Thornhill’s Orchestra also disbanded. These events gave an added impetus to Gil Evans’ informal seminars. Miles assumed the role of leader and ideas began to take a solid musical form. One of the ideas was to try to sound like Thornhill but not with a full big band. “We wanted that sound”, said Miles, “but the difference was that we wanted it as small as possible”. They worked out that nine instruments (a nonet) would be sufficient: trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto sax, baritone sax, piano, bass and drums. “Miles…took the initiative”, recalled Gerry Mulligan, “and put the theories to work. He called the rehearsals, hired the halls, called the players, and generally cracked the whip”. And so, what became known as the Miles Davis Nonet came into being.


In September 1948, the Miles Davis Nonet appeared in public for the first time with a two week engagement at the Royal Roost in New York. There were also other brief engagements later in the year. Capitol Records was sufficiently interested in the Nonet to ask it to record twelve tracks. The contract was fulfilled over three recording sessions in January and April 1949 and in March 1950. These sessions 75 years ago resulted in the tracks that eventually became known as the “Birth Of The Cool”.

Gerry Mulligan composed and arranged three of the tracks: Jeru, Venus De Milo and Rocker. He also arranged three others: Deception, a Miles Davis composition, Godchild, by bebop musician George Wallington, and the standard, Darn That Dream, which also featured a vocal by Kenny Hagood. John Lewis arranged three tracks: Move (by another bebopper, Denzil Best), Budo (a joint effort by Miles and Bud Powell), and his own composition, Rouge. Gil Evans arranged the standard, Moon Dreams, and Boplicity, which he also wrote in collaboration with Miles. Trumpeter, Johnny Carisi both composed and arranged Israel. Here is Gerry Mulligan's Jeru:

Several different musicians made up the Nonet over the recording sessions but there was a stable core of Miles on trumpet, Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax) and Lee Konitz (alto sax). The recordings were released by Capitol in a series of singles through 1949 and 1950. They were immediately recognised by fellow musicians and critics as a new development in jazz, taking some of the innovations of bebop and combining that with modern classical orchestral music to produce something that relied less on improvisation and more on richly textured and often complex arrangements. Indeed, Miles regarded the arrangers as important as the performers and insisted on them being credited upfront so that the group was billed as “Miles Davis’s Nonet: Arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and John Lewis”.


Despite critical approval, the singles did not sell well and the Nonet disbanded. However, some of the musicians took what they’d learned and applied it in other settings. Gerry Mulligan, for example, moved to the West Coast and formed a pianoless quartet with Chet Baker on trumpet. Here is a slightly later version of Mulligan’s Quartet in 1962 playing Open Country with Mulligan on baritone, Bob Brookmeyer (trombone), Wyatt Ruther (bass) and Gus Johnson (drums):

Mulligan inspired others in California and a movement called “West Coast Jazz” was born. Dave Brubeck was one of many musicians who came to be associated with this. Another Nonet member, pianist, composer and arranger, John Lewis, formed the Modern Jazz Quartet in the early 1950s which, again, developed a sound not unlike that of the Nonet with an extensive use of fugue and counterpoint to the extent that the Quartet often seemed more of a classical music chamber group than a jazz band.


The music of Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Dave Brubeck and others achieved a success which went far beyond a narrow jazz audience. The term “cool” began to be applied both to the music and a distinctive style associated with it. Cool musicians were serious, handsome (Chet Baker even became a pin-up for a while), well dressed in a conservative sort of way, and self-contained with a kind of ironic detachment which appeared to make no concessions to its audience. Fans of cool music adopted this cool style.


As for Miles Davis, he spent the early part of the fifties as a junkie drifting aimlessly. By a considerable effort of will, he got himself clean and returned to the jazz scene with a renewed vigour. Never one to stand still, his music was beginning to shift away from “cool”. But in his lifestyle, attitudes and appearance, he was the absolute epitome of cool with his smart suits, sunglasses and a reputation for being difficult and often aggressive. Part of the image was carefully contrived with Miles increasingly aware that the admen had penetrated even jazz and the music needed to be marketed in new and striking ways. “How’d I look?”, he would ask as he came off the bandstand, not “How’d I play?”

Some of the tracks recorded by the Miles Davis Nonet were collected together and released as an LP in 1954 but, as with the singles, did not sell well. But in 1957, at the height of the popularity of cool jazz and its accompanying aesthetic, and in a move which owed more to marketing than art, Capitol released all but one of the 12 original tracks in a compilation LP labelled as Birth Of The Cool. The cover showed Miles in shades and arty black and white the coolest of cool dudes. It was an astute move on Capitol’s part because the LP sold much better than previous releases.


Birth Of The Cool has continued to be popular and, since 1957, has been reissued in any number of different combinations and formats. I have two versions – one is a vinyl LP which must be at least 40 years old with sleeve notes by Ian Carr, Miles’s British biographer and a fine trumpeter in his own right. The other is a CD from 2001 with comprehensive liner notes by Pete Welding. It also has art work and photos from the original 1949/50 recordings. Miles is portrayed as young and enthusiastic with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, a million miles from the later cool image. A photo of one of the recording sessions is particularly striking. It shows Miles, the Afro-American, standing and playing his trumpet surrounded by a host of other musicians, all of them white. He is clearly in charge and I wonder in how many activities in 1940s America could one see young white people being willingly led by a black man.

Birth Of The Cool, and the cool jazz movement it inspired, is not without its critics of course. Its music is often characterised as bland and insipid – “sounds chilled to a gelid state, drained of every ounce of funk” in the words of Ross Russell; “watered down jazz for white boys”. But, listening to Birth Of The Cool now in 2024, 75 years on from those first recordings, one of its most striking features isn’t coolness but warmth – indeed, the temperature at times is decidedly hot. This is joyous music played with enthusiasm, verve and funk aplenty. In many respects, it’s not that far removed from bebop, despite supposedly being a reaction to that form. This isn’t perhaps surprising given the background of many of the musicians, including Miles.


The bebop influence is strongest on the faster tempo numbers such as Move and Budo. However, where Birth Of The Cool departs from bebop is in the way the music relies on careful arrangements rather than on improvised solos. It is bebop organised and structured - bebop tamed if you like - but that doesn’t mean a watering down; on the contrary, it reveals new more interesting possibilities, more satisfying complexities. The intricate arrangements blend the different instruments together in compelling ways. The key element here is the ensemble and not the soloist. It’s music which relies on co-operation between performers working together in unison rather than on individuals competing with each other for attention. Any solos are very short and are integrated smoothly into the overall arrangement. “I looked at the group like it was a choir”, said Miles, “I wanted the instruments to sound like human voices, and they did”. You can listen to Move here:

The other tracks on Birth Of The Cool are taken at a slower pace than Move and Budo but they are still full of life and emotion. They gently swing in a deceptively relaxed way but, underneath, the musicians are having to work hard on the often complex arrangements. On Boplicity, for example, whose title is another nod to bebop, the instruments might be playing different things and making different sounds but the overall effect is like a machine whose working parts are moving together perfectly. Listen to Boplicity here:

The instrumentation on Birth Of The Cool leans towards the lower parts of the register which makes for a satisfyingly rich sound. On tracks like Venus de Milo and Godchild, for example, the tuba, French horn, trombone and baritone all combine wonderfully to create a deep resonant mood.


The slowest piece on the album is a Gil Evans arrangement of the standard, Moon Dreams. This also comes closest perhaps to emulating the Claude Thornhill sound. It begins smoothly, making a sound which could almost have come from the Glenn Miller era but then dissolves into a slightly discordant, gently chaotic free-for-all which is emblematic of the way in which Birth Of The Cool continually surprises and delights. Listen to Moon Dreams here:

Arguably, the most complete realisation of the principles worked out in Gil Evans’s apartment in 1948/49 didn’t come with the music of Mulligan, Brubeck and the MJQ but with the three great studio albums which Miles Davis and Gil Evans put together between 1957 and 1960:  Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. These have transcended the usual boundaries to become some of the glories of twentieth century music - reason enough to celebrate the 75th anniversary of their progenitor if it wasn’t also for the fact that Birth Of The Cool and its sound has insinuated itself into so much of modern day jazz, pop, rock and even some classical music. So, time to raise your glasses to the cool; Happy 75th Birthday!

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2024

bottom of page