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The Birth of Cool – Miles Davis Essay

The “Birth of the Cool” (original recording reissued) album is a compilation of 12 songs that helped hoist Miles Davis to possibly the most influential jazz artist of all-time. In 1947, Davis moved away from the Charlie Parker’s band, consequently becoming intrigued by the work of Gil Evans. Gil Evans had developed a laid-back, low-vibrato “cool” style, using unique instruments such as tuba and French horn. Not long after, Davis began gathering a rotating troupe of musicians to assist him in exploring potentials of this smoother, cool sound. The series of compositions this group produced over the next two years touched off the “cool jazz” movement. It also inspired dozens of musicians that would follow. The “Birth of the Cool” is unique in that the individual tracks created in 1948-1949, were not assembled and released in a collective album until the late 1950’s. And though it’s been over sixty years since the collective release of the “Birth of the Cool” album, the tracks are still acclaimed as some of the greatest jazz recordings ever made.

Howard Reich, an author with the Chicago Tribune, states that “Part of the allure of “Birth of the Cool” surely owes to the gifts of the instrumentalists” (Howard A&E). I have to agree with this reviewer’s statement. The musicians that Davis amassed to help produce the works of the “Birth of the Cool” was a truly remarkable ensemble. They formed a fluidly functioning group, using elements of both the big band and bebop styles- but fully embraced neither. Davis’s expressive, anti-virtuoso trumpet was a wonderful accompaniment to Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax. Other musicians rotating within the nonet included: French horn players, Junior Collins, Sandy Goldstein and Gunther Schuller; drummer Max Roach; pianists John Lewis, Kenny Clarke and Al Haig; bassists Al McKibbon and Joe Shulman; Lee Konitz on alto saxophone; and trombonists J.J. Johnson, Mike Zwerin and Kai Winding. Singer Kenny Hagood also complemented one track.

Nevertheless, it was the innovative arrangements, influenced by classical music techniques, which made the “Birth of the Cool” album a success and marked a major development in post-bebop jazz. These pioneering compositions were brilliantly created by a collective writing group, with Evans and Gerry Mulligan (Evans protégé) helping to write much of the material. The group kept things short and concise, keeping the focus on the tones and tunes of the tracks. This virtuosity led to elegant, relaxing, stylish mood music as the end result. This was the very thing that came to define West Coast or “cool” jazz. The repertoire would further go on to chart new territory in “big band” music, eventually leading to the quasi-orchestral music produced by Davis and Evans in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

There are twelve tracks that make up the compilation of the “Birth of the Cool” album. These 12 tracks can be further broken into four groups: The first group comprising of two fast tempo pieces; the next grouping comprising of five upbeat pieces; the third grouping of three bluesy feel tracks; and, lastly, the two slow tempo ballad pieces: 1) “Move” is a cool, fast-tempo, swinging style track with innovative harmonies. 2) “Budo” is short in duration, but is very fast and energetic- Miles, Konitz and Winding all deliver great solo parts.

1) “Jeru” the quintessence of cool jazz wherein Miles and Gerry show off their soloing abilities playing with precision and confidence. 2) “Deception” is a very up-beat piece incorporating the ride cymbals and walking bass with a kind of tension-building theme sequence. It has a great solo from Miles. 3) “Godchild” another up-beat piece has an exciting swing style ambience. All the lower instruments contribute to it, making it a fun, playful track. Miles and Winding offer nice solos as well. 4) “Rocker” is an up-beat, yet, piano-less piece that utilizes the ride cymbals. Mulligan creates some soft dissonances as the voices move, but it happens so fast that it isn’t disconcerting to the listener. 5) “Rouge” is a very fun piece with string bass and a distinct piano solo.

1) “Venus De Milo” has a fairly laid-back Latin feel. This tune was just nice to sit back and listen to with wonderful melody and harmony. 2) “Boplicity” is a masterful arrangement that seems vaster than nine musicians. Mulligan starts with a great sax solo and Miles leads in with the group and then heads into playing a fine solo. 3) “Israel” is very powerful in structure and composition. This song blends the traditional blues with modern harmony (some of the chords are dissonant clusters) and counterpoint. There is a trumpet solo by Davis.

1) “Moon Dreams” is a ballad played with a slow solemnity that makes it a classic. The ensemble playing of this piece is beautiful. 2) Kenny Hagood’s vocal feature titled “Darn That Dream.” This piece has a slow tempo, accompanied by a piano playing in the background throughout the song. In the middle composition is an outstanding solo by Miles.

It is hard to pick a favorite track in such a brilliant production. However, one particular piece- “Move”- hangs in my mind as it has the unique feature of paired instrumentation. In “Move” melody is provided with the pairing of alto saxophone and trumpet; the baritone saxophone and tuba supply counterpoint; and the trombone and French horn deliver harmonies. Move reflects the band’s chemistry and the arrangement is very innovative. It is an arrangement that could naturally carry solos and Miles, Konitz and Roach deliver them well. Another mentionable piece is “Budo.” Though this album is commonly viewed as a departure from traditional bop, a few of the tracks, to include “Budo” do feature tunes that are considered close to the bop style. “Budo” takes the classic bebop tune and plays it cool. “Budo” also has the band bookending solos by Davis, Mulligan, Konitz, and Winding, which is similar to a bebop head arrangement.

Throughout time, “Birth of Cool” has had a few detractors who’ve dismissed it as ‘boring’ and ‘bland.’ However, in my research, the majority of listeners have really been taken by what Davis and his nonet accomplished. Howard Reich wrote: “Birth of the Cool” became a cultural phenomenon – crystallizing the transition from explosive, 1940s bebop to 1950s cool” (Howard A&E). Thus, for any fan of Jazz, Classical or Miles- you must buy this album. Miles Davis certainly changed the music world completely when these recordings came out…and this album will still certainly make an impact upon any present day listener.


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