Music: When the temperature dropped

Fifty years ago, a radical young trumpeter called Miles Davis met the experienced arranger Gil Evans. Their collaboration gave rise to The Birth of the Cool. Jazz (and life in general) has never been the same since.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
COOL - YOUNG people like to think they've invented it, along with sex. But although the use of the word "cool" as a term of approbation goes back a long way - at least as far as James Boswell, who once referred to the "cool thousand" he was being paid for the Johnson biography - its widespread use to describe a certain stance in popular culture is exactly 50 years old. In 1949, the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis self-consciously took the cool aesthetic and applied it to music.

New musical schools are rarely conscious inventions. But the music that the Miles Davis's nonet laid down in three recording sessions for Capitol in 1949 and 1950 was so clearly intended as a break with the past that the episode almost resembles a musical ambush. Besides the recording sessions, the group played just two short club residencies and disbanded, leaving jazz altered for ever. This achievement says something about Davis's bloody-minded commitment to musical progress: "I have to change," he once said; "it's like a curse."

The milieu that produced these records was the frenetic post-war New York jazz scene. Modern jazz - bebop - had emerged from the clubs of up- and mid-town and turned easy-going swing into a difficult, predominately black, hipster's music. Bebop was intense: tempi were fast, melodies asymmetrical, rhythms fragmented. The young Miles Davis was playing with the saxophone architect of bebop, Charlie Parker, and "quitting every night" in the shade of the alto-player's genius.

But,whatever his admiration for Parker, Davis was looking for other musical solutions. With a group of mainly white arrangers and musicians, he started to think in terms of moving the music on by abstracting its innovations, of distilling its essence. Davis's key partner was to be a man almost his social opposite, a rural white Canadian called Gil Evans. Gentle, thoughtful and an experienced arranger, Evans was creating luminous sound pictures for an adventurous but unsuccessful group led by Claude Thornhill. In Evans's work Miles heard the sounds he was looking for.

The new nine-piece played a stint at the Royal Roost club and flopped. Only the musicians took note; a radio broadcast of the time shows an audience so uninterested that they forget to clap. The music was largely medium tempo, the soloing restrained, lagging behind the beat. But it is the ensemble writing that is striking: the cool tonalities created by the soft sounds of the French horn and Davis's trumpet, and the arrhythmic wanderings of the tuba against the clip of Max Roach's drums served to create an "ice and fire" feel that was quite new. But it remained a musicians' secret. The trombonist Mike Zwerin remembers, "It did not seem historic or legendary. We certainly did not have the impression that those two weeks would give birth to an entire style."

Fortunately Capitol records were interested and in January 1949 the group recorded the first of a series of sides for the label. The song titles are a clue to the sessions' mood of abstraction and restraint: "Jeru", "Venus de Milo", "Boplicity", "Moon Dreams"; through them all rides Davis's melodic, buttery trumpet. The music, first released as 78-rpm singles, came out on a 10-in LP and then a 12-in with the title Birth of the Cool. The consequences of Davis's work were both musical and more broadly cultural.

Jazz musicians, particularly whites on the West Coast, seized on the new sounds and refined them in the first half of the Fifties. Names such as Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan (who had played in the Birth of the Cool band) emerged not only as important musical voices but also as bankable acts with big followings, especially on campus. Cool Jazz might be hip, but it was not scary. It was the sonorities of the Cool School that seeped into the sound-track sessions of Hollywood and TV - when black musicians were often barred from key studio jobs.

Cool Jazz could be heard on the sound-tracks of Rebel without a Cause and The Wild One; records such as "Take Five" flirted with pop success. Back in New York, the blind pianist Lennie Tristano took the abstraction and emotional restraint of the music to new levels, gathering a hub of like-minded musicians, including the British bass player Peter Ind, later owner of London's Bass Clef jazz club. The Brazilian composer Jobim was attracted by a jazz sound that had a sweetness that married with the Samba, and became an ingredient of bossa nova. Davis himself did not dwell on his achievement. His cool playing became just one element of his developing style, a mood that would re-emerge in his music from time to time, such as in 1959's Kind of Blue and 1969's In a Silent Way.

But at the same time he came to personify the new culture of cool. At a time when stage mugging and minstrelsy were still a recent memory, he showed that a black artist in America could be aloof, disdainful, and wealthy. He dressed in Italian suits, drove a Ferrari, lived an Esquire magazine lifestyle. His cool was about control; all the emotion went into the music. And it was the music that mattered. For example, Miles was always colour-blind when he employed musicians, and would never choose a black musician over a white simply for racial solidarity. "White musicians usually are overtrained, and black musicians sometimes are under-trained," he once said. "You have to mix the two."

Like any idea that becomes popularised, cool became diluted and, in the Sixties, a loose, hippie word. Miles seemed to become less cool, too. Faced with the growth of rock and the eclipse of jazz, he dropped the suits and started dressing like his new audience. On a bill with Neil Young and Steve Miller at New York's Fillmore West in 1970, he started moving with his trumpet as Hendrix did with his guitar, ducking, swaying, playing at the floor and at the ceiling. The audience responded warmly, but older fans were appalled. Davis's music was approaching a heavy rock dead end that saw him retire in 1975. It would be a more relaxed, easy-going Miles who returned for the memorable comeback shows of the Eighties.

Fifty years on from Birth of the Cool (and eight since Davis's death), cool is cheap: everyone wants it and everyone can have it, off the peg. It's a haircut or the badge on a bag. Davis's cool was different: it was earned. Miles took the popular perception of the trumpet away from Louis Armstrong and into explorations of muted loneliness, harmonic ambiguity and ecstatic funk; made modern jazz relevant by refusing to accept that it wasn't. He was the black figurehead who employed whites, the man who got rich playing uncommercial music.

Following his own tyrannical intuition, he piloted jazz for at least 30 years, which leaves us with a paradox. You don't make records that good by worrying about how you look or how you're perceived. Having made the rules of cool, Miles probably ended up breaking them all. Now that is cool.

Cool Rulers

John Martyn: Solid Air

Legendary languor with Martyn's inimitable sleep-talk vocals, and jazz contributions from the saxophonist Tony Coe.

Gerry Mulligan:

Night Lights

The seminal, late-night jazz album, with delicate soloing from trumpeter Art Farmer and guitarist Jim Hall.

Everything But The Girl: Eden

The pop-era reunion of jazz and bossa nova.

Lennie Tristano: Crosscurrents

Abstract, icy piano explorations from the man who wanted jazz to have "less emotion, more feeling".

Joao Gilberto: Joao

Davis said "he would sound good reading a phone book"; this bossa album's orchestrations hark back to Miles Davis's circa 1949.

Gil Evans: Out of the Cool

Davis's favourite arranger with his own band and superb, dark and moody music.

Massive Attack:

Blue Lines

Proof positive that hip-hop could be about more than braggadacio and backbeats; some of the rhythms echo Davis's "In a Silent Way".

Bill Evans: Live At The Village Vanguard

No relation to Gil, this Evans was another Davis favourite and here the pianist is at his introspective best.

Stan Getz: Apasionado

Called "The Sound" because of his lush saxophone voice, Getz's last album proved that he had lost nothing in 40 years of cool.

Marvin Gaye: I Want You

Laid-back as a king-size bed, smooth as silk sheets; there is a wealth of arranging skill and harmonic depth on the great singer's soft-soul classic.