Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cool Born from Bebop

One of the more interesting side effects of my reading Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s was that it sent me back to giving a more serious listening to Birth of the Cool, the album that Miles Davis recorded for Capitol before going over to Blue Note. This was originally the title (apparently coined by Pete Rugolo) of a 12" LP of performances by what was called the Miles Davis Nonet. Eight of those recordings had been previously issued on a 10" LP in Capitol's Classics in Jazz series. The later release included three omitted instrumental tracks and one vocal ("Darn That Dream," sung by Kenny Hagood).

While there is no question that Miles was the leader for the three recording sessions (January 21, 1949, April 22, 1949, and March 9, 1950), I feel that the most important thing about the entire project was how much of a joint effort it was. Miles is sole composer of only one track, "Deception;" and he shares "Budo" with Bud Powell. Just "by the numbers," Gerry Mulligan would have to be counted as "principal composer," since he is responsible for three tracks ("Jeru," "Venus de Milo," and "Rocker"). Just as important is the contribution of John Lewis ("Rouge"); but the real sin of omission is the absence of Gil Evans' name from any of the basic credits. In the CD release one has to delve into the notes by Pete Welding to appreciate the role that Evans played, along with Miles, Mulligan, and Lewis in the birth of the Nonet and its subsequent recording sessions.

If we want to extend the birth metaphor to cool itself, then we might do well to consider it in terms of parentage. From this point of view one parent will be the small groups led by Charlie Parker and the other would be the characteristic big band sound from Claude Thornhill through the combination of his particular assembly of instruments and Evans' arrangements for that assembly. The Miles Davis Nonet thus inherited the genes of both the "Parker size" and the "Thornhill size." The CD also includes a "Special Note by Gerry Mulligan" that credits even more contributors. Most important in Mulligan's list is the presence of George Russell, described as one of the "more-or-less regulars at Gil's" and, in those early days, another arranger for Thornhill (not to mention Dizzy Gillespie's big band for which he arranged "Cubana Be" and "Cubana Bop"). Of those who appreciate just how many people were involved in the formation of the Nonet, Mulligan is definitely the most comprehensive and generous when it comes to giving credit where credit is due.

Beyond the fact that the ensemble is a nonet, the most interesting thing about it is its instrumentation. Mulligan's baritone sax shares responsibility for the bass line with a tuba played by John William (Bill) Barber, who, like Mulligan, came over from Thornhill's band. Then there was the decision to include a French horn, whose player changed in each of the three recording sessions (Junior Collins, Sandy Siegelstein, and Gunther Schuller, in the order of the recording dates). The result was a richness of sound that owed as much to Igor Stravinsky (whose name appears frequently in Gitler's oral history) as to the evolution of jazz in the forties.

The other side of the coin, however, is that, as those sounds were being explored, there was a certain sameness in how they established that "cool" mood from one track to the next. Diversity would emerge later, for Davis and Evans in their studio collaborations for Columbia. Birth of the Cool had more to do with accepting the nonet instrumentation as a premise and then homing in on its expressiveness with a very keen sense of refinement. Thus, as projects go, it was its own beginning and its own ending. After that all those who contributed would move on to other things, taking their experiences from the three recording sessions in different directions. From this point of view, that birth metaphor may be inappropriate; because what was "born" did not experience the sort of "maturation" that Gitler had documented in his oral history or that we would encounter in the subsequent period of the emergence and refinement of the free jazz movement (choosing that example because today happens to be Ornette Coleman's birthday, as well as Samuel Barber's). Birth of the Cool is a document of three splendid moments; but it did not declare the beginning of a "new era," as we might say, in classical music, of the opening measures of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde or the riot that greeted Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. We can listen to it appreciatively, but we should also listen with a sense of historical context.

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