THE DOZENS: THE BIRTH OF THE COOL by Jeff Sultanof

The Birth of the Cool

On September 4, 1948, a live broadcast from the Royal Roost featured a group led by trumpeter Miles Davis. This was not a quartet, and Charlie Parker was nowhere to be found. This was a nine-piece all-star ensemble with arrangements by some of the top young writers on the scene. Its instrumentation was a bit unusual, and the musicians had to work hard to make the music sound right. They did, and it did.

Thanks to Pete Rugolo and Walter Rivers at Capitol Records, 12 sides were recorded over a 15-month period. By March 9, 1950, the date of the final session, the musicians had moved on to different groups (although they played together at Birdland one last time at the end of the month with Bud Powell on piano). Capitol released only a few of the tracks, and there the story might have ended. Except that after eight of the tunes were collected on a 10” LP in 1954 called Birth of the Cool, they were heard all over the world, were embraced by musicians and arrangers, and sent shock waves through the critical community. These pieces remain among the most widely discussed, imitated, analyzed and transcribed in the history of ensemble jazz.

Pretty good for a group that was only going to be a rehearsal band.

The Nonet’s working thesis was that a small band could sound like the Claude Thornhill orchestra. Claude, a fine arranger himself, conceived the idea of adding French horns and tuba to the standard big band instrumentation, resulting in a warm, dreamy sound under his gentle piano stylings. From 1941 until Thornhill joined the Navy, Gil Evans was his chief arranger. After the war, Evans rejoined and turned the ensemble into one of the most admired bands of the time, its repertoire drawing from pop songs, classical themes, and the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. By 1948, Evans had left Thornhill and kept a small apartment where musicians of all ages came to hang out, sleep, argue and study scores that Gil borrowed from the library. Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, John Carisi and George Russell were regulars and joined in the spirited conversations about politics, chord changes, arranging and composition. Eventually they decided to put a band together to try out their ideas.

When discussion began as to who should play in the band, Miles Davis was suggested to fill the trumpet chair. Davis ran with the idea, organized rehearsals and secured the gig at the Roost. The arrangers were never paid for their work, but were thrilled to put this music before the public.

Although 11 of the recordings have never been out of print since 1957, broadcasts from the Roost were not issued legally until 1998, after years of bootleg releases. Most of the actual parts for the repertoire remained in Davis’s possession and were later put in storage. This writer was able to examine the instrumental parts in late 1996, and after extensive editing, produced a score folio that was published by Hal Leonard in 2002. Study of these original documents answered a lot of musical questions, as well as verifying that the arrangers copied their own parts.

Besides documenting the early solo stylings of the band members, as well as the early writing styles of Mulligan, Lewis and Carisi, Birth of the Cool confirms that by 1949, with the shift away from big bands, ensemble jazz had embarked on an important new path of exploration.


Miles Davis: Boplicity

Track

Boplicity

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), John Lewis (piano), Kenny Clarke (drums),

Sandy Siegelstein (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Nelson Boyd (bass)

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Composed by Gil Evans and Miles Davis. Arranged by Gil Evans

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Recorded: New York, April 22, 1949

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Even though Gil Evans was one of the chief architects of what became the Miles Davis Nonet, he provided only two arrangements for the ensemble, including this piece which he co-wrote but for some reason was never so credited. As he'd already demonstrated in writing for Claude Thornhill's big band, Evans was an orchestrational and contrapuntal master. "Boplicity" provides further proof: instrumental parts that are carefully crafted, beautiful to play and sound improvised, yet together result in a rich-textured ensemble that seems bigger than nine musicians. Mulligan, Davis and Lewis solo (although the short trumpet solo at 1:36 is fully notated). Decades later, this piece came up missing from Miles Davis's collection of scores; luckily Evans gave Gunther Schuller copies of the parts.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Budo

Track

Budo

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Kai Winding (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Max Roach (drums),

Addison “Junior” Collins (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Al Haig (piano), Joe Shulman (bass)

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Composed by Bud Powell and Miles Davis. Arranged by John Lewis

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Recorded: New York, January 21, 1949

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Pronounced Bud-o and not Boo-do, this composition is also known under the title "Hallucinations." After a series of rhythmic parallel dissonant chords interspersed with fills by Roach, the ensemble plays one of the most boppish pieces in the BOTC repertoire. Even though the ensemble playing is a bit sloppy at times, this track is certainly exciting. Davis, Mulligan, Konitz, Winding and Roach are featured.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Darn That Dream

Track

Darn That Dream

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), John Lewis (piano), Max Roach (drums),

Kenny Hagood (vocals), Gunther Schuller (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Al McKibbon (bass)

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Composed by Eddie DeLange & Jimmy Van Heusen. Arranged by Gerry Mulligan

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Recorded: New York, March 9, 1950

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 70/100 (learn more)

The only real "dog" in the Birth of the Cool catalog, this track remained unavailable for many years until it was finally dug out of the vault in 1972 for a "complete" LP release in Holland. Singer Kenny Hagood is not at his best, and the ensemble playing of Gerry Mulligan's indifferent score is lackluster and tired. It is a real pity that Mulligan's "Joost at the Roost" was not recorded instead.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Godchild

Track

Godchild

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Kai Winding (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Max Roach (drums),

Addison “Junior” Collins (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Al Haig (piano), Joe Shulman (bass)

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Composed by George Wallington. Arranged by Gerry Mulligan

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Recorded: New York, January 21, 1949

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

One of the most popular jazz compositions of its era, "Godchild" boasts a wonderful Gerry Mulligan arrangement with very clever touches. Taking a cue from Gil Evans (who was an important influence on Mulligan during this era), Gerry focused more on individual part writing versus block harmonic writing. This contrapuntal approach not only influenced such later writers as Bill Holman, it freed Mulligan himself from slavishly following a stated harmony. He also plays with time signatures; a 2/4 bar in the turnaround is a refreshing touch. In an arrangement that was opened up for solos, Davis, Mulligan and Winding are heard.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Israel

Track

Israel

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), John Lewis (piano), Kenny Clarke (drums),

Sandy Siegelstein (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Nelson Boyd (bass)

.

Composed by John Carisi

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Recorded: New York, April 22, 1949

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

John Carisi and George Russell were the resident "ultramoderns" in the group that hung out at Gil Evans's midtown Manhattan pad in the late 1940s. Russell's only composition for this band exists but does not seem to have been played publicly. Carisi was one of the few white musicians who jammed at Minton's during the early years of bebop, and was studying composition with Stephan Wolpe while hanging out with Evans and company. In the one musical contribution he made to this ensemble, Carisi blended the traditional blues with modern harmony (some of the chords are dissonant clusters) and counterpoint, with solos for Davis and Konitz. "Israel" became a standard in the jazz repertoire, and Carisi would later arrange it for Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. John later taught at Queens College, part of the City University of New York, where this writer studied composition with him.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Jeru

Track

Jeru

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Kai Winding (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Max Roach (drums),

Addison “Junior” Collins (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Al Haig (piano), Joe Shulman (bass)

.

Composed by Gerry Mulligan

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Recorded: New York, January 21, 1949

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Gerry Mulligan wrote more music for this ensemble than any other writer save John Lewis, and most of his contributions were played and recorded. "Jeru" is another example of Mulligan expanding his linear thinking, the harmony derived from the part writing rather than chordal blocks. Mulligan also indulges in changing time signatures the 12-bar bridge is written as one 4/4 bar, one 3/4, one 2/4, four 3/4, one 6/4 and finally four bars of 4/4. The band obviously rehearsed this piece carefully, as they play this section with authority and confidence. Davis and Mulligan solo. Mulligan would write a version of this piece for Claude Thornhill's band, although a recording for Trend has a cut that misrepresents the arrangement.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Moon Dreams (live)

Track

Moon Dreams (live)

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

The Complete Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz 94550)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Max Roach (drums),

Mike Zwerin (trombone), Addison “Junior” Collins (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Al McKibbon (bass)

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Composed by Johnny Mercer & Chalmers MacGregor. Arranged by Gil Evans

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Recorded: live at the Royal Roost, New York, September 4, 1948

Albumcovermilesdavis-thecompletebirthofthecool

Rating: 84/100 (learn more)

Claude Thornhill's big band featured extended medleys for dancing. One of these, arranged by Gil Evans, consisted of "Easy Living," "Everything Happens to Me," and "Moon Dreams." Extracted for what was perhaps the Miles Davis Nonet's first arrangement, "Moon Dreams" is essentially a re-orchestration of Gil's Thornhill arrangement, with a few changes in harmony. Incidentally, Evans originally envisioned clarinet instead of alto sax in the instrumentation, and while such a part exists, the Nonet (here actually an octet with pianist John Lewis sitting out) settled on alto sax. This live recording comes from a broadcast at the Royal Roost during the ensemble's only extended live gig. The band never did play this arrangement one of Evans's most dissonant settings to that time correctly; when it was over, audiences must have been totally bewildered.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Move

Track

Move

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Kai Winding (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Max Roach (drums),

Addison “Junior” Collins (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Al Haig (piano), Joe Shulman (bass)

.

Composed by Denzil Best. Arranged by John Lewis

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Recorded: New York, January 21, 1949

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Written by drummer Denzil Best, this is one of the Birth of the Cool arrangements that could be naturally opened up for solos, and Miles, Konitz and Roach deliver. Arranger John Lewis writes driving musical figures with economy of orchestration, and it says a great deal about Collins and Barber that they could play such exciting musical lines on instruments that "spoke" slowly one of the challenges this ensemble had to rise above. That they did it so well is a testament to the excellence of these musicians.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Rocker

Track

Rocker

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), John Lewis (piano), Max Roach (drums),

Gunther Schuller (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Al McKibbon (bass)

.

Composed by Gerry Mulligan

.

Recorded: New York, March 9, 1950

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

"Rocker" exemplifies Gerry Mulligan's linear thinking versus chordal block writing. ("Thank goodness," he once told me, "I was never a slave to chord changes.") Gerry creates some soft dissonances as the voices move, but they go by so quickly so that the ear is not disturbed by the sound, and hears a non-moving melody against moving parts. Mulligan later arranged this for Charlie Parker with strings, and wrote a big band version for Elliot Lawrence (although he complained that the tempo on the Lawrence recording was too fast). Davis, Konitz and Mulligan solo. And just to set the record straight, "Rock Salt" was the original title of this piece, according to a conversation I had with its composer in 1995 when I prepared lead sheets of his music for a play-along book-CD project.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Rouge

Track

Rouge

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), John Lewis (piano), Kenny Clarke (drums),

Sandy Siegelstein (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Nelson Boyd (bass)

.

Composed by John Lewis

.

Recorded: New York, April 22, 1949

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

John Lewis throws us off track at the beginning of this charming piece by not only writing an introduction in 3/4, but starting it on beat three. Soon the piece goes into 4/4 and really swings. Technically an exercise in half-step cadence movement, some of the writing is awkward, particularly during the second measure of the bridge. Lewis later corrected this for the 1991 album Re-Birth of the Cool, and that became the definitive version. Lewis also used part of the chordal structure of "Rouge" for "The Queen's Fancy," recorded in 1954 by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Solos here are by Lewis, Konitz, Miles and Clarke.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: S'il Vous Plait

Track

S'il Vous Plait

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

The Complete Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz 94550)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), John Lewis (piano), Max Roach (drums),

Mike Zwerin (trombone), Addison “Junior” Collins (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Al McKibbon (bass)

.

Composed by John Lewis

.

Recorded: live at the Royal Roost, New York, September 4, 1948

Albumcovermilesdavis-thecompletebirthofthecool

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

When I was preparing edited scores for the Birth of the Cool folio, one of my hopes was that enough parts still existed for John Lewis's "S'il Vous Plait" so that it could be included. Alas, this was not the case and the title had to be dropped. Lewis's blues with a bridge is an up-tempo piece that could be opened for solo space, and on this occasion, Konitz, Davis and Mulligan (a bit awkward here) really jump.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


Miles Davis: Venus De Milo

Track

Venus De Milo

Group

Miles Davis Nonet

CD

Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz RVG Edition 30117)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), John Lewis (piano), Kenny Clarke (drums),

Sandy Siegelstein (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Nelson Boyd (bass)

.

Composed by Gerry Mulligan

.

Recorded: New York, April 22, 1949

Albumcovermilesdavis-birthofthecool

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Gerry Mulligan began his career writing for local bands in Philadelphia, then hit the big time playing and writing for the Gene Krupa Orchestra. Krupa thought him a bit brash and cocky, but loved his music and played everything he wrote. (A dozen such arrangements were recorded for Verve in 1958, and sound just as fresh as when first played.) It was clear that Mulligan was a major compositional voice, and Gil Evans convinced him to move to New York and got him a gig writing for Claude Thornhill. Mulligan later said that Evans was his last important influence. One of the few pieces for the Miles Davis Nonet that Mulligan never redid later for big band, "Venus De Milo" is an elegant gem, spontaneous sounding, yet with every musical element carefully chosen. Davis is featured, as well as Mulligan himself. (Lee Konitz's 16-bar solo before Mulligan's was cut for the recording.) As an improviser, Mulligan was still finding his way, and his solo is a bit awkward. By 1952, however, when he joined forces with Chet Baker on the West Coast, Gerry had become an instrumental master as well.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof


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