A history of cool jazz in 100 tracks

Edited by Ted Gioia

Night at the Club by Thomas Andersen

                    Night at the Club
           Artwork by Thomas Andersen

The term "cool jazz" was rarely used by jazz fans until the middle of 20th century. In earlier decades, the phrase itself would have probably struck most listeners as a strange one. Back then, jazz was often simply called "hot music" by the public, and the idea that it could also be "cool" went against the grain.

Yet almost from the start, a few musicians were experimenting with ways of tempering the intensity of jazz. They did this by a variety of methods. Sometimes they tinkered with the beat, or imposed tight formal structures on the music, or worked on new ways of constructing phrases. They might adopt cerebral poses or confess their deepest emotions with heart-on-sleeves intimacy. But no matter the stratagem, the goal was always the same: to lower the temperature of the music and bring out different qualities in jazz—expressive elements that might be lost in a hotter, more unfettered performance style.

Today jazz is still hot music—at least, most of the time. The cool sensibility has never been dominant, although for a period in the 1950s it seemed to be on the brink of establishing itself as at least equal to "the hot" in terms of influence and popularity. Those glory days of the so-called "cool school" proved to be a short-lived moment of prominence, although it is worth pointing out that many of the most beloved (and biggest-selling) albums in the history of jazz were the result of this flowering of a less extroverted sensibility.

The Birth (and Death) of the Cool

Despite its importance, cool jazz has never been defined with any great precision, and many have debated which artists should be included under this rubric. Later this year, I will publish a book, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, that studies "the cool" as a cultural force (check out the photo, and excuse this shameless, self-serving plug). But a history of this sort, deserves a required listening list, which I have compiled, drawing on the extensive review database at jazz.com and the work of 18 of our contributors.

In this survey, we look at 100 tracks that capture the full range of the cool aesthetic in jazz. These performances span 85 years, with a clear concentration in the 1950s—the "golden age" of cool. There will certainly be some debate about what has been included (or excluded), and the list makes no pretence at closing the book on the subject. Yet anyone who takes the time—several hours of listening—to get to know these works, will have a working knowledge of the role of cool in jazz that no book or article can ever hope to match.

I offer my thanks to the following writers whose work is included in this survey: Scott Albin, Thomas Cunniffe, David Franklin, Steve Greenlee, Bill Kirchner, Walter Kolosky, Alan Kurtz, Todd S. Jenkins, Chris Kelsey, Matt Leskovic, Stuart Nicholson, Thierry Quénum, Mark Saleski, Judith Schlesinger, Jeff Sultanof, David Tenenholtz and Brendan Wolfe.

In this installment, we include the first 50 tracks. These recordings cover the period from 1923 to 1958. (Click here for part two, which highlights another 50 tracks and brings our story up to the present day.)

Happy listening!




A History of Cool Jazz in 100 Tracks
Part One: 1923-1958

 Frank Trumbauer

Frank Trumbauer:
I Never Miss the Sunshine (1923)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"We can see this record as a key moment in the birth of cool jazz, although that term didn't exist back in 1923. . ."

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Ferde Grofé

Ferde Grofé:
Mississippi Suite (1925)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"It is hard not to be charmed by this period work, but ultimately it is jazz light—an especially polished example, to be sure. . . "

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Bix & Tram

Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke:
Singin' the Blues (1927)
Reviewed by Brendan Wolfe

"Here was jazz's first balladeer. His solo, though improvised, feels like a finished composition . . ."

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Bix & Tram

Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke:
I'm Coming Virginia (1927)
Reviewed by Brendan Wolfe

"In this, his longest solo, Bix is at the height of his powers . . . employing what Richard Sudhalter rather dramatically described as 'Caravaggio-like shafts of light'. . ."

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 Bix Beiderbecke

Bix Beiderbecke:
In a Mist (1927)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This early example of cool jazz gets positively chilly at certain points . . . There is no sentimentality here, rather a glittery crystalline quality, shiny and alluring even in its remoteness. . . ."

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 Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington:
Black Beauty (1928)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"There remains something deeply affecting about Duke, alone at the piano, playing one of his loveliest tunes. . . ."

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Red Norvo

Red Norvo:
In a Mist (1933)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Bix Beiderbecke had passed away only two years before this session . . . Norvo resurrects Bix's 'In a Mist' in an ethereal performance that rivals Beiderbecke's own memorable rendition. . . ."

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Red Norvo

Red Norvo:
Dance of the Octopus (1933)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is no mere novelty number, but true jazz chamber music of the highest order—and proof that the cool aesthetic pioneered by Beiderbecke and Trumbauer in the 1920s still had adherents during the FDR years. . . ."

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 Benny Carter

Benny Carter:
Nightfall (1936)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Jazz history books will tell you how Lester Young single-handedly forged a more lithe and fluid approach to the tenor sax. . . . But check out Benny Carter's tenor solo on his 1936 recording of 'Nightfall'—recorded a half-year before Young's first session.. . . ."

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Count Basie & Lester Young

Count Basie (with Lester Young):
Oh, Lady Be Good (1936)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Pres glides atop the Gershwin tune for two glorious, untethered choruses, as effortlessly graceful as an eagle out for a Sunday cruise. . . ."

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Billie Holiday & Lester Young

Billie Holiday & Lester Young:
I Can't Get Started (1938)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"In the long lineage of cool jazz, we constantly find the creative bursts coming at us through the work of couples -- Bix & Tram, Miles & Gil, Getz & Gilberto -- almost as if music this sensitive required some sort of magnetic, mutual attraction. . . ."

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Billie Holiday & Lester Young

Billie Holiday & Lester Young:
All of Me (1941)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"The collaborations between Billie Holiday and Lester Young still speak to us today . . . their influence on later popular music can hardly be over-stated. . . ."

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Claude Thornhill

Claude Thornhill:
Snowfall (1941)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this music anticipates the 'cool jazz' revolution of the 1950s, and it comes to no surprise that many of the artists associated with that movement either worked with or were influenced by Thornhill. . . ."

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Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole:
Straighten Up and Fly Right (1943)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'That's the filthiest song I ever heard in my life," declared comedienne Lucille Ball, rejecting this track for one of her movies. . . ."

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 Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano:
I Can�t Get Started (1946)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"If there is a jazz piano track from this period with a more advanced harmonic conception, I haven't heard it. . . ."

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 Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck Octet:
Curtain Music (Closing Theme) (1946)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This signature theme from the Dave Brubeck Octet—a short snippet from 1946—predates the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet by some two years. . . ."

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Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole:
Route 66 (1946)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"In olden times (pre-Interstates), U.S. Route 66 was the main highway from Chicago to L.A. It was lawful to travel in the opposite direction, but. . . ."

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Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker:
Embraceable You (1947)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Here Parker contributes one of the finest ballad performances in the history of jazz, a solo that redefined how slow, moody songs could be performed by a small combo. . . ."

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Claude Thornhill

Claude Thornhill:
Yardbird Suite (1947)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Claude Thornhill tinkled amiably along to Gil Evans's arrangement of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite." It's a remarkable chart, with an especially distinctive solo by Lee Konitz—seemingly oblivious to Bird's otherwise pervasive influence. . . ."

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Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis Nonet:
Moon Dreams (live) (1948)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"This live recording comes from a broadcast at the Royal Roost during the ensemble's only extended live gig. . . . "

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Stan Getz

Woody Herman (with Stan Getz):
Early Autumn (1948)
Reviewed by David Franklin

"During the 1950s, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz became the most popular of Lester Young's followers. But his breakthrough came as a result of his probing solo on the Woody Herman Orchestra's 1948 recording of Ralph Burn's gorgeous ballad 'Early Autumn'. . . ."

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Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis Nonet:
Boplicity (1949)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"Evans was an orchestrational and contrapuntal master. 'Boplicity' provides further proof. . . ."

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Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis Nonet:
Venus De Milo (1949)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"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. . . ."

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 Shorty Rogers

Shorty Rogers:
Popo (1951)
Reviewed by David Franklin

�This early recording of a simple riff tune scored for a small band similar to Miles Davis�s earlier Birth of the Cool groups, exhibits an infectious swing. . . .�

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Birth of the Cool 2

Shorty Rogers:
Didi (1951)
Reviewed by Todd S. Jenkins

"An early sample of California cool, 'Didi' hews very close to the spirit and instrumentation of Miles� nonet. . . ."

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 Lars Gullin

Lars Gullin:
Silhouette (1952)
Reviewed by David Tenenholtz

"As Gullin progressed in the early 1950s, his command of the "Cool" sound begun by the Miles Davis Nonet made the baritone saxophonist the recipient of many ovations. . . ."

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Brubeck-Desmond

Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond:
You Go to My Head (1952)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is the quintessential cool jazz duet. . . ."

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Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan Quartet (with Chet Baker):
Bernie's Tune (1952)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"The bright, upbeat music of his pianoless quartet with 22-year-old trumpet phenom Chet Baker was noticed even by Time magazine. . . ."

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Brubeck-Desmond

Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond:
Over the Rainbow (1952)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Brubeck pulls it off through the sheer brilliance of his reharmonization, and the shifting chiaroscuro textures of his reconfiguration of the Arlen standard. . . ."

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Chet Baker

Chet Baker:
My Funny Valentine (1952)
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

"Baker's treatment of 'My Funny Valentine,' painfully romantic and hauntingly beautiful, thrust him atop the trumpet polls in 1952. . . .�

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Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano (with Warne Marsh & Lee Konitz):
Out of Nowhere / 317 E. 32nd Street (1952)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"When Marsh and Konitz enter with Tristano's melody line, the effect is angelic. . . ."

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 Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington:
Reflections in D (1953)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"To some extent, Ellington anticipates the later work of Bill Evans with his thick and juicy chord voicings here—no wonder Evans recorded this piece himself 25 years later. . . ."

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 June Christy

June Christy:
Something Cool (1953)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'Something Cool' is incisive storytelling, as June enacts the first-person narrative of a self-deluding barfly. Think Blanche DuBois as lounge lizard. . . ."

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Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan Tentette:
A Ballad (1953)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'A Ballad' is deficient only in its title—rather like naming your newborn 'A Baby.' Otherwise it's three minutes of perfection. . . ."

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The Modern Jazz Quartet

The Modern Jazz Quartet:
Django (1954)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Miles Davis likened the MJQ to boxers 'fighting in tuxedos.' If so, 'Django' wins the undisputed world championship for pugilists in evening dress. . . ."

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Chet Baker

Chet Baker:
But Not for Me (1954)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Not since Lester Young accompanied Billie Holiday had a jazz soloist managed to add such melodically succinct interludes to a vocal date. . . ."

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 Shelly Manne

Shelly Manne:
Pas de Trois (1954)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Giuffre's 'Pas de Trois' takes full advantage of Manne's melodicism, integrating his drums into an extraordinary tripartite fugue. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
'Round Midnight (1955)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Miles Davis almost missed the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, and was only added at the last minute to a jam session. Davis selected Monk's ''Round Midnight' for his feature number, and his haunting muted trumpet work left the audience mesmerized. . . ."

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 Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday:
What's New (1955)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Do you prefer to take your Holiday earlier or later? Hard choice. . . ."

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 Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal:
Pavanne (1955)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Any discussion of the precursors of Davis's modal style needs to take this spirited 1955 performance into account. . . ."

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The Modern Jazz Quartet

The Modern Jazz Quartet:
Concorde (1955)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"'Jazz fugue" . . . the very name sounds oxymoronic. One wonders: are there country-and-western fugues or hip-hop fugues? . . ."

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Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette

Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette:
Lulu's Back in Town (1956)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Only the Velvet Fog could squeeze so many syllables out of the name "Lulu" -- turning it into a veritable Lulu-ululation. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
My Funny Valentine (1956)
Reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe

"Miles's first recording of 'My Funny Valentine' was made at the end of a marathon session designed to complete his contract with Prestige Records. . . ."

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 Teddy Charles Tentet

Teddy Charles Tentet:
The Quiet Time (1956)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This 1956 track finds Charles and company in fine form on a cerebral mood piece scored by Jimmy Giuffre. . . ."

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 George Russell

George Russell:
All About Rosie (1957)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"George Russell's contribution to the 1957 Brandeis University Jazz Festival of the Arts is his masterpiece. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
My Ship (1957)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'My Ship,' helmed by arranger Gil Evans to a port of pure bliss, is the most sublime 4+ minutes in all of music. . . ."

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 Gil Evans

Gil Evans:
Jambangle (1957)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"As with all of Evans's work, what seems impossible is not only possible, but works brilliantly. . . ."

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 The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra:
These Foolish Things (1957)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is more a tone poem than a big band chart. You will find no battling horn sections here, no kicks in the pants from the rhythm section. The attitude is sweet and cool, rather than hot and harried. . . ."

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 Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday:
Fine and Mellow (1957)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is generally acknowledged as the greatest jazz moment ever broadcast on national television. And with good reason. . . ."

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 Bill Evans

Bill Evans:
Peace Piece (1958)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"A pastoral improvisation built on a gentle two-chord vamp, 'Peace Piece' is more a mood than a composition. . . ."

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Click here for part two of our survey of cool jazz, which features another 50 tracks and continues our story to the present day.




Tags:

May 14, 2009 · 2 comments

  • 1 Bobbi Varadi // May 14, 2009 at 03:48 PM
    Ted, This is amazing!... Thanks for showing this ....... Love to you all :))
  • 2 abarefootboy // Jun 09, 2009 at 07:52 AM
    Summer's standin' on the doorstep yet the ether inside feels suddenly so .. 'chill'. Who needs air conditioning... ?