The Jazz.com Blog
September 03, 2008 · 1 comment
On September 4, 1948, Miles Davis brought a nine-piece band into the Royal Roost, a club on Broadway and 47th which hardly deserved such a regal name. Ralph Watkins, a sax player turned jazz promoter, had taken this restaurant, known for its chicken, charged a seventy-five cent cover, and added a special section for underage fans. Voilà . . . a major jazz club was born.
Miles Davis, artwork by Michael Symonds
This was not Carnegie Hall, but in the heady days of the 1940s it was enough to shake things up on the jazz scene. What the Roost lacked in pedigree it made up for in daring. Watkins’s willingness to court practitioners of the new and different proved sufficient to create a modern jazz mecca. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and other luminaries of the new music would strut their stuff in the Roost, sometimes described in advertisements from the period as “the house that bop built.”
In an environment in which the commercial prospects for his new nonet were modest at best, Miles could at least count on this one venue. “At the time, the Royal Roost was probably the only nightclub in the country that would have taken a chance with this new and forbidding type of jazz,” Nat Hentoff has remarked. Certainly, Davis would have few other opportunities to showcase this band in public.
Watkins also allowed Miles to put an unconventional sign on the sidewalk in front of the Royal Roost promoting the writers and arrangers for the band. “Arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and John Lewis,” the sign announced. This was peculiar not just because these three individuals – later to become jazz icons – were virtually unknown to the public at the time, but also due to the low profile of jazz arrangers in general. Ellington was the star of his band, not Strayhorn; Goodman was the name on the marquee when he came to town, not Fletcher Henderson; people paid to hear Woody Herman, not Ralph Burns. Arrangers were supposed to be hidden behind the scenes. Who cared who was writing charts for Miles Davis? But here the trumpeter was proclaiming to all and sundry—or at least to those walking down Broadway on September 4, 1948—that his scores were part of the mystique and draw of the music.
As events proved, it was not much of a draw. Historians still debate how many times the “Birth of the Cool” band played in public, but certainly the money made by this unit was not enough to keep it functioning as a working ensemble. Even Miles was gigging frequently in other settings—as sideman with Charlie Parker and Tadd Dameron or fronting his own smaller bands—during this period. The nonet was a sideline, a whim, an experiment.
Yet with hindsight, we can make the claim that this was the most important jazz band in the world in the late summer of 1948. For the next decade and beyond, the jazz world would be dominated by the individuals gathered together on the stage of the Royal Roost. Davis himself would rise to stardom, sign with the Columbia label, and release a series of seminal LPs, including several collaborations with Gil Evans. Gerry Mulligan would soon hitchhike to California and serve as a catalyst in spurring the West Coast jazz scene. John Lewis would enjoy success as musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lee Konitz would contribute his own unique take on cool jazz, often alongside Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, or in a host of other settings. Max Roach would help shape the hard bop movement in his quintet with Clifford Brown. Gunther Schuller, who would record with the nonet although he was absent from the Royal Roost engagement, would serve as the visionary behind the Third Stream movement in jazz.
If you were constructing a family tree for modern jazz in the second half of the 20th century, almost all of the milestone events could be trace back to this one ensemble. It may have been a commercial failure, but it changed the course of American music.
To celebrate this historic band, jazz.com has enlisted Jeff Sultanof to take us on a tour of the tracks recorded by the “Birth of the Cool” unit. Sultanof is the perfect guide for our look back: he is an astute commentator on jazz matters and also the editor of the recently published scores of the Davis nonet. You can read his article here.
This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.