With apologies to Miles Davis (part 2).


(left) Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, 1947 and (right) Lennie Tristano’s band, about 1949.

(continued from part 1) In 1948, Miles Davis began jamming with baritone saxophonist and arranger Gerry Mulligan, just freed from the Gene Krupa band, alto player Lee Konitz, late of Claude Thornhill’s Orchestra, and Thornhill’s arranger, Gil Evans. They formed the core of a group of New York musicians who slowly developed this “cool” alternative to bebop. Rather than being a source of ideas or even an arbiter of taste, Davis’ role was simply to improvise solos over the arrangements offered up by Mulligan and Evans. Evans, who became an important colleague later in Davis’ career, actually took a backseat for a time to Mulligan, who was especially prolific in this period. It can be argued that Mulligan was already channeling some of Evan’s ideas, so it becomes a little bit of a chicken and egg argument when comparing the roles of these two in developing this genre.

If Mulligan and Evans’ writing is the premier influence in this period on all of what is later called “cool” jazz, then Lennie Tristano’s group (also featuring Konitz) certainly had a big impact on its genesis as well. Tristano’s band, in addition to being at the forefront of “cool” jazz, also dabbled in some very ambitious and fairly successful attempts at “free” improvisation. The recorded evidence is compelling, and predates the atonal movement of the mid-1960’s by at least 15 years.

While Mulligan’s writing with Krupa’s band shows little hint of the cool revolution to come, Evans’ writing with Claude Thornhill’s band probably deserves the lion’s share of any credit for actually starting the whole movement. Thornhill was the first to have a “cool” orchestra up and running, and he actually had some measure of commercial success in the 1947-48 period playing a big band version of this new music. Soloists like Red Rodney and Bill Barber gave the band serious jazz credibility, but it was Lee Konitz’s alto that really stood out, and remains important in hindsight.

The one person who it’s safe to say had a minimal impact on the birth of cool jazz is Miles Davis himself. While the recordings that introduced it to most listeners were indeed released under his name, it is the writing of Mulligan and Evans that define it. Miles improvises brilliantly on these tracks, of course, but to say he in any way helped invent cool jazz is simply not true. His sound on trumpet, which was fairly well-developed by this point, lent itself perfectly to the music, but so did the saxophone sounds of those players who molded their sounds after Lester Young, especially Lee Konitz. Miles, then, was simply one of the best soloists in a genre created by others, and since he owed less to Lester’s sound than almost every player who became associated with cool jazz, his influence on it is perpetually overstated.

The “Birth of the Cool” nonet which Davis led was actually a working band for a brief time, but its main influence was through the sessions they did for Capitol Records in 1948 and ’49. While these are some of the most important recordings in the history of jazz, almost immediately they generated controversy among fellow musicians. Despite Davis’ nominal leadership, and the presence of African-American players like John Lewis, J. J. Johnson, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, many black players felt that these recordings had caved in to a certain “whiteness” that was easier to illustrate through contrast than by definition. That they spawned an entire subgenre—one that was dominated by white musicians and overwhelmingly defined commercial jazz in the 1950’s—only served to generate further resentment.

Perhaps sensing Davis’ at-best peripheral role, his African-American peers never seemed to “blame” Miles for helping to develop this style that many of them held in such low regard. That he quickly moved on to other projects and ideas only helped to distance him from “cool” jazz by the mid-1950’s, but history seems to continually—if erroneously—throw him back into the role of leading figure in this genre. (continued in part 3)

Posted in: Iconoclasts, Jazz

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