Cool Jazz: What is it, Famous Musicians & Best Albums…

The antithesis of bebop, cool jazz eschewed the fast tempos and jagged phrasing in favour of a lighter tone and tempos that were slower and more relaxed. In this article we highlight some of the most famous cool jazz albums and musicians…

The term ‘cool jazz’ came into popular use around 1953 but had previously been used to describe Miles Davis’s short lived nonet that recorded between 1948 and 1950.

Prior to that, the term could equally be applied to the music created by Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer in the 1920s. Trumbauer played his C-melody saxophone with a gentle, light toned and lyrical approach that greatly influenced the cool sound of Lester Young.

The sound of cool jazz seemingly gravitated to the West Coast of America as opposed to the bebop and later hard bop sounds that were evolving on the East Coast. Cool jazz would therefore become synonymous with California and dubbed as West Coast Jazz.

Cool Jazz music was also often more formally arranged and would not be averse to introducing other musical genres into the arrangements. Western classical music was perceived as a major source of inspiration with the use of orchestral textures and use of dynamics.

Here’s our round up of the most famous cool jazz musicians of all time…

Paul Desmond

With his light tone on the alto saxophone, Desmond was one of the early cool school musicians. His career would inextricably linked with that of pianist Dave Brubeck, and as member of Brubeck’s quartet the altoist would establish his own style and a blue print for other generations to follow and learn from.

Such was the relationship between the two, and Brubeck knowing what an asset he had in his saxophonist that he insisted that Desmond sign a contract stating that he would not record with any other pianist. As such recordings under the saxophonist’s leadership would feature the guitar as the chordal instrument, and he would also record without a harmony instrument as in his albums with baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan.

It was with Brubeck he would record his greatest work and in 1959 Desmond contributed the tune ‘Take Five’ to the pianist’s repertoire which would go on to become a big hit, and feature on the classic Time Out album.

Recommended Listening: Dave brubeck Quartet – Time Out (Columbia – 1959)

Chet Baker

As a young man trumpeter Chet Baker appeared to have it all. The good looks, relaxed and easy singing voice and a trumpet sound that was light and lyrical. Unfortunately, he also had a lifelong drug habit that would plague his career and resulting in several spells of imprisonment.

As a musician Baker’s playing almost seems effortless. He has been criticised for his limited technique and fondness for playing in the instruments middle register, but his fluid improvisations, impeccable time and beautiful tone have ensured his playing was always worth hearing. As a singer, Baker had a very quiet voice and used a limited range to maximum expression in much the same way as he played the trumpet.

Apart from his own records, Baker was a regular feature on the West Coast scene, and was a member of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet. With Mulligan he recorded ‘My Funny Valentine’ which became a hit and Baker’s signature tune.

Recommended Listening: Let’s Get Lost: The Best of Chet Baker Sings (Pacific Jazz – 1956)

Gerry Mulligan

A highly accomplished arranged as well as saxophonist, Mulligan played the big baritone saxophone with a light and airy sound that was perfectly suited to the emerging cool jazz in the latter part of the 1940s. It was while he was working for the band leader Claude Thornhill that he met fellow arranger Gil Evans. The two men had much in common, and wrote and arranged for a rehearsal band that would gather at Evans’s apartment.

With trumpeter Miles Davis who would take charge in calling rehearsals and booking the band for a fortnight at the Royal Roost, so was born the Nonet that would record a series of sides for Capital that would become known as The Birth of the Cool.

A few years later Mulligan would form his famous pianoless quartet with trumpeter Chet Baker where the two horns would jettison the idea of playing in unison, but instead play contrapuntal lines that gave the music a freshness and spontaneity that became very popular and resulting in hugely successful recordings.

After the quartet broke up, Mulligan would continue to lead a small band and alternate this with his love of big bands, forming his Concert Jazz Band in 1960. He would continue touring with both small and large ensembles until his death in 1996.

Recommended Listening: The Original Quartet (Blue Note – 1953)

Lennie Tristano

Renowned for being an educator and one of the first musicians to teach improvisation in a structured manner, Tristano was also a uniquely gifted and original piano stylist. His mature work found his discarding much of the bebop language and basing of music on harmonic freedom and flexibility and a use of rhythms that would become increasingly complex.

He was not a fan of drummers and when recording some of the first contrapuntal free improvisations in 1949, ‘Intuition’ and ‘Digression’ he did so sans drums. The key players on these improvisations were guitarist Billy Bauer and the saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.

Often criticised for being too cold and intellectual, Tristano continued upon his chosen path. He was not one to record prolifically but has left behind and invaluable body of work that stuck to his premise that music should not be about over sentimentality or expression, buut what mattered was the purity of the line and improvisation. As such Tristano had his own disciples who continued to pursue this line of thought, the most well known being Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. 

Recommended Listening: Lennie Tristano / The New Tristano (Rhino/Atlantic – 1955-61)

Lee Konitz

One of Tristano’s most well known followers, unlike fellow saxophonist Warne Marsh Konitz did deviate from the path laid out by the pianist but retained his connection to the cool jazz style of playing. 

At just twenty years old, Konitz found himself playing on all the sessions for the historic Birth of the Coolrecordings, one of only four musicians to do so. The recordings, and Lee’s solos marked him out as an original that was not beholden the all-pervading influence of Charlie Parker.

Studying with Lennie Tristano in the 1950s, Konitz purged his alto style yet further taking onboard the less is more philosophy and creating beautifully flowing lines. 

Konitz went onto develop his style by focussing on standards. Armed with a fairly small repertoire, Konitz would ensure that he knew the tunes intimately. By doing so he was able to play the same tunes night after night and they would always sound different. Each time he performed he was intent on not repeating himself.

Recommended Listening: Motion (Verve – 1961)

John Lewis

As a pianist and arranger, John Lewis’s lasting contribution to the music was with the Modern Jazz Quartet. After the exuberance of the big band of Dizzy Gillespie with who he had been composer, arranger and pianist he needed a change and with vibraphone player Milt Jackson he formed the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The classically trained Lewis was looking to form a band that played as a cohesive ensemble, and where the emphasis was not on the soloist. As a result, much of the music composed by the pianist was scored with passages for improvisation. Influences from classical music also seeped into Lewis’s writing for the MJQ moving the music away from the cool school with the emphasis on a new kind of chamber jazz. From Bach to blues, the MJQ were a popular attraction, and Lewis’s reputation was established with his contribution to The Birth of the Cool, and his forays into Third Stream Jazz that sought to bring the influence of classical music to the fore.

Recommended Listening: Modern Jazz Quartet – Dedicated to Connie (Atlantic Records – 1960) 

Art Pepper

Saxophonist Art Pepper was a successful ambassador for West Coast Jazz throughout his career. Falling under the spell of Charlie Parker, he also retained traces of the giants of the swing era Benny Carter and Willie Smith, he quickly developed his own sound on the alto that owed little to anyone else, his tone alternating between acerbic and a lyricism that held a tinge of sadness.

Hindered by spells in prison for drug offences, his career was a stop start affair but when he played he always seemed to be able to deliver the goods, and he recorded prolifically from 1951 until his death in 1982. He would often record with a quartet, but there are fine examples of Pepper with a large West Coast style ensemble in which his alto sound would cut through, and we occasionally get to him on his first instrument, clarinet and tenor saxophone.

Recommended Listening: Meets The Rhythm Section (Original Jazz Classics – 1957)

Shorty Rogers

Trumpeter and flugelhorn player Shorty Rogers was one of the leading lights of the West Coast school throughout the 1950’s. A gifted arranger he would work for both the big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, and as the vogue for West Coast cool gained in popularity, Rogers never seemed to be out of the studio.

Recording a substantial body of work for RCA throughout the decade, frequently with the luxury of a top flight big band assembled for the occasion the music is of a consistantly high standard.

Perhaps in danger of being neglected in recent years it is well worth the time to check out Rogers’s work.

Recommended Listening: The Sweetheart of Sigmund Freud (Giant Steps – 1946-1953)

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