Cool Jazz

Like other musical styles, jazz has experienced multiple small revolutions over the course of its history. Two of the most significant took place near the middle of the 20th century: in the 1940s, the jagged complexity of bebop constituted an explicit rejection of the lush accessibility of the big-band swing music that had been so popular in the 1930s. And in the 1950s came the inevitable reaction to bebop: a style that came to be called “cool.”

Cool jazz was characterized by several departures from the bebop style. Whereas bop tempos tended to be headlong and the rhythms complex (thus excluding all but the most virtuosic players, which was part of the point), the cool style favored ballads and medium tempos — though plenty of the cool recordings of the 1950s featured brisk tempos. Players in this style favored a softer, drier tone as well, and often they turned to both modern and archaic European classical music for inspiration in a way that was not typical during either the bop or the swing eras. In fact, one hallmark of the cool school was a tendency towards elaborate arrangements. Cool players didn’t abandon either small-combo configurations or the head-solos-head structure that had been the standard approaches throughout the 1940s, but they became more adventurous, sometimes creating fully composed pieces that blended jazz rhythms and sonorities with carefully crafted orchestration in a way that harked back in some degree to the work of Duke Ellington. This was part and parcel of an emerging intellectualism in jazz; one of the things that led this music to be characterized as “cool” was a sense that its practitioners were taking a cerebral approach to the music rather than throwing themselves into it with passionate abandon. The complex and near-orchestral arrangements of Gil Evans, the rigidly logical pianism of Lennie Tristano, and the decorous reserve of the Modern Jazz Quartet all contributed to this aspect of the cool jazz revolution.

The emergence of cool jazz also led to one of the first east-coast-versus-west-coast rivalries in American music. Bebop was born at a club called Minton’s in New York City, and was closely associated with the New York scene. But although the central elements of cool jazz came initially to the surface in New York, the cool scene soon shifted to California, and coalesced particularly around a Hermosa Beach nightclub called the Lighthouse Café, where a house band called the Lighthouse All-Stars boasted a rotating membership that included such luminaries as Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, Miles Davis, Jimmy Giuffre, Max Roach, and Gerry Mulligan – all of whom would become important bandleaders and would record seminal albums in the cool style. 

Subsequent developments in jazz, including both the Third Stream phenomenon (which sought, with limited success, to fuse jazz and classical music into a new musical form) and the eventual emergence of free jazz, can be seen simultaneously as logical extensions of musical ideas from the cool period, and as reactions to those ideas. And so the pattern continues.

The Gellers cover

Saxophonist Herb Geller and his wife Lorraine made some of the freshest and most exciting jazz of the 1950s, and would have certainly continued to do so if Lorraine hadn’t died tragically of a heart condition at age 30 in 1958. Their eponymous album as a couple finds them playing standards at brisk, boppish tempos but in a cool and accessible style. Herb was an outstanding alto player, but Lorraine’s sparkling and inventive piano stylings are the real center of this album; she had a quicksilver musical mind and sounded like she was playing with 20 fingers. Their sheer joy in playing together is evident through every track of this marvelous album.

Kind of Blue cover

Kind of Blue is one of the monuments of the cool jazz era. Recorded in 1959, it finds Miles Davis leading a sextet of like-minded musicians including pianist Bill Evans and saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. Here Davis begins exploring modal improvisation, and makes his definitive break with bebop conventions. The album’s lead track, “So What,” features a minimalist, two-chord progression and a horn line that seems to emerge out of silence; “Flamenco Sketches” is a ruminative, impressionistic tune that floats as much as it swings. Kind of Blue is classic in every sense.

Chet cover

Chet Baker was the doomed romantic prince of the cool jazz era. An untrained trumpeter and singer with a reputation for barely being able to read music, he had a keen ear and an uncanny melodic ability, and his dry tone on the trumpet was matched by his vibrato-free, nearly affectless singing style. Chet is an all-instrumental standards set, featuring the killer rhythm section of pianist Bill Evans, guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Paul Chambers, with Philly Joe Jones and Connie Kay alternating on drums; the front line includes flutist Herbie Mann and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. So it’s no wonder that the playing is absolutely top notch, the tempos relaxedly swinging, the grooves laid-back but solid.

Presenting Red Mitchell cover

Though he never became a marquee name like Ron Carter or Oscar Pettiford, bassist Red Mitchell was an important figure in the development of the West Coast “cool” jazz style that was in the ascendant during the 1950s. Despite its title, this was actually Mitchell’s second album as a leader, and it gave him an opportunity to show off the chops he’d acquired during stints alongside the likes of Woody Herman, Red Norvo, and Hampton Hawes. Leading a small combo that included saxophonist/flutist Paul Clay and the brilliant young pianist Lorraine Geller, Mitchell delivers a solid set of cool and bebop standards recorded in a dry, warm acoustic; as an album it’s an exemplar of the 1950s jazz sound, and a consistently and thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.

It Could Happen to You cover

Subtitled Chet Baker Sings, this is the perfect companion album to the all-instrumental Chet. Here the celebrated trumpet player sings in a quiet, intimate style, delivering standards like “Do It the Hard Way” and “My Heart Stood Still” in a voice that drove young female jazz fans crazy just as surely as his similarly dry trumpet style was helping to shape the sound of jazz for a decade. Kenny Drew is the piano player on this date, and the tension between his bouncing, propulsive style and Baker’s resolutely laid-back delivery gives Chet Baker Sings a delicious tension.

Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio cover

Saxophonist Stan Getz had such amazing tone that his colleagues and competitors had an awestruck nickname for him: “The Sound.” Here he’s teamed up with pianist Oscar Peterson and his unconventional drumless trio (guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown) for a program of standards with a few Getz originals thrown in. As always, Ellis does a fine job of driving the groove with his four-beats-to-the-bar, Freddie Green-style comping, while Peterson and Getz dance around each other joyfully. Every track is a joy, but Getz’s golden tone on the ten-minute-long ballad medley is particularly gorgeous.

Live at Birdland 1949 cover

As both a pianist and a composer, Lennie Tristano was something of an anomaly during the cool jazz period: a musician whose style sometimes tipped from “cool” over into “cold,” his music struck some as too calculated, too mathematical. But for those with ears to hear, his architectural approach to jazz could yield real beauty. On this live album from 1949, the recorded sound is terrible, but Tristano’s quintet plays beautifully, and his solo rendition of “Glad Am I” should put to rest any characterizations of him as a bloodless musical mathematician. (Less so his take on “This Is Called Love,” which finds him seemingly analyzing the tune from eight or nine different angles.)

At the Piano cover

Lorraine Geller’s career as a jazz pianist was all too brief. Most of her recordings were made alongside her husband Herb (a fine saxophonist), but on this 1954 date she’s accompanied by bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Buzz Freeman. Although she is mainly associated with the “cool” style of the 1950s, here you’ll catch more than a hint of bebop powerhouse Bud Powell and some of the lushness of Errol Garner in her sound. But she’s entirely herself on these performances, and her sudden death at age 30 just a few years after this release was one of the great tragedies of jazz history.

Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section cover

Alto saxophonist Art Pepper was in bad shape when he teamed up with Miles Davis’s rhythm section (Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones) for this 1957 recording date. He was strung out on heroin, his saxophone wasn’t working well, and he had never played alongside these musicians before. But somehow the quartet wrung magic out of the session. Jones, in particular, is on fire, pushing Pepper to unusual heights of invention, and the whole crew sound as if they’ve been playing together for years. Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section is a monument of the West coast cool jazz style.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard cover

We all know about “important” jazz albums. Too often, the very qualities that make them “important” may not make them any fun to listen to. This one, however, is both important and deeply, richly enjoyable. Recorded in 1961 with a trio that included bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, it finds pianist Bill Evans at the top of his powers. His lush, impressionistic chordal playing and his heartbreakingly beautiful melodies are everywhere, and LaFaro and Motian support him with a level of communication that seems nearly telepathic. In retrospect, LaFaro’s death in a car accident only days later adds to the emotional resonance of these performances. This is arguably one of the ten best jazz albums ever.

Very Cool cover

Saxophonist Lee Konitz was one of the architects of the cool jazz style — in fact, he was one of the musicians who played on the groundbreaking Birth of the Cool sessions under the leadership of Miles Davis. This 1957 date finds him fully embracing the genre designation and the style, leading a quintet through a set that includes a couple of standards, a Konitz original, and compositions by his sidemen. The tempos are moderate, the playing is expert but not show-offy, and everything is, you know, very cool — including a strutting, defiantly mid-tempo take on Charlie Parker’s bebop classic “Billie’s Bounce.”

Birth of the Cool cover

This isn’t the definitive album of the cool jazz era — it is what it claims to be: a document of that era’s birth. The recordings span a couple of years, during which Miles Davis led a nonet that included musicians who would go on to become major icons of 1950s jazz, including trombonist Kai Winding, saxophonist Lee Konitz, and pianist John Lewis. There’s still a fair amount of bop in the group’s sound, but the audacious arrangements and the soloists’ playing style are pointing clearly to new things to come.

Time Out cover

In jazz slang an “out” tune is one that is unusually complex or challenging. Time Out was a sly title for an album that took adventurous liberties with rhythm, from the 9/8 time signature of “Blue Rondo à la Turk” to the famous 5/4 Paul Desmond composition “Take Five,” which remains one of the very few jazz standards that is recognized by millions of non-jazz fans. This album would end up overshadowing all of Dave Brubeck’s subsequent career, which is perhaps unfair but was also probably inevitable.

Django cover

With their skinny ties, dark suits, and reserved demeanor, the Modern Jazz Quartet were one of the iconic ensembles of the cool jazz style, and Django is one of the most notable albums in their considerable discography. The title track is a tune written by pianist John Lewis in honor of Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, but its restrained, decorous style could hardly be more removed from the headlong swing of its namesake’s playing. Elsewhere, tracks like “Le Ronde Suite” and “The Queen’s Fancy” illustrate the ongoing dalliance of cool jazz with European classical music, to delightful effect.