A jazz movement of the 1950s, cool jazz emerged at a time when the up-tempo, virtuosic extremes of an earlier style, bebop, had fallen out of public favor following a brief commercial breakthrough in the mid-1940s, and modern jazz found itself challenged by numerous emerging new trends. Across the 1950s, as rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll and other popular music idioms came to dominate sales charts, the jazz tradition splintered into several distinct sub-genres. Of these, ‘cool jazz’ proved to be among the most commercially successful. In the late 1940s numerous musicians had begun to adopt more relaxed tempos, subdued instrumental timbres and softer dynamics than were common in bebop, while continuing to draw on its harmonic innovations. This extension of modern jazz was soon characterized in the press as ‘cool jazz’ to reflect the new idiom’s generally understated expressivity. Though the idiom had mixed-race origins involving a variety of national jazz communities, cool jazz quickly became associated with both whiteness and the West Coast, particularly California. Despite this common media characterization, cool jazz involved a number of influential African-American contributors who were viewed as definitive voices of the genre. These latter musicians included the trumpeter Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, neither of whom were directly associated with the West Coast jazz scene.
The word ‘cool’ first appeared in African-American jazz circles and in black slang in the 1940s, where it was used to describe a distinctly laid-back and hip aesthetic attitude, comportment and personal style. The term quickly crossed racial lines in pop culture through its adoption by a subculture of white aficionados and followers of jazz who were first known as hipsters (yet another African-American slang borrowing), then in the later 1950s as beats or beatniks. In the cool jazz idiom, the mellow, laid-back, emotional restraint of the cool posture was manifest in the subdued expressive qualities noted above, as well as in a new, classically derived tonal clarity that bore only a slight vibrato (especially among saxophonists), a greater emphasis on composition and arrangement than was employed in bebop, an interest in counterpoint and chamber music-type textures, a predilection for unusual instrumental groupings that included certain non-jazz instruments, and a typical fondness for mellow-sounding, ‘pastel,’ ensemble sonorities. In general, cool jazz preserved the complex harmonic interests of bebop while simultaneously adopting these restrained expressive qualities and a more relaxed rhythmic sensibility.
The slow vibrato, relaxed phrasing and dry, smoky sonority of Lester Young greatly influenced many younger saxophonists of the mid-1940s who later epitomized cool jazz, including Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Al Cohn and Lee Konitz. The lyricism of Miles Davis, together with his minimal vibrato and his emphasis on simplified phrasing, exerted a significant influence on many of the cool trumpeters, including Chet Baker and Shorty Rogers. While there was no clear conception of a cool jazz piano style, the most definitive pianists of the idiom were Lennie Tristano, John Lewis and George Shearing. Both Shearing and Lewis emphasized lyricism and economy and an understated, light, classically inspired touch. Tristano similarly embraced subdued accents, a controlled execution and a clear, light tone, but was also known for his interests in virtuosity, complex time signatures, a bop-derived angular melodic sensibility, and abrasive dissonance and polytonality. Though these latter traits were largely avoided in most cool jazz, Tristano was an important mentor/teacher of several cool jazz musicians, including Lee Konitz, saxophonist Warne Marsh and guitarist Billy Bauer. Among drummers, the most prominent musician was Shelly Manne. As both a leader and a sideman in cool and West Coast jazz circles, Manne’s generally conservative style emphasized a restrained but strong sense of swing paired with a notably melodic approach to his instrument’s percussive pitches.
Also influential in helping to form the roots of cool jazz in the late 1940s were several big bands that presaged cool-type sonorities and that brought together key musicians who later became central proponents of cool jazz. The 1940s big bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, for example, were an important part of the professional backgrounds of a good number of cool jazz saxophonists. More significant stylistically was the unusual, mid-1940s big band run by the pianist/composer Claude Thornhill. With his arranger Gil Evans and such notable instrumentalists as the saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, Thornhill created a unique ensemble that was celebrated for its rich, sophisticated arrangements. Thornhill expanded big band instrumentation through the addition of several instruments that were more typically associated with classical music, including French horns, bass clarinet, and tuba. The soft tone colors and rich harmonic palette of this ensemble reflected Thorn-hill’s great interest in the music of the French impressionist composer, Claude Debussy. As in Debussy’s orchestral music, the highly original arrangements of the nineteen-piece Thornhill band frequently emphasized floating, nearly static harmonic textures and rich, low-register coloristic effects. These qualities are best seen in Thornhill’s 1941 recording of his signature tune, ‘Snowfall.’ In fully embracing this sensibility, Evans also expanded the band’s repertoire by merging this sound with bebop. His adaptations of three of Charlie Parker’s best-known tunes, ‘Anthropology,’ ‘Yardbird Suite’ and ‘Donna Lee,’ are particularly notable. This latter approach formed a key foundation for the Miles Davis nonet arrangements of 1949–1950.
Both Davis and Evans acknowledged that the Thornhill band was a major inspiration for the nonet project. This unusual group had its roots in 1948, when Evans began to discuss the idea of forming a smaller, arranger-oriented ensemble that could explore and expand the sonic possibilities of the Thornhill band. These discussions were first held with other musician/arrangers, including Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, John Carisi, George Russell and Johnny Mandel. This circle decided on an ensemble whose instrumentation was built from treble and bass pairings of several instrument families. These pairings included trumpet and trombone, French horn and tuba, and alto and baritone saxophones, as well as a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. The group became a reality when Miles Davis joined their discussions and secured performances for the group at the Royal Roost club in New York. The arranger Pete Rugolo, then a musical director at Capitol Records, soon signed the group to a recording contract. The group recorded twelve sides. Capitol released only a small number of these recordings, and they experienced poor initial sales. By early 1950 the ensemble had essentially disbanded but many of its members went on to build on this new jazz aesthetic, which was soon characterized as ‘cool jazz.’ In 1954 Capitol included eight of the twelve nonet sides on their ten-inch album, Classics in Jazz: Miles Davis. In 1956 the French critic André Hodeir notably identified the nonet’s recordings of ‘Israel’ and ‘Boplicity’ as the ‘two incontestable masterpieces’ of cool jazz. In 1957 all twelve nonet recordings were reissued on the LP, Birth of the Cool, which became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. The later Davis/Evans collaborations on the Columbia albums Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960) all represent key extensions of the nonet’s cool-styled idiom, and each album likewise represents major landmarks in the commercial popularity of jazz.
Gerry Mulligan’s post-nonet work was equally central to 1950s cool jazz. After briefly founding his similarly styled ‘ten-tette’ in 1951, Mulligan relocated to Los Angeles and found himself at the heart of an emerging West Coast jazz scene that was largely defined by this new cool jazz sound. In 1952 Mulligan formed his celebrated ‘pianoless quartet,’ an ensemble that featured his own baritone saxophone, Chet Baker’s trumpet, Bob Whitlock’s bass and Chico Hamilton on drums. Mulligan’s quartet was signed to a new West Coast label, Pacific Jazz, which specialized in music from this emerging regional scene. The label’s roster quickly grew to include such central cool jazz artists as Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton and Art Pepper, among others. Despite the considerable commercial success of this young southern Californian jazz scene prior to Mulligan’s relocation, his physical move west, his simultaneous label move to Pacific Jazz and the formation of each of his new ensembles mark key developments that led the public and press alike to associate cool jazz with California. This impression was further reinforced across the mid- to late 1950s with the great commerical success of cool-oriented California musicians such as Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Chico Hamilton, Shelley Manne, Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Cal Tjader and many others, nearly all of whom were signed to a few key Californian record companies (Capitol, Contemporary, Dial, Fantasy and Pacific Jazz) that seemingly held a monopoly on the top artists of this stylistic idiom. Accordingly, southern California’s premiere nightclubs became the most renowned venues for this music. These establishments included the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, which was seen by many to be the epicenter of West Coast jazz, The Haig nightclub on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and Shelly’s Manne-Hole (owned by the drummer Shelly Manne) in Hollywood. As a consequence, because Los Angeles ultimately became the primary center of cool jazz, the idiom likewise found its way into jazz-based film and television music underscoring from the 1950s forward. Many urban- and crime-oriented film/television scores of this era, such as Henry Mancini’s famous music for the 1958–61 television crime series Peter Gunn, routinely employed the cool style as one key sound in their jazz-based musical palette. These films also regularly employed West Coast jazz musicians (including Chico Hamilton, Shelly Manne and many of their peers) both on- and off-screen (i.e., as studio musicians).
In near tandem with Mulligan’s arrival in this Los Angeles circle, the northern Californian pianist Dave Brubeck had founded a quartet with the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. By the mid-1950s, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of the most celebrated and commercially successful cool jazz acts. A similar popular success story can be found in the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), which was formally organized in 1952 by former members of the mid-1940s big band of Dizzy Gillespie. The MJQ included the pianist and one-time Davis nonet member, John Lewis, as well as the vibraphonist Milt Jackson, the bassist Percy Heath and the drummer Kenny Clarke (who was replaced by Connie Kay in 1955). Like the Brubeck Quartet, the MJQ built their distinctive sound from both cool jazz aesthetics and various borrowings from classical music. By the later 1950s these latter tendencies had developed into a movement that the composer/historian Gunther Schuller called ‘Third Stream Jazz.’
While cool jazz is now generally viewed as a historical idiom in the jazz tradition, the stylistic language of cool jazz has remained an important part of both post-war modern jazz and even commercial smooth jazz. The idiom’s continuing commercial appeal is readily seen in the considerable success of a musician like the contemporary trumpeter Chris Botti, who routinely evokes the idiosyncratic, muted trumpet voice of 1950s-era Miles Davis.