Today's Paper Obits Newsletters Outdoors Crime NWA Editorial: Calling a foul UA soccer gets No. 3 seed Razorback Sports Today's Photos Puzzles
story.lead_photo.caption Jazz great Miles Davis (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN DEERING

You know what cool is.

So compare whatever idea of cool you have in your head to one from the Gola people of Liberia, as presented by Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson, who has made a career studying and writing about African art, in an article published in the journal African Arts in 1973 titled "An Aesthetic of the Cool":

"Ability to be nonchalant at the right moment ... to reveal no emotion in situations where excitement and sentimentality are acceptable -- in other words to act as though one's mind were in a different world."

Thompson stresses "the telling point is that the 'mask' of coolness is worn not only in times of stress but also of pleasure, in fields of expressive performance ... Control, stability, and composure under the African rubric of the cool seem to constitute elements of an all-embracing aesthetic attitude."

Cool, Thompson notes, is a "sense of deeply motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, of responsibility and play." And he thought the African definition of metaphorical coolness was "more complicated, more variously expressed than Western notions of sang-froid, cooling off or even icy determination."

African cool -- what the Yorubans call itutu -- is intelligent, deliberate and deeply soulful. It is not a superficial notion -- things that might be bought or taken from you are not itutu, though they certainly might qualify as Western cool.

"Coolness ... is a part of character ..." Thompson wrote in his 1984 book Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy, "to the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and our actions gradually assume virtual royal power. As we become noble, fully realizing the spark of creative goodness God endowed us with ... we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations ... This is mystic coolness."

. . .

Miles Davis plays during the sessions for "The Birth of the Cool." (Courtesy Blue Note/UMe)

Miles Davis might not appreciate my spending time on Thompson, an 86-year-old white man from El Paso, Texas, before delving into an appreciation of his album The Birth of the Cool, on the occasion of Blue Note/UMe's recent release of double LP set The Complete Birth of the Cool (also on CD). For Davis didn't like white people, did he?

Well, that's complicated.

In a story in USA Today in May 1985, entertainment writer Miles White quoted Davis as saying, "If somebody told me I only had one hour to live, I'd spend it choking a white man. I'd do it nice and slow. If I got tired I'd stop, have a glass of water, and choke him some more." White recorded that interview and stands by it, but he put it all into context in a 2017 piece for London Literary Review:

"I was stunned," White wrote. "I had every intention of using [the quote] and I asked him if he was concerned people would think him a racist. He didn't blink. 'It's the prejudiced white people I'm talking about,' he said. 'If the shoe don't fit they don't have to wear it.'"

At least at the beginning of his career, during sessions that would eventually yield the 1957 album The Birth of the Cool, Davis was certainly willing to work with white musicians such as Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, all of whom made major contributions.

"It had white people playing the music and serving prominent roles," Davis wrote of the sessions in his autobiography, noting that he was criticized for this by some in the black community.

Davis wrote: "I just told them that if a guy could play as well as Lee Konitz I would hire him every time, and I wouldn't give a damn if he was green with red breath."

Something else to consider -- Davis was only 22 in the summer of 1948; he wasn't the cat he would become. He had tried cocaine but extolled the virtues of vegetables and drinking water. He hadn't yet done heroin, and while he had made a name for himself as a sideman for bebop's progenitors Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he wasn't well known outside of a small circle of jazz aficionados. (He was named the third best trumpeter in Metronome magazine's 1948 poll, behind his mentor Gillespie and Fats Navarro.)

Charlie Parker’s band in the late 1940s included Miles Davis, who left the saxophone great’s band and would later lead his own group. (Courtesy Blue Note/UMe)

While Parker's quintet was hitting its stride, Davis had become disenchanted with Parker's antics on the bandstand and bebop's formal rigor and emphasis on speed, which to Davis' ears was producing music that was "unsingable" and unparsable by nonmusicians.

Davis preferred to play in the midrange of his instrument, in a more relaxed style reminiscent of the lyricism of saxophonist Lester Young. He admired Gillespie, but wanted a warmer sound than the frenetic stabbing tempos that bebop allowed -- something more like the tone the cornettist Bix Beiderbecke achieved in the 1920s.

Soon he found himself drawn to the basement apartment that pianist/arranger Gil Evans kept behind a Chinese laundry on Manhattan's 55th Street, where musicians like saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, trumpeter John Carisi and Parker gathered to jam.


Evans, a Canadian whose parents had emigrated from Australia, had no formal musical training. He heard Louis Armstrong when he was 14, and that inspired him to teach himself piano. By his mid-20s he was a staff arranger on Bob Hope's radio show, working alongside pianist/arranger Claude Thornhill.

In 1941, Thornhill hired him as an arranger for Thornhill's "Orchestra," a white "society" band that uniquely employed French horns and tubas. Thornhill's group was much admired as a kind of counterpoint to the angular, pointed "noise" of bebop -- it was a soft cloud-like sound.

Evans maintained an open-door policy, which led to discussions about the future of jazz and contemporary music. As Ted Giola wrote in his 2009 book The Birth (And Death) of the Cool: "[they were] developing a range of tools that would change the sound of contemporary music. In their work together, they relied on a rich palette of harmonies, many of them drawn from European impressionist composers. They explored new instrumental textures, preferring to blend the voices of the horns like a choir rather than pit them against each other as the big bands had traditionally done with their thrusting and parrying sections. They brought down the tempos of their music ... they adopted a more lyrical approach to improvisation ..."

This undated publicity photo of Miles Davis was taken by photographer Herman Leonard. (Courtesy Blue Note/UMe)

Evans probably had the original idea for the ensemble that would become known as the Miles Davis Nonet, and he had Parker in mind as its trumpet player. But Parker was too busy with his own quintet -- the group Davis had just left -- and too concerned with his own solo sound to fit into the sort of group Evans envisioned. So Davis took the co-lead with Evans.

Evans was 14 years older than Davis, who admired his knowledge and versatility. Evans had a deep understanding of formal composition and free-form improvisation. "He is as well versed in classical music in general as Leonard Bernstein," Davis would write of Evans. "And what the classical guys don't know is what Gil knows."

Just as Davis was moving away from Parker (for personal reasons) and Gillespie (for stylistic ones), he found a new mentor in the easygoing, preternaturally cool Evans. They assembled a nine-piece band that would (eventually) change the course of American music and give rise to something fittingly called "cool jazz."

"Gil was like a mother hen to all of us," Davis wrote in his autobiography. "He just cooled everything out because he was so cool. He was a beautiful person who just loved to be around musicians."

Davis secured a two-week engagement for the nonet in September 1948 at the Royal Roost, opening for Count Basie. The group consisted of Davis, Konitz on sax, Mulligan on baritone sax, another white guy, Bill Barber, on tuba; bassist Al McKibbon (Pine Bluff native); Junior Collins on French horn; pianist/arranger John Lewis; 18-year-old Mike Zwerin (a white guy who'd later become the Village Voice's jazz critic) on trombone, and Max Roach on drums. As a concession to the popularity of vocal music, Gillespie vocalist Kenny Hagood sang on "Darn That Dream" and "Why Do I Love You."

That it was a highly collaborative effort is obvious -- the band's set list included six arrangements by Mulligan, three by Lewis and two by Evans (who did not actually play during the dates). Davis insisted that the arrangers be credited on the sign outside the Royal Roost. (Still, Mulligan always complained he never got enough credit for The Birth of the Cool).

It's been said that no one paid much attention to the nonet at the time, and it's true that on the live recordings included in the new package you can hear what sounds like indifferent crowd noise. But Count Basie was impressed, even if he didn't quite know what to make of the new group.

"Those slow things sounded strange and good," he told Davis biographer Jack Chambers. " I didn't always know what they were doing, but I listened, and I liked it."

And The New Yorker's classical music critic Wintrop Sargent compared the work to that of an "impressionist composer with a great sense of aural poetry and a very fastidious feeling for tone color ... The music sounds more like that of a new Maurice Ravel than it does like jazz ... it is not really jazz."


(Courtesy Blue Note/UMe)

Capitol Records talent scout Joe Rugolo offered them a chance to make a record. Over the next 18 months they held three sessions designed to produce a series of 78 rpm singles. Which turned out to be important, because the 78 format effectively limited the musicians to three-minute sides, probably another reason for The Birth of the Cool's accessibility. Solos had to be concise, brief and disciplined. When live, the band could play what amounted to free verse; in the studio they had to play haikus.

The first session occurred Jan. 21, 1949, recording four tracks: Mulligan's compositions "Jeru" and "Godchild" and Lewis' "Move" and "Budo." Kai Winding replaced Zwerin on trombone, Al Haig replaced Lewis on piano and Joe Shulman replaced McKibbon on bass.

The second recording date was April 22, 1949. This time J.J. Johnson took over for Winding on trombone, Sandy Siegelstein replaced Collins on French horn, Nelson Boyd and Kenny Clarke took over bass and drums, respectively, while Lewis returned to piano.

This version of the group recorded Mulligan's "Venus de Milo," Lewis' "Rouge," Carisi's "Israel," and "Boplicity," a Davis/Evans collaboration, credited to Davis' mother Cleo Henry because Davis was fighting with his publishing company and wanted to take it elsewhere.

The final date was March 9, 1950. McKibbon returned to play bass, Gunther Schuller took over French horn and Hagood provided vocals on Mulligan's "Darn That Dream." The other tracks cut at the date were Mulligan's "Rocker" "Deception," and Evans' arrangement of Chummy MacGregor's "Moon Dreams."

Originally, six of these tracks, which were on 78 rpm singles, made little impression. In 1954, eight were released on a 10-inch LP called Classics in Jazz--Miles Davis. It wasn't until 1957 that Capitol put out the 12-inch, 12-track LP we think of as the definitive Birth of the Cool.

Miles Davis (Courtesy Blue Note/UMe)

Which, going back to Sargent's observation, wasn't "really jazz," if by jazz you mean the difficult or impenetrable math that jazz seemed to be sliding toward at the beginning of the 1950s. The Birth of the Cool was a counter-revolution toward melody, harmony and lines that could be articulated by a human voice. For better or worse -- and Davis would move on from the music quickly, plunging into darker and arguably more rewarding themes -- The Birth of the Cool, with its warm, relaxed, albeit cool sound, would become the template for West Coast jazz, a genre that would be productively mined primarily by white artists like Dave Brubeck and Davis acolyte and Mulligan bandmate Chet Baker.

Which might be ironic, depending upon whether you see Miles Davis as a hot-headed caricature or the definition of cool.



Style on 06/16/2019

Print Headline: CRITICAL MASS: Defining cool

Sponsor Content


COMMENTS - It looks like you're using Internet Explorer, which isn't compatible with our commenting system. You can join the discussion by using another browser, like Firefox or Google Chrome.
It looks like you're using Microsoft Edge. Our commenting system is more compatible with Firefox and Google Chrome.