Miles Davis was active in the 40′s, and his career spanned until his death in 1991. He was not only a part of most new movements in jazz during his life, he was often at the forefront of each. Like Art Blakey, he was a bandleader whose two classic quintets — one formed during the 50′s and one in the early 60′s — jump-started the careers of several all-time greats. Miles himself wasn’t as deft a performer as the men with whom he surrounded himself; but that became part of his appeal. Jazz pedagogues cite Miles as having perfected the art of turning mistakes into opportunities. His pensive, brooding style — not quite fiery enough for bop — was especially well-suited for a subgenre that would become known as “cool.”
In 1948, Miles teamed up with pianist and arranger Gil Evans to form a nonet featuring the usual jazz instruments, plus the unorthodox additions of tuba and french horn. During the height of the bebop explosion, the nonet was slowing things down and smoothing them out. They released a series of recordings, later released as a compilation, under the name “Birth of the Cool,” in 1956.
Cool jazz is hard to describe, but it’s unmistakable when you hear it. The dynamics are less dramatic. Soloists’ phrasing is less pointed, their accents subdued. Medium-down tempo swing is played with slightly “straighter” eighths. This music can be described as mellow and introspective.
Miles abandoned the nonet shortly after its formation and released a series of hard bop albums with a quintet including John Coltrane. In 1957 the group disbanded, and reunited in 1958 with the addition of Cannonball Adderley on alto sax. One year later, they recorded the album Kind of Blue, which has become one of jazz’s most essential albums.
The heads on Kind of Blue were conceived as mere sketches — simple themes that only serve to set a mood before clearing the way for improvisation. In bebop and hard bop, chord changes would occur once or twice per bar; but in Mile’s brand of cool jazz, they often occurred every eight or sixteen bars, giving soloists time to explore modes related to underlying harmonies. Here is a live performance of a classic modal tune, the opening track from Kind of Blue, entitled “So What”:
Cool jazz could easily be perceived as jazz for intellectuals. Watch any video of Bill Evans, and you’ll see a man locked in a trance, his sharp focus manifested in his perfectly balanced lines. Dave Brubeck forged a career playing college campuses. Composer/arranger Gunther Schuller, who began his career in the Birth of the Cool nonet, later became president of the New England Conservatory, and a proponent of “Third Stream,” music that blurs the line between jazz and classical. Miles himself may not have been a member of the intellectual elite, but his misanthropic tendencies certainly project an air of pretentiousness; he would often play with sunglasses on, apparently to prevent him from being distracted by the presence of an audience. For presumably the same reason, he would also play with his back the the crowd.
“West Coast” jazz is an offshoot of cool, with its performers hailing from California: Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, and Jimmy Giuffre. Their music lives up to its name — sunny, breezy, and light. Desmond joked, “I have won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.”