Jazz 101: Cool Jazz


Today we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look into “Cool Jazz”. So lay some skin on me scat cat, and buckle up. Ya dig?

Last time, we looked at the era of bebop, which saw a rise during World War II. We discussed its relationship with swing, and looked at what made the two genres similar and very different. But the most easiest distinction to make is: swing was pop music, while bebop was more niche. We also briefly looked into the lives and work of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, two notable bebop pianists.

And now, we move into the 1950s, and the era of Cool Jazz. Like bebop, cool jazz was relatively close to swing and bebop. We’ll look at some ways the name itself may have been both arbitrary and ironic. As always, we’ll start with our overview, and then move on to discuss a few iconic players of “cool”.

Cool Jazz

While in bebop there was a wide variety of music being played, it all still coalesced under a single coherent style. With cool, it was different. “‘Cool’ from the beginning seemed to embrace too much, and perhaps even to mark as new a playing style that had effectively been around for over twenty years” (p. 175). Much like the era of revivalism, the arrival of cool signaled a kind of looking back. It was the unavoidable withdrawal from bebop, which had spread like wildfire.

Another point of strangeness to consider are the associations that went along with “cool jazz”. “Cool soon became associated with whiteness, which, as it turned out, was both a burden and a benefit. This was doubly ironic, since ‘cool’ as a term for an attitude of understatement began as an African American concept” (p. 175).

So really, like most sub-genres, cool wasn’t a completely new and original style. Though it may have been perceived to be one when it came into the mainstream, it was being played in the late 1940s, before then. A lot of the early cool players were beboppers first. They merely played with softer inflections and light vibrato. As the insightful John Szwed puts it, “Coming after the anxious and emotional overflow of bebop, cool players had the look of musicians in retreat, reacting to the wave which had just hit” (p. 176).

Miles Davis

You know his name, even if you aren’t familiar with his work. Miles Davis was one of the most influential trumpeters, composers, and bandleaders in the history of jazz. And in the 1950’s, his group, Birth of the Cool, helped to usher in a new style of music. Together, they anticipated the future of jazz, and helped push it in a new direction. For a more accurate description of his specific contributions, we can turn again to John Szwed’s words.

“The Davis band showed all of its contemporaries that it was possible to write for larger ensembles in a manner that went beyond the music of the previous twenty years, while still respecting the traditions of jazz by framing improvised solos with band arrangements that made the outcome sound coherent and logical” (p. 178).

Davis was a musician well-entrenched in bebop. He was a member of Charlie Parker’s bebop quintet in the 1940s, and moved on to record some of the earliest hard bop in the 1950s.

The Modern Jazz Quartet

Pianist and composer John Lewis was a member of Miles Davis’ Birth of Cool in the 1940s, and also a big follower of the bebop movement. He joined the Modern Jazz Quartet with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and found it a perfect fit.

“Like some others who were called cool, Lewis looked to the past for some of his orchestral ideas, drawing on forms and musical devices from the baroque era and unifying them with the blues, bebop, and contemporary classical music” (p. 181). The resulting compositions from The Modern Jazz Quartet were wildly varied, paired with orchestras, classical guitarists, string quartets, and more. They weren’t just traditionalists looking back and preserving what they liked. They were deliberately fusing and innovating whatever and wherever they could.

The Modern Jazz Quartet fit in a unique place with jazz fans. They were outside of the usual stream, and often thought of as an exception to what others conceived of as jazz.

Final Thoughts

Cool jazz definitely has an interesting place within the context of jazz’s evolution as a genre. It was connected to bebop, but not quite bebop. It looked to the past for inspiration, but didn’t get caught up in it like the revivalists. But to see what it inspired, we’ll have to wait till next time.

Next time, we’ll turn our eyes to westward, and explore the world and influence of west coast jazz.



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