On this date in 1949, Miles Davis began recording the music for what later became the album Birth Of The Cool. To mark the anniversary of these seminal recordings, Miles’ son Erin Davis and nephew Vince Wilburn talked to uDiscover Music about their continued impact on music.
A unique group
In the summer of 1948, the 22-year-old Miles Davis – who had risen to fame playing bebop as a sideman with its chief architects Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie – put together a nine-piece band that would change the course of jazz. The group, which, uniquely for that time, consisted of both black and white musicians, debuted at a noted New York club, The Royal Roost, where they initially had a two-week residency.
Under Miles’ leadership, the nonet created music that had a big-band mentality but was defined by rich and sonorous textures. Mellow, understated, and sonically laidback, the carefully-arranged music seemed the complete antithesis to bebop’s frenetic energy. “It was not only hummable but we shook people’s ears a little softer than Bird or Diz did, took the music more mainstream,” Miles recalled in his 1989 memoir, Miles: The Autobiography.
How otherworldly the Birth Of The Cool compositions must have sounded to the uninitiated was not lost on Miles, who admitted “a lot of people thought the s__t we were playing was strange.” Indeed, it was radically different from what had been heard in jazz before, but though intricate it was also highly melodic, and caught the ear of producer Pete Rugolo at Capitol Records, who wanted to record Miles’ group.
Rugolo took them into New York’s WOR Studios in 1949, where, across three separate sessions ( January 21 and April 22, 1949, and March 9, 1950), they cut a series of tracks, some of which were issued as 78rpm singles. It wasn’t until 1957 that the album we now know as Birth Of The Cool (the title was purportedly Rugolo’s) was assembled from a dozen tracks that Miles had recorded for Capitol, between 1949 and 1950. A double-vinyl reissue, titled The Complete Birth Of The Cool, combines all the studio sides with a live recording of the nonet which captured them on stage in September 1948.
Pushing the envelope
“Miles heard music differently from others,” says the trumpeter’s nephew, and former drummer, Vince Wilburn, who now administers the music side of the Miles Davis estate together with fellow-family members, Miles’ son Erin and daughter Cheryl Ann. “That’s why he kept pushing the envelope in his career. Even back then, he was a forward-thinker and always wanted to move ahead.”
Miles Davis claimed he changed jazz several times during his long career, and, certainly, Birth Of The Cool was his first notable project as a leader – one that immediately denoted him as one of the idiom’s leading tastemakers. “I hear my dad – we called him The Chief – experimenting with larger group formats on Birth Of The Cool, trying to get different sonics,” explains Erin Davis, who, like his cousin, is also a drummer that played with his father’s band. “It’s really a different sonic landscape from having just a quartet or quintet, especially by adding a trombone, tuba, and French horn in the arrangements.”
Vince Wilburn concurs. “It was an amazing feat,” he says. “Uncle Miles was a trendsetter because he thought ahead of the game. Any time you breathe something fresh into anything, it blossoms and opens up a flower. I played Birth Of The Cool just yesterday and when the needle touched the record it jumped out of the speakers at me. It was like hearing it for the first time. It’s always fresh.”
Moving on from the nonet format
Though Birth Of The Cool had a profound impact on much of the American jazz that followed in the 50s – especially on the West Coast, where a distinctive “cool jazz” scene emerged via the work of Gerry Mulligan (who, significantly, played on Birth Of The Cool), Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and numerous others – Miles Davis didn’t revisit the nonet format and, musically, began to focus on something else.
“What I love about Birth Of The Cool so much is that Miles did this stuff and then moved on,” laughs Erin Davis. “He played it for a while and then got a different band together. I love that. They could’ve just played Birth Of The Cool for ten years, but they decided to try something else. You don’t get that in rock bands, where they play the same stuff for 20 years. It gets stale and you have to find new ways to keep it interesting.
“I think he found it more interesting to do something different than just play the same thing over and over,” Erin continues. “He never rested on his laurels, he wanted to keep it fresh. I don’t know if he was bored – though that’s probably a good word to use – but I think it was more like he thought that there’s more out there to discover.”
Why he choose the group members
Reflecting on Birth Of The Cool, Miles himself remarked on the groundbreaking quality of the album in terms of its personnel: “It had white people playing the music and serving prominent roles,” he wrote in his autobiography, though some in the African-American community criticized him for using musicians like Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and Kai Winding on the project. But though a victim of racism himself many times, Miles was adamant that he wouldn’t choose musicians based on their ethnicity. “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,” Miles asserted.
Says Erin Davis: “Something like Birth Of The Cool showed that at the heart of it all, The Chief, who was always accused of not liking white people or white musicians, wasn’t concerned what you looked like as long as you could play, write or arrange. He didn’t care what you were… as long as you were good.”
Never one to dwell on his work, Erin also confirms that his father wasn’t one to discuss the details of his past recordings. “He never talked about the music. The only thing he talked about was the guys that he was playing with. He talked about Bird, Dizzy and Max Roach – all these wonderful players; and he would tell Vincent and me stories about stuff that happened on the road with them – a lot of stuff that I’d be a little reticent to repeat!”
Vincent chimes in with one story that is repeatable. “Uncle Miles said when he first got with Bird, Max Roach used to make his lips bleed because he played so fast,” he says, which prompts a roar of laughter from Erin. Roach, of course, along with Kenny Clark – whose nickname was “Klook” – contributed to the Birth Of The Cool sessions. “They were his lifelong friends, partners in crime and great players. He loved drummers and those were his buddies, and they made history together. Uncle Miles used to tell us, ‘Hey, check out Max,’ and instilled into us never to stop learning and listening – push the envelope and don’t look back.”
The work of Gil Evans
Significantly, Birth Of The Cool marked the first time Miles collaborated with arranger Gil Evans, 14 years his senior, with whom he co-wrote the track “Boplicity” (though the song was credited to Miles’ mother, Cleo Henry, because Miles said he “wanted it in a different music publishing house than the one I was signed with”). Miles and Evans would not only form a long close friendship but also, in the late 50s, would go on to collaborate on several groundbreaking masterpieces, including the albums Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess, and Sketches Of Spain.
Both Erin and Vince came to know Gil Evans during the latter part of Miles’ career. Remembers Erin: “I met Gil for the first time in the early 80s, when The Chief was rehearsing his band. He loved having Gil there. He was just one of Miles’ most trusted people and he understood music the same way. They had their own way of communicating what was working and what wasn’t. When I met Gil, he was sitting in the middle of the room at SIR studios in New York with his eyes closed, cross-legged on the floor. Then The Chief and Gil would get together and talk quietly among themselves, and maybe Gil would speak to one of the guys in the band. I remember thinking, Who is this guy? Then my father introduced me to him. Several years later I really found out what their relationship was.”
A whole new era in music
Musing on why Birth Of The Cool still resonates, Erin Davis says: “It’s really nice to listen to, for one thing. With bebop, sometimes you have to already know what it is before you put it on and then you can really enjoy it for what it is: the technical mastery and the chord changes and all that kind of stuff. But I think that Birth Of The Cool is an album that marks a shift in music, which my father was known for doing. Everybody else at that time was playing fast bebop, but then he did something different and everybody turned to look at it.”
Erin reveals that Birth Of The Cool helped him to get acquainted with his father’s music when he was younger. “I remember listening to it before I even checked out Kind Of Blue in detail,” he recalls. “So that album is an entry point for people to listen to Miles’ music. A lot of people also get into Kind Of Blue and then go back to Birth Of The Cool, because it has a great title and it signifies a whole new era in music.”
He also believes that Birth Of The Cool marked the first important step that his father took as a leader, as well as creating his own unique musical world. “The only scene he wanted to be part of is when he joined up with Charlie Parker and Dizzy and did bebop, but after that, he just wanted to start feeling how he could create and find himself and make his own space in the music,” he says. “Birth Of The Cool started to take him to where he wanted to go. It was really important because it showed that he put something out that was original and different for him as a bandleader.”
For both Erin Davis and Vince Wilburn, curating reissue projects such as The Complete Birth Of The Cool is deeply satisfying because they’re working to help preserve Miles Davis’ musical legacy. But it’s also, as Vince Wilburn reveals, great fun. “It’s like Christmas every day,” he laughs. “And I really mean that. It’s very exciting. Erin and I are like kids in the front row. It’s one thing to be related to a genius and it’s another thing to experience him on stage like we both have, playing in his bands. But then, long after he’s gone, we still have this rush when we hear this music.”
This article was first published in 2019. We are republishing it today in celebration of the start of the Birth of the Cool sessions.