The history behind the recording of the music that would ultimately become Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool album, released in 1957 by Capitol Records, is fascinating, complex, and the subject of some creative confusion, but there is absolutely no doubting the brilliance and the importance of this record.
In 1947, Miles Davis was playing in Charlie Parker’s quintet, having replaced Dizzy Gillespie, who had left in 1945. Davis recorded with Parker for the Savoy and Dial labels, and his first records released under his own name were recorded in 1947, and were more arranged and rehearsed than Parker’s recordings.
However, Davis was becoming increasingly concerned about tensions within the Parker quintet and in 1948 left to form his own band. At the same time, arranger Gil Evans was holding informal gatherings at his apartment on 55th Street in Manhattan. Evans’ reputation for his orchestration of bebop tunes for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra established his reputation. At these informal gatherings there was much discussion about where jazz was heading, and Evans, for one, thought he knew how to shape its future.
Forming the Miles Davis Nonet
As early as the summer of 1947, Davis and Evans met to talk about creating music together, which lead to a group of like-minded musicians becoming the Miles Davis Nonet, including baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who had written for Gene Krupa’s orchestra. The group featured two saxophones, four brass, and a rhythm section for a total of nine players. Evans and Mulligan spent the winter of 1947/48 working on the project and, according to Mulligan, “We picked instruments [with matching timbres]… and one of each. We had a high section with a trumpet and the alto, we had a middle section with the trombone and the French horn, and a low section with the baritone and tuba. So we had those… basic colors to work with.” The omission of tenor saxophone, seen as a standard jazz instrument, was seen at the time as very unusual.
With Davis and Mulligan taking trumpet and baritone saxophone, aided by Evans they created their perfect band. For alto saxophone they chose Lee Konitz, tuba player Bill Barber and French hornist Sandy Siegelstein (they had been in the Thornhill band), who was later replaced by Junior Collins. Trombonist JJ Johnson was the first choice for the band, but he was heavily committed to Illinois Jacquet’s group, though he did play on the final two sessions. Both bassist Al McKibbon and pianist John Lewis had been members of Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra, while Miles knew drummer Max Roach from Parker’s quintet.
In September 1948, the nonet opened for Count Basie at the Royal Roost on New York’s Broadway. In the set that night were selections they would later record in the studio, among them “Budo” and “Moon Dreams”; Mulligan contributed six arrangements, Lewis three, Evans two, and composer John Carisi arranged his own composition, “Israel,” for the band. At the Royal Roost, Mike Zwerin played trombone and former Dizzy Gillespie vocalist Kenny Hagood sang a couple of numbers.
Recording Birth Of The Cool
Arranger and Capitol talent scout Pete Rugolo heard the nonet at the Royal Roost and got them into the studio to record. They cut 12 tracks over three sessions that spanned 18 months, with the first taking place on January 21, 1949, at WOR Studios in New York, as did the other two sessions; Davis, Konitz, Mulligan, and Barber were the only musicians who played on all three. At the first session, they did four tracks: Mulligan’s “Jeru” and “Godchild,” as well as Lewis’ “Move” and “Budo.” For this date, Kai Winding replaced Zwerin on trombone, Al Haig replaced Lewis on piano, and Joe Shulman replaced McKibbon on bass. They are arguably the catchiest numbers of the 12, and Capitol were mindful of the sales potential as they were looking to issue 78rpm records. “Move” and “Budo” were paired on the first release, followed by “Jeru” and “Godchild.”
Three months later, on April 22, the second session included JJ Johnson on trombone, Sandy Siegelstein on French horn, Nelson Boyd on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, and John Lewis returning to piano. They recorded Mulligan’s “Venus De Milo,” Lewis’ “Rouge,” Carisi’s “Israel” and “Boplicity.” The last two tracks formed the next 78rpm release, followed by “Venus De Milo” and “Darn That Dream,” with Hagood on vocals, and which was recorded at the third and final session which took place on March 9, 1950. That session also featured Mulligan’s “Darn That Dream,” “Rocker,” and “Deception,” as well as Evans’ arrangement of Chummy MacGregor’ “Moon Dreams.” This time the band featured Gunther Schuller on French horn and Al McKibbon on bass.
In 1954, Capitol released eight of the tracks on a 10” record titled Classics in Jazz: Miles Davis. Then three years later, 11 of the tracks (all except for “Darn That Dream”) were released by Capitol as Birth Of The Cool; the final track, “Darn That Dream,” was included with the other 11 on a 1971 LP. while the live recordings of the nonet from the Royal Roost were later released as Cool Boppin’. In 1998, Capitol Records released The Complete Birth Of The Cool, which was remastered by engineer Rudy Van Gelder and collected the nonet’s live and studio tracks onto a single CD.
A pivotal album
Noted US West Coast saxophonist Azar Lawrence, who wasn’t even born when the recording sessions took place in 1949 and 1950, but went on to play with Miles Davis for a short time in the 70s, believes that Birth Of The Cool marked an important step in the evolution of modern jazz. “That album is just so pivotal in terms of the whole way jazz has developed,” he says. Explaining how the rich, layered sonorities of Miles’ Capitol sessions impacted the harmonic language of jazz, he continues, “We saw a shift in how people were approaching their instruments and the tonal qualities they used to express themselves.”
Birth Of The Cool represented a beacon of what is possible in jazz says the Los Angeles-born saxophonist. “I was inspired by the album and that period of time,” he reveals. “I got to know it through a friend of mine, Reggie Golson – the son of the great tenor saxophonist and composer Benny Golson – who had an extensive collection of albums at his house. That’s where I first heard Birth Of The Cool. It was very informative music.”
Musing on what led Miles Davis to leave bebop’s sonic heat behind and seek a cooler, more emotionally restrained, and pre-arranged sound, Lawrence says, “Miles had grown out of bebop and definitely wanted to try something new. He was a very experimental kind of guy and was hearing some different approaches to jazz. Birth Of The Cool was an important building block in jazz and helped the music to evolve further. From that point, Miles became one of the pivotal musicians in jazz.”
A foundational work and a musical landmark
While Miles’ name is on the record, the genius of Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans is all over this record. It was clearly a collaborative effort with Miles as the enabler, the one that brought them all together. It’s a record full of harmonic surprises, and the effervescence felt by the musicians is palpable. As the introduction on the live material from the Royal Roost says, “this is impressions in modern music.” It sounded very modern then, and it sounds just as modern today. Birth Of The Cool is an album that should be in every basic jazz library, because it is great music, but it also is a link between the beboppers and the cooler direction that jazz was to take.
Azar Lawrence agrees. “Birth Of The Cool certainly had a great influence,” he states. “It was such a phenomenal expression of artistry. It was like something created by Picasso or Bach or Mozart, or somebody of that stature of expression. It’s a foundational work and a musical landmark.”