The Birth Of The Cool
In the 1950's there was continued investigation into the idea of exploring advanced harmonies and textures in jazz music. The most significant attempt at this came from a group of young musicians who met together repeatedly at the New York apartment of arranger and composer Gil Evans in the late 1940's. These men, who included Miles Davis, John Lewis, Lee Konitz, Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan, looked at bringing in instruments not used in jazz often like French horn and tuba to create a larger unified sound and took cues from the work of French impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy. What emerged was a style of jazz that worked at a lower intensity than bebop but was still sophisticated and swinging, a style that came to be known as "Cool Jazz". The results of this work were recorded by a nine piece group under the leadership of Miles Davis, sessions that eventually came out as an album entitled Birth Of The Cool.
This is a sample of that wotrk, a Gerry Mulligan composition called "Jeru":
I'll talk about Miles Davis and Gil Evans in later posts but for now I want to concenrtnate on Gerry Mulligan. Mulligan was known first as an arranger but he later gained fame for his effortless way with the unwieldy baritone sax. He took the Birth of the Cool ideas to the West Coast where an entire movement of cerebral, easy-swinging players would emerge, men like Shorty Rogers, Art Farmer, Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton, and Jim Hall.
Mulligan's biggest innovation was in putting together a small group without a piano, just two horns and a rhythm section. Jazz without the harmonic bridge of a piano was virtually unheard of at the time but Mulligan pitting the low sound of his baritone against the trumpets of either Baker or Farmer or the valve trombone of Bob Brookmeyer gave his band's sound a flowing freedom that would resonate in different forms through later years. Here is a 1957 Mulligan quartet with Brookmeyer playing "Open Country":
Jimmy Giuffre was not part of the "Birth of the Cool" sessions but he had ideas along the same lines. Adept at a number of reed instruments, he first played and wrote for big bands, most famously composing the saxophone section workout "Four Brothers" for the Woody Herman Orchestra but he soon developed his own concept of quiet, unusual instrumental combinations, working in trios with bass and either (again) Bob Brookmeyer's trombone or Jim Hall's guitar. He did a lot of work with simple blues and folk forms in the Fifties before eventually going more abstract in the mid-60's. Here he is on various reeds with Hall and Jim Atlas on bass in 1957 doing his composition "The Train and The River".
The Modern Jazz Quartet
John Lewis was part of the "Cool" sessions but his main interests turned out to come from the past, the baroque music of Bach and his contemporaries. Lewis had been pianist in Dizzy Gillespie's big band and during their concerts, he and the rest of the rhythm section, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Ray Brown on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, would play a few numbers to give the horn players a break. Eventually that quartet would go out on its own as the Modern Jazz Quartet with Percy Heath replacing Brown and Connie Kay replacing Clarke. The group was originally co-led by Lewis and Jackson but eventually Lewis took over the sole reigns and began to explore in depth merging classical music and jazz. The polite elegance of his piano and the bluesy gravity of Jackson's vibes made a stark but sexy contrast, distinctive enough to make the Modern Jazz Quartet last through five decades, playing all over the world, collaborating with symphony orchestras and in their own way, presenting an image of the black jazz musician as a dignified serious artist, something that looking back was a powerful statement for its time. This is a studio recording of one of their most popular tunes, Lewis' "Django", a piece that strongly states their classics/jazz dichotomy.
I wrote a post about Brubeck when he passed away but I can't leave him out here. He was another musician who brought classical influences to jazz, experimenting with advanced harmonies and unusual time signatures. After trying out an octet in the late 40's, he began a partnership with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond that lasted over twenty years. Brubeck's driving, angular playing mixed with Desmond's sighing, liquid sax was a perfectly balanced combination and with Eugene Wright and Joe Morello in the rhythm section they were the most popular jazz group of their day, even managing a Top 10 pop hit in "Take Five". After the quartet broke up in 1967 Brubeck continued to work with other quartets as well as composing extended orchestral works and played almost up until his death in 2012. Some people in the old days complained that Brubeck's music didn't swing enough but by the time he died he was universally regarded as one of the finest musicians in the music's history. Here is the classic Brubeck quartet doing "Blue Rondo A La Turk" on one of Hugh Hefner's Playboy TV shows. Cecil Taylor has always cited Brubeck as a favorite player. His solo here clues you in as to why.