In the 1940s Gil Evans was in his thirties, living behind a Chinese laundry on New York’s 55th Street, and writing arrangements for bandleader Claude Thornhill. Gerry Mulligan described the apartment in 1998: “[It] had all the pipes for the building as well as a sink, a bed, a piano, a hot-plate and no heat.” Hardly famous, the aspiring arranger would soon have an enormous influence on the post-bop development of jazz, simply by encouraging musicians to explore new directions. Working with Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and others, jam sessions at his apartment would inspire some of the most celebrated jazz records of the era.
Evans’ employer, Thornhill, had established a name for himself early in the decade with hits like “Snowfall” and left a lucrative contract with the Paramount Theater to enlist in the Navy during the Second World War. When he returned in 1946 he retained Evans as his arranger adding a number of younger musicians to his orchestra, which included many of its pre-war members like Mulligan. With the talented band, Evans began to explore what would evolve in to cool jazz.
Evans’ swinging arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s manic “Anthropology” was recorded by the Thornhill Orchestra in September 1947, and is one of our favorite big band interpretations of bop. The band melds the frantic energy of Gillespie’s changes, with its smoother style. By comparison, Gillespie’s own big band arrangement of the tune he’d written with Charlie Parker is distinctly more angular and rhythmically modern.
Evans added subtle color to the Thronhill Orchestra with a low brass section consisting of two french horns and a tuba, as well as a relaxed atmospheric sound by discouraging vibrato — both ideas being just about the opposite of Stan Kenton’s “progressive jazz,” which produced a dynamic, dense sound. On “Anthropology” the tuba, played by Harold Weskel, plays a more classical role rather than the taking the traditional jazz role of timekeeper given to low brass.
The jam sessions in Evans’ apartment because a meeting spot for musicians interested in the new style — one might run into Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker or trumpeter (and Glenn Miller Air Force Band veteran) John Carisi. The group began to put together arrangements for a novel new form, a jazz nonet to sound like the Thornhill Orchestra. The new band led by Davis played its first gigs during the intermissions of Count Basie’s residency at the Royal Roost. While many musicians loved the new style of the nonet (including Basie), the audience’s reaction was cool, and not cool in a good way.
Still, Davis convinced Capitol Records to record twelve tracks by the group over three sessions 1949 and 1950, eight of which were issued on 78rpm singles credited to Miles Davis and his Orchestra. The remaining four made their first appearance several years later on Classics in Jazz: Miles Davis, a 10″ LP in one of Capitol’s first jazz series at 33rpm. In 1957, all twelve tunes was collected as The Birth of the Cool in the LP format which has been in its infancy when the recordings were made. Ironically, the recordings were given this now-famous name by one of Stan Kenton’s arrangers, Pete Rugolo. The opening track was “Move,” the first of the singles released in 1949.
The Birth of the Cool recordings represent the post-bop interest in European classical music, especially the work of the French impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The cool jazz approach to polyphony is unique from New Orleans jazz and the music of the swing era, where horns often “battled” one another. Cool jazz arrangements found the horns working together much as voices do in choral music, creating richly textured, almost narrative landscapes. The Miles Davis-led nonet was carefully established to feature complimentary pairs: the trumpet and alto in the high range, the trombone and french horn in the middle range, and the baritone saxophone and tuba in the low range. Note there is no tenor sax, and that no individual soloist plays a consistent leading role throughout the twelve recordings.
Evans thought Charlie Parker would be the perfect musician to lead the group, but found his interest in his own development as a soloist didn’t fit the concept. Miles Davis had the right attitude towards ensemble collaboration, as well as the unique timbre necessary to compliment Lee Konitz’s alto sax.
During the band’s first residency with the Count Basie Orchestra the Royal Roost, Davis had a sign put on the sidewalk which read “featuring arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and John Lewis [of the Modern Jazz Quartet]” to emphasize the novel nature of the nonet. Ciresi also contributed, arranging his own composition “Israel.” He also created controversy simply by leading an integrated band.
A 1998 deluxe edition remastered the original Capitol LP from 1957 and added surviving recordings from two sets of the Royal Roost stand with Count Basie’s Orchestra. Included in these tracks is a nineteen-second “Birth of the Cool” theme credited to Evans and drawn from his arrangement of “Anthropology.” Davis’ solos stand out on the live recordings, as on this performance of “Godchild” by George Wallington, which the band later recorded at the first of the Capitol sessions.
If you dig out your copy of ‘Round About Midnight, the first album by the Miles Davis Quintet after being signed to Columbia Records by producer George Avakian in 1957, you’ll find a description of the ‘Birth of the Cool’ nonet which was just receiving its overdue LP issue by competitor Capitol: “Miles embarked briefly on a medium-sized band venture which was a great success musically but one of the grandest failures the jazz nightclub scene has ever known. It was a frankly experimental group, with some of the most unusual arrangements ever offered by a jazz band up to that time, and its brass section was augmented by a French horn and a tuba. In order to eat, Miles went back to working with Parker and others on 52nd Street.”
Davis was directionless before forming the quintet featured on ‘Round About Midnight and four fantastic albums for Prestige Records (all actually recorded after he signed the Columbia contract). His resentment of the success of cool jazz on the west coast — often featuring former members of his ‘frankly experimental’ nonet — was famous and vitriolic, a recurring theme of his autobiography published in 1989.
Sadly, few of the successful west coast groups really went in the same direction as the ‘Birth of the Cool’ band (a rare exception being Mulligan’s short-lived but wonderful ‘ten-tette’). It was truly one of the most original and singular experiments in jazz and the recording are an absolute joy to listen to today because there’s still nothing else quite like them.