ALBUM TITLE: Birth of the Cool
ARTIST NAME: Miles Davis
YEAR OF RELEASE:
Kelly: Moon Dreams
The Birth of the Cool was recorded in 1949 and 1950 and released in February 1957. Through much of the 1940s Miles Davis was playing in a quintet with Charlie Parker, but he struggled to keep up with Parker’s virtuosity and tensions in the group grew due to Parker’s worsening drug abuse. Meanwhile, pianist and arranger Gil Evans starts hosting get-togethers in his apartment, attracting like minded and forward-thinking musicians. They talked about blending rich harmonies and mixing an impressionist patina into Big Band. Fast forward to 1949 and the group of 9 (Miles Davis on trumpet, Kai Winding on trombone, Junior Collins on french horn, Bill Barber on tuba, Lee Konitz on alto saxophone, Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone, Al Haig on piano, Joe Schulman on bass and Max Roach on drums) started laying down some tracks, many arranged by Gil Evans, in the studio later to be compiled on the album. Davis, Konitz, Mulligan and Barber were the only 4 musicians who played on every track. After 2 other recording sessions, some of the tracks were released on 78s and then a few more on 10” in 1954. It wasn’t until 1957 that all 11 tracks were released by Capitol records on 1 album – Birth of the Cool. The album saw very positive reviews, with people comparing it to French Impressionist music, one critique noting that it sounds like the music of Maurice Ravel, if Ravel had written jazz. Despite the album’s moderate success, Capitol weren’t happy with their returns and didn’t sign Davis to another album. Davis went on to sign with Prestige and continue his groundbreaking career.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton, Illinois on May 26, 1926 to affluent parents. Miles went to Catholic school and took a shine to music right away, especially blues, gospel and big band. He says that music dominated his life by age 12, when his dad bought him a trumpet and he began playing at school, marching band and talent shows. He also said he entered music competitions where he was discriminated against due to his race, but claims it made him a better musician. When a trumpet player position became available, Davis was encouraged to take it, and he eventually became the band manager. He was determined to go on tour with the group, but his mother insisted he finish high school. In 1944 he moved to New York to study at Julliard, but his mind was elsewhere – he was determined to meet his idol Charlie Parker. He neglected his studies and skipped class, despite Coleman Hawkins telling him to focus and ‘forget Bird’. He found Parker, dropped out of Julliard and began playing clubs on 52nd st. Eventually he replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s quintet and participated in some recordings with the group, along with Gillespie and Max Roach. By the end of 1945 Davis was in hospital in LA for several months due to a nervous breakdown and started abusing alcohol and cocaine, and neglecting his 2 young children. When released Davis continued to play in quintets with Max Roach and Charlie Parker for the better part of the late 40s. In 1948 he declined a spot in Duke Ellington’s band to form his own band with baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan. They got their own gigs and Davis continued to play with Parker, but things were strained due to Parker’s increasingly erratic behaviour due to drug use. When he quit in 1948 he started becoming more interested in the West Coast jazz scene, or ‘cool’ jazz, and the subsequent recordings through the next few years were compiled for the album we’re looking at today, “The Birth of the Cool”.
In 1949 Davis spent some time in Paris and discovered that Black people were treated better in France than in the US and found his time there transformative, however he returned to the US depressed and deeply addicted to heroin. The early 50s saw him playing with different musicians and experimenting with harmonies and tones on his trumpet, but his heroin addiction was not only distracting him (he made money for his habit by borrowing from friends, pimping prostitutes and generally being a hustler) but also it was interfering with his playing. He decided to spend some time at his father’s house and also spent 6 months in Detroit, trying to avoid New York and wanting to get healthy. His style of music was evolving as well, leaving bebop behind for hard bop. He also cultivated and perfected his persona – cold, arrogant, disdainful; he developed vocal nodes which he had removed, but doctors warned him not to speak for a while after the surgery or it could permanently damage his voice – which of course he did – giving him his signature rasp. The rest of the 1950s saw Davis creating and figuring out his quintet. He originally had John Coltraine on sax, but his drug use irritated Davis, so he fired him. He had a bit of a revolving door for his quintet, firing and hiring depending on the sound that he was looking for. The late 50s and early 60s were Davis’ “Kind of Blue” period, where he collaborated with pianist and band leader Gil Evans for 5 albums, including the aforementioned album “Kind of Blue” – it was an immediate success and despite its triumph Davis was still being awful to women, having beat his wife due to his ‘temper and jealousy’. The lion’s share of the 1960s Davis formed a second quintet and played with such greats as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter. 1968 was the beginning of his “electric period”, where he was listening to a lot of rock and soul which influenced him until 1975, when he took a hiatus from music. From 1975 to 1980 Davis was elbows deep in alcohol, cocaine and women. He had a much needed hip replacement, was jailed for neglecting to pay child support and generally bummed around until he got back together with acting great Cicely Tyson, who helped him clean up and kick his habits. By 1980 he was playing again but his chops were out of shape. His comeback album “The Man with the Horn” was a flop, and Davis went to Africa where he binged on alcohol. A stroke brought him back to the US where Tyson nursed him back to health. Davis started recording again and in 1984 met sculptor Jo Gelbard, with whom he started an affair (he was still married to Tyson). He also started daily insulin injection for diabetes. He was back into the swing of things by the later 80s. He started experimenting with sampling and electronics and appeared in a few films, but by 1989 his marriage to Tyson was kaput. Tyson was still involved with Jo Gelbard, who stuck by him despite his increasingly aggressive behaviour towards her. In Fall of 1991 Davis was admitted to hospital for pneumonia and ended up having another stroke, which put him in a coma and on life support. The machines were turned off and Davis slipped away on September 28, 1991.
Miles Davis refused to shake hands with people before performances as he didn’t want other peoples’ oil to mess up how his hands felt.
Davis’ album “Kind of Blue” has sold more copies than any other jazz album.
I have listened to this album a million times, so here we go! Overall, I think this album is super well put together. I like the progression from one track to another, and I think it’s a great example of ensemble playing, collaboration, and imagination.
This album is also a who’s who of jazz musicians at the time who were all forward-looking and trying new things within the genre. Notably (to me), you can hear Gerry Mulligan on bari sax, who’s showing his versatility and just how melodic the baritone saxophone can be. You also get J.J. Johnson just being as solid and full sounding on trombone as ever. And, obviously, Miles Davis’ trumpet playing always seems to float above the rest of the ensemble. But what makes this even more interesting than these big names is that there’s also french horn and tuba in the mix, which are generally two instruments not associated with jazz. Their sounds contribute a lot of cool colours to these tunes.
The song that opens up the album is Move which is a great welcome into this album’s world. It still sounds a lot like bebop, however the use of the tuba, and the layers of different instruments gives it a lot of colour and tones that are unexpected. It’s a short, flashy opener that moves through solos quickly and gets the job done.
Next up is Jeru by Gerry Mulligan. The best things about this song are the solos, and the interludes between them in my mind. Miles Davis sounds fantastic, and Gerry Mulligan chooses to stay in the higher range of the bari the whole time, contributing to the unexpected tone colours all the way through this album. I love how there’s a lot of unison movement in the horns, but how different instruments seem to leap out of the texture at different times.
Next is the first slow tune of the album, Moon Dreams. This one to me sounds impressionist, and focuses on the different colours that the ensemble can pull together. It’s not my favourite melody because it’s a little directionless to my ears for the first while, but the orchestration is really the cool thing here. There are so many phrases that end with a held note that one lower instrument will play a series of running notes underneath, and it really gives this tune a great sense of layering.
Venus de Milo is much more of a straight ahead tune that sounds very big band-esque, with a lot of rhythmic unison playing, big harmonies, and the whole brass section playing under the soloist for some of the choruses. A bit less memorable than the other tracks….
Following that is the high energy Budo – everyone is playing with such forward motion, the drums sound great and do a lot of pulling into and out of focus, and Miles Davis’ solo is so fun and exciting to listen to.
Deception is up next, and is another straight ahead tune that I feel like is one of the more well known tunes from the album. I like it because of the interplay between Miles and the saxophones, I think they complement each other really well. Also, just so cool to have a horn solo! It’s not by any means life changing, but definitely changed a lot of perceptions on the horn!
Next up is the similar in tempo and tonality, but TOTALLY different in feel, Godchild, which starts with a bari sax/tuba/horn soli. Weird. I love it. Every time I listen to this album in order it just feels like Miles Davis gets more present and more the focus of each tune, though I know that these songs were not recorded in the order they show up here.
Boplicity is up, and is rhythmically really interesting with these stretched out triplets, but is over in a blink of an eye, and then we’re taken to Rocker. I like Rocker. It’s got some great drumming, and a cool balance to the mix that I’m not sure was quite the same on the original recording.
And then there’s Israel. The coolest thing about this tune is the playing with rhythms, and again the low instruments and what they do under the solos. I think the orchestration is super weird and strong on this one and that makes it another favourite of mine. This tune ends with one of the coolest solis ever, before closing out the album with Rouge. Rouge is an adventure in feels. It sounds jaunty at first, and then gets intense. Then it meanders into one of the few meaty piano solos in the whole album, which just feels like a breath of fresh air.
So, it may be obvious to some but the things I like the most about this album, and what I think gave it such staying power is all the risks that were taken in putting this album together – tonally, instrumentally, and even the fact that it’s a bunch of really short tunes, makes this album different than what was available at the time, and just overall a really cool exploration of sounds. The other thing, which I say without disparaging the album at all, is that this album is totally accessible in that non-jazz fans can enjoy it for what it is. You don’t need to take a deep dive, but if you do, there’s a lot there. I think that’s really hard to do – make music that meets your audience wherever it needs to be met.
Ok full disclosure – I haven’t really listened to a lot of Miles Davis, and what I have heard (Kind of Blue), I don’t really like that much, so when I saw the next album was Miles, I was like ‘aw geez’. I have friends who LOVE Miles Davis and these people are very educated musicians, and I recognize that he is considered one of the most acclaimed and influential musicians of the 20th century, so I feel like I also need to love Miles Davis. I think my biggest qualms about him previous to listening to this record is that I don’t love his trumpet playing. Lots of cacks, nothing particularly outwardly impressive. But I spoke with Holly about him (she knows waaaaay more about jazz than I do, which is why her writing about this album is going to be significantly more profound than mine) and she said that cacks and missed notes were part of the process to Davis and despite his mid-sounding trumpet playing, he was a musically brilliant visionary. So let’s get into it!
The first track Move actually surprised me a bit the first time I listened to it – it’s fun and busy and exciting! I really like a forward bari sax, so it was good to hear some front and centre Mulligan. Davis has a good solo followed by the alto sax, who I feel like has some nice tone. My favourite part about the song was the bombastic drumming of Max Roach. I love a very in-your-face, forward-sounding drummer and Max is no shrinking violet!
Next is Jeru, kicked off with some nice unisons, interspersed with solos by Davis and Mulligan. I really like Davis’ solo on this one – I feel like the tempo and key fit nicely where he’s comfortable and can really shine. Mulligan’s solo is good too, but I was hoping for some more low register! Max Roach still sounds amazing.
For the 3rd song they slow it down with Moon Dreams. I like this song a lot. It sounds like an almost perfect little romantic slow dance, but there’s something a little ominous in the harmonies and how it sounds slightly out of tune. It’s very lush and layered and feels like a slow walk along the Seine on a rainy Paris day, and all of a sudden the instruments ascend to a menacing unison and the notes all melt away into a quiet denouement.
They pick up the pace a bit again for Venus de Milo. This song is fine. It has a nice little melody, nothing too complicated or impressive, but it is a nice sounding song. Good unisons with the brass and a great solo by Davis. Again, Roach is holding me down with his snare fills. I listened to the song a few times in a row trying to come up with more to say about it, but that’s about it. A nice little number
Budo is next, fast and a little frantic. It almost feels like the tempo is a bit too fast, with Roach pushing it as much as he can and everyone else barely keeping up. The solos in this one are good, and we even get a trombone solo! The unisions feel a bit sloppy, like they were totally under rehearsed, but I guess that’s part of the magic! And of course, I love the Roach drum fills near the end.
Another faster one, Deception has some tight unisons and a pleasant melody. The solos are fine, and I really like that it was like a brass sampler. But all in all this song is nothing really to write home about.
Next up is Godchild and oh my god I love the tuba in this! It gives the brass soli such a nice warm depth and it’s totally unexpected. This song is so fun, and almost feels like it has a light Latin flavour. Like diet Latin. The solos are all good but I particularly like the sax. Mulligan is serving us in this song!
Slowing down again a bit for Boplicity, and more good harmonies, unisons, meandering melodies. But at this point I started thinking to myself, have I listened to the whole album? Did it start over and I didn’t notice? It was sounding a bit repetitive to me. That might just be an indictment for this song in particular. Nothing about it really stands out. It sounds like they stuck Max Roach out in the hallway and recorded him from there. This song is also Miles heavy, with lots of trumpet solo. This song isn’t necessarily a skip, but just meh.
Rocker is next, and when I saw the title I thought to myself “like rock and roll?” but then remembered I’m an idiot and of course not, rock and roll wasn’t a thing yet in 1950. But the title gives itself a way in the gentle ascent and descent in the accompaniment, sounding like a musical rocking chair. This song is pretty gentle, and it sounds like everyone is holding back a bit, at least in showing off.
The penultimate track is Israel. This one sounds….weird. Almost like the lower instruments are droning open fifths while the solos play, until they drop out for a minute, only to have Mulligan and the tuba get some bass shots in. Again, great solo by the alto sax player, I really like his tone.
We close out the whole damn thing with Rouge, which again has some great unisons, some nice tasty harmony and a piano solo! Well hello there piano, I feel like you have been largely absent from this project. ONCE AGAIN a stellar alto sax solo, Davis sounds good on his and takes the majority of solo time (it is his album after all). Like a lovely drumming book end, we get some nice drum fills – like in the first track – from our friend Max Roach. And before you know it, it’s all over!
All said and done, this album pleasantly surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did and although it’s not my favourite jazz album of all time, there were parts about it that I really liked. I didn’t really know that much Max Roach, so I feel this album is a gateway for me to his music. I also like how a lot of it sounds like Impressionism, as I love the French Impressionist classical musicians, so this felt like the American Impressionist experience. Each song was on the shorter side, so the record felt like a sampler intro to cool jazz, 11 little tasty instrumental morsels for you to snack on and whet your cool jazz palette. I’m glad I got to listen to it.
Average grade out of 10:
Link to the album on Spotify: