West Coast Cool


The heat and urgency of bebop began to relax with the development of Cool Jazz. Starting in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, musicians began to develop a less frantic, smoother approach toward improvising modeled after the light, dry playing of swing-era tenorist Lester Young. The result was a laid-back and even-keeled sound bearing a facade of emotionally detached “coolness.”

Trumpeter Miles Davis, one of the first bebop players to “cool it,” emerged as the greatest innovator of the genre. His Birth Of The Cool nonet recordings of 1949-‘50 are the epitome of Cool Jazz lyricism and understatement. Other notable instrumentalists of the Cool school include trumpeter Chet Baker, pianists George Shearing, John Lewis, Dave Brubeck and Lennie Tristano, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and saxophonists Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims and Paul Desmond.

Arrangers, too, contributed significantly to the Cool Jazz movement, most notably Tadd Dameron, Claude Thornihill, Gil Evans and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Their compositions focused on instrumental colors and slower-moving, more suspended harmony, which created an illusion of spaciousness. Dissonance played some part in the music as well, but in a softened, muted way. Cool Jazz allowed room for slightly larger ensembles; nonets and tentets were more common than during the lean-and-mean bebop years. Some arrangers experimented with altered instrumentation, including conical brass like french horn and tuba.

Jazz players making their livings in the recording studios of Los Angeles picked up on the Cool Jazz movement in the 1950s. Largely influenced by the Miles Davis nonet, these L.A.-based players developed what’s now known as West Coast Jazz.

Like Cool Jazz, West Coast Jazz was much more subdued than the frantic bebop that preceded it. Most West Coast Jazz was scored out in great detail, and it often sounded a bit European with its use of contrapuntal lines. However, the music left wide-open spaces for long, linear solo improvisations.

While West Coast Jazz was played mostly in recording studios, clubs like the Lighthouse on Hermosa Beach and the Haig in Los Angeles often presented top players of the genre, which included trumpeter Shorty Rogers, saxophonists Art Pepper and Bud Shank, drummer Shelly Manne and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre.

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May 2017
José James
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