The term ‘Cool Jazz’ may have been primarily introduced by journalists and record labels in 1950s America, but there’s no doubting that some of the greatest jazz musicians in history can be associated with this style.
Often using detailed written arrangements and even some elements from classical music, the Cool school of jazz would go on to influence important later developments in different styles of jazz music music, including modal, Bossa Nova and even the European avant garde.
With all that in mind, we wanted to put together a list of our 10 best Cool Jazz albums and artists of all time, along with some specific recommended tracks to listen to along the way.
Feel free to let us know in the comments section if you feel we missed an important one and, if you’re looking for a wider range of styles, check out our round up of the best jazz albums of all time.
ℹ️ The term Cool Jazz is thought to originate from the title of the 1953 compilation album Classics in Jazz: Cool and Quiet – although it’s now used to refer to music that predates its release. Whether any of these musicians would have referred to themselves in that way is debatable though!
10 of the best Cool Jazz albums & artists
Mulligan played baritone saxophone on Birth of the Cool, as well as contributing both compositions and arrangements to the album.
His influential quartet with Chet Baker on trumpet (later replaced by valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer) has one of the most distinctive sounds in all of jazz music.
He would later return to orchestrating for a larger ensemble with his own Concert Jazz Band, as well as recording collaborative albums with jazz giants including Ben Webster, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges and Annie Ross.
Recommended album: Gerry Mulligan Quartet Volume 1
With a lineup of baritone saxophone, trumpet, double bass and drums, Mulligan’s Quartet was unusual in that it did not contain a piano or guitar to provide chordal harmony.
On tracks like ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ and ‘Bernie’s Tune’ the two front-line instruments accompany each other, improvising simultaneously to weave a Baroque-like counterpoint over the walking bass and drums.
The band had a successful 11-month residency at The Haig nightclub in Hollywood before disbanding after Mulligan was arrested on drug charges.
Despite its short lifespan, the Gerry Mulligan Quartet had an instantly recognisable sound that, for many, is symbolic of Cool or ‘West Coast’ Jazz.
John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet
Like Mulligan, pianist John Lewis played on Birth of the Cool and contributed compositions and arrangements to the nonet’s pad.
His own band, The Modern Jazz Quartet, was dedicated to performing elegant, complex arrangements that combined the influence of classical and jazz music.
However, the band had grown out of the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band and, in Milt Jackson, featured perhaps the greatest bebop vibraphonist of all time. So the MJQ nevertheless played music that was swinging and steeped in the blues.
The band proved popular, becoming one of the first jazz groups to perform in concert halls rather than nightclubs.
Recommended album: Django
The Modern Jazz Quartet’s most well known album was released in 1956, and features a number of Lewis originals, including the title track (a dedication to Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt) as well as arrangements of American Songbook standards ‘But Not For Me’ and ‘Autumn in New York’.
The exact personnel would vary slightly over the years – Connie Kay would take the drum chair on the group’s next album, Fontessa – but Django features the classic lineup of Lewis on piano, Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on double bass and Kenny Clarke on drums.
Nicknamed ‘The Sound’ for his lyrical tenor tone, Stan Getz was primarily influenced by Lester Young.
He initially found fame as a member of Woody Herman’s big band, before later recording extensively as a bandleader himself. He helped popularise Bossa Nova in the USA, his relaxed solos fitting perfectly with João Gilberto’s guitar, Astrud Gilberto’s voice and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s songs.
Rarely sounding less than perfect – even on when months away from death on 1991’s People Time in duet with Kenny Barron – he was surely one of the most consistent improvisers of all time.
Recommended album: West Coast Jazz
Recorded with a Los Angeles-based band while Getz was in the city temporarily, the album’s title is something of an in-joke: the saxophonist was often associated with West Coast jazz, perhaps due to his cool aesthetic and languid playing, as well as his work with L.A. natives like Chet Baker, but he actually grew up in Philadelphia and New York.
This straight ahead session features Conte Candoli on trumpet and includes an incredible Getz solo on the up-tempo ‘S-H-I-N-E’.
Like Lee Konitz, he was one of the few altoists to forge a distinctive sound that was relatively free of Bird’s influence during this era.
Later on, after stints in prison relating to struggles with drug addiction, the Californian would go through something of a stylistic shift, coming under the influence of John Coltrane’s 1960s work and producing more intense music that cannot really be considered Cool.
His autobiography Straight Life contains some incredible stories and is well worth a read.
Recommended album: Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section
This 1957 session sees him accompanied by Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, who as members of Miles Davis’ quintet at the time formed perhaps the archetypal East Coast rhythm section.
Michael G. Nastos’ review for All Music calls it “a classic east meets west, cool plus hot but never lukewarm combination.”
Art Pepper + Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics is another essential West Coast jazz album, with fantastic arrangements by Marty Paich.
Tristano’s most famous student, and the third musician on this list to have appeared on Birth of the Cool, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz went on to play with a huge range of musicians in an incredible 70-year career until his death in 2020.
He initially appeared with with the orchestras of Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton, retaining his own style at a time when the influence of Charlie Parker was incredibly prevalent.
Later in life, with a pared down, more simply melodic approach, he would generally focus on playing a select few standards, relentlessly trying to improvise new melodies over these familiar old chord sequences.
The saxophonist’s view: “One of the things I admire the most about Konitz is that he adapted really well to getting older, and perhaps not having the same instrumental facility that he had in his younger days.
His later recordings don’t tend to feature fast tempos with lots of notes; just beautiful improvised melodies, and arguably a more expressive sound than on his early albums.
Good examples of his later playing include Alone Together, Costumes Are Mandatory and Paul Motian’s On Broadway Volume 3.” – Sam Braysher (UK)
Recommended album: Motion
The slightly unexpected rhythm section on this 1961 trio album includes powerful drummer Elvin Jones – most famous for his role in John Coltrane’s classic quartet, the spiritual, emotive music of which is perhaps the antithesis of Cool – and bassist Sonny Dallas, who was another student of Lennie Tristano.
Konitz barely even states the melodies to the five standards heard here, diving straight into pure, inspired improvisation on what many consider to be his finest album.
Pianist and composer Dave Brubeck’s music displayed the clear influence of classical music, and he is perhaps best known for his innovations in introducing the use of odd time signatures to jazz.
Paul Desmond, the long-serving alto saxophonist in Brubeck’s Quartet, also possessed one of the most recognisable tones of the Cool school, memorably claiming that he aimed to sound “like a dry Martini”.
Brubeck’s music was incredibly popular and he was the second jazz musician (after Louis Armstrong) to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
Recommended album: Time Out
Recorded in 1959, this is one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time and is included on our list of greatest jazz albums of all time. It features compositions in a variety of odd time signatures: ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ in 9/8 time; ‘Pick Up Sticks’ in 6/4 time; and the famous lilting 5/4 of ‘Take Five’, which was actually composed by Desmond.
Although she is not always described as a Cool jazz musician, Blossom Dearie’s sweet, girlish voice surely owes something to the style.
Also a fine pianist, she sang songs in both English and French, having moved to Paris from her native New York as a young woman, before subsequently returning to the United States.
Her later work saw her interpreting witty numbers by Dave Frishberg as well as writing songs herself, and she was often heard in a cabaret setting.
Recommended Blossom Dearie album: My Gentleman Friend
With Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen (both members of Oscar Peterson’s trio) on bass and drums respectively, plus Kenny Burrell on guitar and Blossom herself on piano and vocals, this is a great session from 1961.
Like many Dearie albums it contains a thoughtful selection of repertoire, mixing well-known favourites like ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ with more obscure tunes like the title track and Cy Coleman’s ‘You Fascinate Me So’.
A strange and somewhat controversial figure, blind jazz pianist Lennie Tristano did not record a huge amount, instead focussing on teaching for much of his career. In this role he influenced a number of important musicians, most notably saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.
A virtuosic technician, his music received significant press attention in the late 1940s as an alternative to bebop.
He advocated a purely improvised approach, with no preconceived ‘licks’, and some critics dismissed his complex linear piano playing as coldly intellectual.
He encouraged his students to learn and sing solos by Lester Young, Roy Eldridge and Charlie Parker, and they would also write ‘sample solos’ over standard chord progressions, which could then be performed as compositions themselves.
Examples include Konitz’s ‘Subconscious-Lee’ (based on the chord sequence to ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’) and Tristano’s own ‘Ablution’, derived from ‘All The Things You Are’.
Although he generally favoured improvising on standard chord progressions, Tristano actually created the first ever ‘free’ group improvisations with 1949’s ‘Intuition’ and ‘Digression’, a decade before Ornette Coleman’s ground-breaking quartet appeared on the scene.
Tristano and his students generally eschewed the blues, and he was disapproving of overt emotion in music. This explains the feeling of cool detachment to many recordings associated with the ‘Tristano School’.
Recommended album: Lennie Tristano
The opening track, ‘Line Up’, is one of the most distinctive and talked-about jazz recordings of all time.
The pianist’s improvisation on the old standard ‘All of Me’ is full of breathtakingly complex rhythmic trickery and odd phrase lengths.
However, it was apparently recorded at half speed and an octave lower, separately from the bass and drums, before being sped up to the tempo and pitch that we hear, which accounts for the recording’s other-worldly sound quality.
The piece ‘Turkish Mambo’ also utilises multi-tracked recording.
These recording techniques were almost unheard of in the mid-1950s, and some people considered Tristano’s use of them tantamount to cheating. The second half of this album is a more standard quartet affair, featuring Konitz and a great rhythm section of Art Taylor and Gene Ramey.
One of the most important and influential jazz musicians of all time, Miles Davis’ considered mid-register trumpet playing of the late 1940s and early ‘50s – with its emphasis on space – is perhaps the archetypal sound of Cool jazz.
However, Mile Davis is one of music’s great shapeshifting innovators and to refer to him simply in this sub-genre doesn’t nearly do his legacy justice.
He played in landmark bebop groups led by Charlie Parker, before later pioneering modal jazz on Kind Of Blue, although this also arguably has a Cool aesthetic.
His Second Great Quintet experimented with freer forms, and he embraced electric sounds and fusion on his later albums.
Recommended album: The Birth of The Cool
A collaboration with the influential arranger Gil Evans, the nine-piece band on this historic recording is lent a chamber-jazz sound by the unusual inclusion of tuba and French horn.
With his iconic trumpet tone and striking sense of visual style, Miles was the perfect frontman for a band that included some of the most forward-thinking soloists of the day.
Birth of the Cool must have sounded hugely futuristic when it was recorded in 1949, with its contrapuntal arrangements and a harmonic palette informed by impressionistic classical music, although the band’s sound was foreshadowed by Evans’ writing for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra.
Davis would collaborate with the orchestrator again on later classic records like Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess.
Perhaps the most recognisable face of West Coast jazz, Chet Baker’s relaxed trumpet playing always sounded completely natural. His approach, restrained and largely utilising the mid-register, was influenced by Miles Davis’s early work.
He recorded with Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker and many others, residing in Europe for much of his later life. You can find out more about this legendary musician in this list of best jazz trumpet players in history.
Recommended album: Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen To You
Chet Baker began to sing in the mid-1950s, a decision that divided opinion.
His light, delicate voice did not really sound like any other singers of the time, but his vocal albums saw him reach mainstream popularity, no doubt helped by his film star good looks.
We cover one of his most famous ever songs in our round up of great jazz ballads, but this 1958 session sees him singing and swinging on a great selection of standards, as well as taking short but wonderfully melodic trumpet solos.
About Cool Jazz
If you’re looking to learn about Cool Jazz, here are some frequently asked questions (and answers!) to get you started…
What is Cool Jazz?
Cool jazz is a style of jazz music that first rose to popularity in the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s. It’s characterised by a relaxed, somewhat smooth aesthetic and quieter dynamics, in contrast to the ‘hotter’, more frantic sounds of bebop that emerged around the same time.
What’s the difference between Cool jazz and Bebop?
Broadly speaking, ‘Cool’ jazz can be considered a continuation of the lineage of the thoughtful 1920s soloing of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, and Lester Young’s masterful 1930s tenor playing. Bebop, meanwhile, builds upon the legacy of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins’ more overtly impassioned sounds.
What is West Coast Jazz?
West Coast jazz – bringing to mind images of sun-soaked 1950s Los Angeles – is a sub-genre of the music which has some crossover with Cool. Not all of the best Cool jazz artists on this list are from the West Coast of America though!
Most Famous Cool Jazz Songs
Whilst the albums we covered in this article will help you discover some of the best Cool jazz songs around, here are a few of the absolute classics to get you started:
- So What, Miles Davis
- Take Five, The Dave Brubeck Quartet
- Time After Time, Chet Baker
- Laura, Gerry Mulligan
- Darn That Dream, Chat Bake & Stan Getz
- Girl From Ipanema, Stan Getz
- You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, Lee Konitz
- Nature Boy, Art Pepper
So there you have it: 10 of the best Cool Jazz artists and albums of all time. We hope you enjoyed listening to these recommended albums from our Discover Jazz series as much as we did!
If you’re just getting into jazz, we’ve put together articles and guides to all the different types of jazz music for you to check out.
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Sam Braysher is an alto saxophonist based in London. His debut album was a critically acclaimed duo recording with New York pianist Michael Kanan. A new trio album, with bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Jorge Rossy, is due for release soon.