When it comes to the best jazz albums of all time, perhaps no musician in history has had success across so many different styles than trumpeter Miles Davis.
In this article, we dive deeper into his seminal recording Birth of The Cool which, whilst perhaps not achieving the widespread fame of the iconic Kind of Blue, is essential listening for all fans and students of the Cool Jazz era.
Stay tuned to the very end for some tracks from the recording session, as well as a snippet from The Miles Davis Story documentary..!
In Alton, Illinois on 26th May 1926, Miles Dewey Davis III was born into comfortable surroundings.
His father was a well-respected dentist, while his mother was music teacher and violinist. A year after Miles was born his father moved the family to East St. Louis where Davis would spend his formative years.
Following in his mother’s footsteps, the young Miles took an interest in music, and while she would have liked him to take up the violin where he would have a better chance of a respectable job in a classical orchestra fate had something else in mind for her son.
In 1935 Miles was given a trumpet by a friend of his father, and so began a musical journey that would take him to both incredible highs and lows, in a career that would change the face of jazz not just once but five times in as many decades.
Miles began his musical studies in earnest, taking lessons from a patient of his father, a teacher and musician named Elwood Buchanan, and would go on to describe Buchanan as “the biggest influence on my life”.
This claim is born out in the way that Buchanan would help shape Miles’ sound advising him to play without any vibrato. Taking this advice on board the youngster would develop a sound that was round and without vibrato and often focus on the middle register of the horn.
By the time he reached his teens music was dominating Miles’ life. His father gave him a new trumpet for his thirteenth birthday and Miles continued his studies while gigging with local bands.
The most important of these was Eddie Randle’s Blue Devils, and it was not long before Davis would become the band’s musical director, and shortly after the saxophonist Sonny Stitt attempted to persuade Davis to join Tiny Bradshaw’s band who were passing through the area.
Miles, keen to go, was prevented by his mother who insisted that he finish school first. The trumpeter recalled that he subsequently didn’t speak to his mother for two weeks, but also didn’t get to with the band either.
Miles Davis – Early Career
Graduating high school in 1944, Miles looked to further his musical education and accepted a place at the Julliard School in New York City.
While his father was delighted that his son was following on his studies at such a reputable establishment, Miles had an altogether different agenda and using his time on the New York to track down his musical idol, the revolutionary bebop alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.
Studying by day and scouring the New York clubs by night, Miles led a double life and was determined to find Parker.
Once he had located the saxophonist, Miles began hanging out at Minton’s Playhouse where this new music called bebop was being created, and finally playing with Charlie Parker.
A year later, Miles had dropped out of Julliard and had replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Parker’s quintet.
This was a baptism of fire for Davis as he would later recall saying that he would “quit every night” as he struggled with the fast tempos and complicated themes and chord changes.
Charlie Parker, however heard something in his young protégé ensuring that Miles kept returning to the bandstand. Early recordings with Parker show Miles’ lack of maturity as well as the technique to deal with the complexities of bebop.
Parker too would find himself under pressure to get rid of the trumpeter amongst criticisms of him being unable to play, but the saxophonist refused to budge on this after, and so Miles was to stay with the quintet, on and off, for the next three years.
Slowly but surely Davis honed his trumpet playing. His sound round and full, centered mostly in the middle register and without vibrato was now becoming readily identifiable.
Alongside this he was finding his own place in the music, playing fewer notes and not trying to compete, but instead acting as foil to Parker’s virtuoso lines.
The Birth of Cool Jazz
By 1948 Miles was starting to believe in himself and his abilities and was also becoming disillusioned with what he believed were the limitations of bebop.
He now had the confidence to leave Parker’s quintet and strike out on his own, and looking for a new setting in which to place his trumpet sound came into the orbit of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, arranger Gil Evans, drummer Max Roach and pianist John Lewis.
Mulligan and Evans had formed a rehearsal band, something that they could write for.
Gil Evans had established himself as an original and forward-thinking arranger for his work with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, and it was the sound of Thornhill’s band that was of interest.
Evans and Gerry Mulligan who were both involved with Thornhill’s band worked out the smallest number of instruments possible to replicate the sound of the Thornhill Orchestra, settling on trumpet, alto sax, baritone sax, trombone, French horn, tuba, piano, bass and drums; and so the famous sound of the Miles Davis Nonet and the music that would be dubbed the Birth Of Cool.
This was exactly the right place for Miles to be, and he very quickly appeared to assume a dominant role, arranging rehearsals, calling musicians and even arranging a booking for the band at the Royal Roost.
The residency at the Royal Roost was short lived, but Capital Records had been persuaded to record the band, and the recording took place over three sessions between January 1949 and March 1950.
Recording Birth of The Cool
With the sessions spread over a fourteen month period there was inevitably changes in personnel, and the only constant across all the recordings was the presence of Miles, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, and tuba player Bill Barber. This however was sufficient for Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis and Johnny Carisi to establish a core sound despite fluctuations in the rhythm section.
It seems hard to believe that the recordings were not a commercial success.
Capital initially released six of the twelve tracks as a series of four 78rpm singles, and with the advent of the LP a few years later released eight tracks on a 10″ LP in 1954 under the title Classics in Jazz—Miles Davis.
A further three titles were introduced on the 12″ album released in 1957 and were finally released under the title Birth Of The Cool.
Seeing as they garnered so little attention at the time of their release, this wonderful music has not been out of print, and yet another LP issue in 1972 brought all the tracks recorded by The Nonet with the inclusion of the one vocal track, ‘Darn That Dream’ featuring Kenny Hagood.
The Critics View: A Remarkable Album
Listening to the music more than seventy years after they were released it is remarkable how fresh and vibrant the arrangements sound.
In keeping the line-up down to a nonet the arrangers were able to keep the tonal range of the larger ensembles, yet retain a lightness in feel and mobility akin to the small groups that were so popular in the late forties.
In effect pieces like ‘Move’ by Denzil Best, ‘Budo’ composed by Miles and Bud Powell were smoothed out bebop lines, driven hard by the rhythm section but with a horn arrangement that removed the jagged phrasing prevalent in bop.
What is even more remarkable is the ages of the principal soloists at the time.
Miles and Gerry Mulligan were just twenty-two, Lee Konitz a mere twenty years old and playing in a manner that was introducing a new way of phrasing and offering an alternative to the headlong rush of bebop.
The style was rapidly dubbed as cool, and perhaps the approach was typified by Mulligan’s light and airy baritone playing and sublime arrangements and the remarkable alto playing of Lee Konitz.
Konitz was a total original on the instrument and owed nothing to the influence of Charlie Parker who was the dominant figure on saxophone at the time.
Konitz played with a light and fluid tone and long lines that he would spin out in the most logical and melodic solos that relied less on the blues and tonal inflexions. His solo after Miles on the opening ‘Move’ is a revelation, and still sound startlingly original.
Miles had often been berated for his technique, or perhaps lack of it, by both musicians and critics but it is hard to find fault with his playing on any of the music heard here. Miles found himself as the nominal leader of the Nonet whether he intended to or not.
His is the dominant voice and he is often required to go straight from the arranged passages to taking his improvised solo, and then straight back into another arranged passage. He handles his parts with much aplomb and sounds totally assured and in control of his instrument.
His sound is full and full of expression, and his solos sparkle with invention, as is clear for all to hear on Mulligan’s composition ‘Venus De Milo’. Miles also gets involved in the writing too, with his piece ‘Boplicity’ although credited to Cleo Henry (Miles’s mother under her maiden name) and arranged by Gil Evans.
Miles plays a delightful solo followed by a brief solo from pianist John Lewis, but it is Evans’ arrangement that brings the piece to life.
As if to take the emphasis away from fast tempos there is some superb writing for the ensemble that captures the originality of the arrangers.
The chamber-like arrangement of ‘Moon Dreams’ (written by Chummy McGregor and Johnny Mercer) by Gil Evans is somber in mood with lovely brief interludes from the saxophones.
This piece also suggests how Evans’ writing would evolve and how a decade later he would collaborate with Miles on three ground breaking orchestral albums, Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy & Bess (1958) and Sketches Of Spain (1960) that would signal a new departure in the trumpeter’s music.
The Birth Of The Cool, more than Miles’ involvement in the evolution of bebop, is the trumpeter’s first major statement as one of the most important of the young players to merge from what was now being termed as modern jazz.
He would go on to make many more innovative albums in the course of his long career. Like much of Davis’ recorded output, Birth Of The Cool not only stands the test of time but also sounds like music of its time, but anytime.
Once heard Miles’ trumpet sound gets inside one’s head and then begins an extraordinary journey in listening to one of the twentieth centuries greatest jazz musicians.
https://youtu.be/rj0W39jVJg8Tracks: 1. Move (arranged by John Lewis) 2. Jeru (arranged by Gerry Mulligan) 3. Moon Dreams (arranged by Gil Evans) 4. Venus de Milo (arranged by Gerry Mulligan) 5. Budo (arranged by John Lewis) 6. Deception (arranged by Gerry Mulligan) 7. Godchild (arranged by Gerry Mulligan) 8. Boplicity (arranged by Gil Evans) 9. Rocker (arranged by Gerry Mulligan) 10. Israel (arranged by Johnny Carisi) 11. Rouge (arranged by John Lewis) 12. Darn That Dream (arranged by Gerry Mulligan)
Personnel / Recording Dates
January 21, 1949
Miles Davis – trumpet; Kai Winding – trombone; Junior Collins – French horn; Bill Barber – tuba; Lee Konitz – alto saxophone; Gerry Mulligan – baritone saxophone; Al Haig – piano; Joe Shulman – bass; Max Roach – drums Jeru / Move / Godchild / Budo
April 22, 1949
Miles Davis – trumpet; J. J. Johnson – trombone; Sandy Siegelstein – French horn; Bill Barber – tuba; Lee Konitz – alto saxophone; Gerry Mulligan – baritone saxophone; John Lewis – piano; Nelson Boyd – bass; Kenny Clarke – drums Venus De Milo / Rouge / Boplicity / Israel
March 9, 1950
Miles Davis – trumpet; J. J. Johnson – trombone; Gunther Schuller – French horn; Bill Barber – tuba; Lee Konitz – alto saxophone; Gerry Mulligan – baritone saxophone; John Lewis – piano; Al McKibbon – bass; Max Roach – drums, Kenny Hagood (vocals)
Deception / Rocker / Moon Dreams / Darn That Dream