Miles Davis and the Birth of the Cool

Miles Dewey Davis was born in Alton, Illinois on May 26, 1926. He came from a wealthy, middle-class background, his father being a successful dentist. His mother played violin and his sister played piano. Davis got his first trumpet as a child, and was given a better one for his 13th birthday.

At 18 Davis came to New York City to study at Julliard’s school of music, and he quickly found the 52nd Street scene, where he played in small jazz clubs at night, while attending classes during the day.

His big break came when he was 19 and was invited to join the Charlie Parker Quintet. Davis was the new kid on the block, and his playing was often unfavorably compared with bop-master Dizzy Gillespie’s: it had a thinner tone, revealed a less confident approach to the music, and was characterized by one critic of the time as "lugubrious." Davis stayed with Parker from 1946 until late 1948, and played on most of Parker's quintet and sextet records.

But his studies at Julliard had led him into discussions with others in the jazz field who were young and ambitious about music. They hung out in the apartment of arranger Gil Evans, who then wrote for the Claude Thornhill band. Other members of Thornhill’s band, like baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, also showed up at Evans’ tiny apartment. Their goal was to form a small band with a large orchestral palette, replicating the Thornhill band in a much smaller form, to play advanced arrangements of new, bop-style jazz. They created a nine-piece band with a fresh instrumentation for the time: French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, alto and baritone saxes, piano, bass and drums.

The band, originally known as the Miles Davis Orchestra, performed for two weeks in September, 1948, at The Royal Roost, playing opposite Count Basie. On at least two nights – September 4th and September 18th – these performances were broadcast live on WMCA, a New York City AM station.

The music presented was a distillation of the pastel-colored Thornhill band sound, applied to both bop standards and new compositions. It offered a "cooler" approach to bop – less fiery and frantic, more cerebral, and more devoted to ensembles than solos. It was arranged by Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Gil Evans and John Carisi.

In January, 1949, Capitol Records recorded the band in what would be the first of three sessions (the others were April, 1949 and March, 1950). Those first four sides – "Move," "Jeru," "Budo" and "Godchild" – had a significant impact on the jazz world. By the mid-1950s "cool" jazz was an established idiom, largely due to these recordings by what was now known as the Miles Davis Nonet. These were Davis’s first recordings as a leader.

All of the 12 original recordings for Capitol by the Nonet were originally released as 78 rpm singles. In 1954 Capitol collected eight tracks on a 10-inch LP, Jeru (H-459) (now valued at $125 to $250, depending on condition) in Capitol's "Classics in Jazz" series. In February, 1957, Capitol reissued the album as a 12-inch LP, adding three more tracks and calling it (for the first time) Birth of the Cool (T-762) (now valued at $60 to $150).   This LP was reissued in 1963 and again in 1971. 

Capitol reissued Birth of the Cool (with the 12th track, "Darn That Dream," which featured Kenny Hagood on vocals) on CD in 1989 (CDP 7 92862 2), and reissued it again as The Complete Birth of the Cool (CDP 7243 4 94550 2 3) in 1998. The latter CD has 13 additional tracks, "The Live Sessions," taken from the live radio broadcasts of 1948. (They sound a lot better than might be expected.) Davis, of course, enjoyed a subsequent career filled with triumphs before dying in 1991. (29638 bytes)