Miles Davis: The Complete Birth of the Cool

“And right now, ladies and gentlemen, we bring you something new in modern music,” announces Symphony Sid Torin from the stage of the Royal Roost, a chicken shack turned bebop haunt on Broadway, near Times Square. “We bring you: Impressions in Modern Music, with the great Miles Davis and his wonderful new organization.”

This introduction opens Side 3 of The Complete Birth of the Cool, a deluxe vinyl reissue of a modern-jazz touchstone that opened the door to sleek introspection and sophisticated aplomb and, fairly or not, was credited with the boom in 1950s cool jazz.

Davis was only 22 at the time of the Royal Roost gig. Best known as the trumpeter who’d bravely succeeded Dizzy Gillespie in the Charlie Parker Quintet, he had been workshopping a less mercurial, more chamberlike strain of bop in collaboration with the brilliant arranger Gil Evans. Their experiments in form and mood, fleshed out in Evans’ New York basement apartment on 55th Street, expanded on ideas that had gestated in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra before the war. Thornhill’s signature was a delicate blend of timbres, with soft projection and virtually no vibrato—a far cry from the regimental blare of a garden-variety big band. Evans, who arranged for the orchestra, famously described its effect: “The sound hung like a cloud.”

The unorthodox nonet that Davis brought to the Royal Roost in 1948—featuring bebop confreres like Max Roach (drums) and John Lewis (piano) as well as forward-thinking Thornhill alums like Lee Konitz (alto saxophone) and Gerry Mulligan (baritone saxophone)—did in fact represent “something new in modern music.” But as Symphony Sid’s next utterance implies, the ensemble wasn’t yet known by a catchy album title. Studio sessions for The Birth of the Cool were still months away, initiated by a Capitol Records producer, Pete Rugolo, who was persuaded by the gig. Those sessions would yield a series of 78-rpm sides in ’49 and ’50. The iconic moniker wouldn’t be attached to the project until a compilation album in 1957, touted on the LP jacket as “the classic recordings” that “launched a jazz era.”

Which is to say that The Complete Birth of the Cool is a repackaging of a repackaging, informed at every stage by a canny awareness of its own cachet. Seventy years since the studio recording of The Birth of the Cool, we’re equipped to understand that phrase as a signifier of aura and intention in Davis’ multifarious career. A documentary film by that name premiered at Sundance this year. It’s also the title of a new children’s book. To state the obvious, that earlier tag, Impressions in Modern Music, has a lot less mystique; The Birth of the Cool, timed to coincide with the rise of hi-fi systems and the word “cool” as a lifestyle, had a title intrinsic to its success.

The music itself is rightly considered a landmark and in this new edition, mastered from the analog session reels for the first time since ’57, its exquisite intricacies assume an almost tactile form. I’ve been listening closely to The Birth of the Cool for about as long as I’ve been listening to jazz. Hearing the new reissue on my turntable was a revelation: not so much a matter of “warmth,” as vinyl proponents often put it, but rather a function of spatial clarity.

The slithery inner voicings of Evans’ orchestration—on both a lissome swinger like “Boplicity” and the intriguing highlight “Moon Dreams”—sound present and alive in a way they hadn’t before. Some sly, murmuring touches from the tuba and French horn are clearer in the mix, without diverting from the coherence of the whole. The other arrangements, mainly by Lewis and Mulligan, shine nearly as bright; there’s a unifying style that makes each piece seem like a room in a house, with Davis’ trumpet serving as a guide. (For a present-day listener, the only truly jarring moment may be “Darn That Dream,” a vocal feature for Kenny Hagood that evokes the bandstand customs of the big-band era.)

Due to the limitations of the source material, there isn’t nearly as much improvement in the quality of the Royal Roost recordings, made on Sept. 4 and 18, 1948. (They first appeared in sanctioned form on a 1998 2-CD reissue, also titled The Complete Birth of the Cool.) So the primary selling point here is the superior sound of the studio material. The new set also features exemplary liner notes by Ashley Kahn, who connects all of the dots while preserving a big-picture narrative arc. Among the sources that Kahn quotes is the authoritative jazz critic Gary Giddins, who once wrote that The Birth of the Cool nonet went “straight from cult to classic,” at least among jazz cognoscenti. “Its musicians redesigned jazz in the ’50s,” Giddins goes on, “calming bop’s fevers, soothing its brow, bringing wreaths to its entombment.”

Davis always expressed ambivalence on the subject of West Coast “cool jazz,” which made stars out of Mulligan, trumpeter Chet Baker and others. There was a racial dynamic at play in the popularity of the style, and Davis wasn’t one to let such matters slide. “Birth of the Cool came from black musical roots,” he asserts, maybe a touch defensively, in Miles: The Autobiography, first published in 1989. “It came from Duke Ellington. We were trying to sound like Claude Thornhill, but he had gotten his shit from Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.” At the same time, it’s worth noting how harmoniously the nonet functioned as an integrated unit. Davis heard complaints from black musicians about that, as he recalls in his book: “I just told them that if a guy could play as well as Lee Konitz I would hire him every time, and I wouldn’t give a damn if he was green with red breath.” (Listen to Konitz’s harmonically daring and hummingbird-quick alto saxophone solo on “Israel,” a John Carisi tune, and the remark will make perfect sense.)

In his notes, Kahn also consults with arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading authority on Evans, who elucidates the quantum leap of a track like “Boplicity,” in which “all the inner parts have strong melodies, much in the way you would write for strings, which brings out the strength, warmth, and color of the piece.” The Birth of the Cool not only opened the next lyrical phase in bebop’s evolution; it also foretold the expansive Davis-and-Evans collaboration realized on albums like Porgy and Bess (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960)—feats of synthesis between jazz and symphonic music, often hailed as emblematic triumphs for the classical-jazz hybrid known as Third Stream. Davis himself regarded them as high-water marks in his recorded career.

And yet it would be an error to categorize The Birth of the Cool as a document of transition. The “birth” in the title may have been a marketing flourish, but this music did signal a new set of possibilities for modern jazz, while establishing Davis as a savvy bandleader and a leading trumpeter. The unhurried calm in his phrasing as he improvises on “Move,” the brisk opener, could be seen as a statement of intent. Even in the most boppish of circumstances, with Max Roach swinging fast behind him, Miles is going to set his own terms: unharried, unhurried, and yes, fundamentally cool. Whatever this album prefigured in his career, and in the modern-jazz discourse, it should take a backseat to an experience of the music. As this new reissue only helps clarify, The Birth of the Cool stands very much on its own—not as a counterargument or a checkpoint, but a singular achievement unto itself.

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