Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Birth of the Cool and "Boplicity": How Miles Davis Cooled 52nd Street

It's arguable that no single figure has been as impactful on the evolution of American jazz than trumpeter Miles Davis. A member of the music scene of his native St. Louis from the young age of 16, Davis was quick to find his way to New York City and begin making his mark on the bebop movement, alongside such legends as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Despite being more than able to hold his own amongst such luminaries, Davis quickly grew tired of the virtuosic nature of bebop, and, along with a budding group of other like-minded musicians, sought to find ways to revolutionize the music. It is this fact of Davis's character--his unyielding willingness to find and push the boundaries of existing musical trends--that put him at the forefront of several of the most dramatic shifts in the genre throughout his life. In this analysis, I will cover one of the most significant recordings of Davis and his groups: "Boplicity," from the 1949-recorded and 1957-released album Birth of the Cool, which signals Davis's segue from bebop into a new genre called cool jazz. In examining the circumstances behind Davis's career and his personal relationships, it will become clear that the evolution of bebop into cool jazz was a natural and inevitable progression from his roots as a bop trumpeter.

Early in his career, the driving force behind Davis's urgency of creativity was mostly a musical one, although personal influences played a significant role as well. Arriving in New York in the mid-'40s to attend music school, Miles was quick to acquaint himself with the heaviest players on the scene, including his idol, alto saxophonist and bebop pioneer Charlie Parker. Although he would drop out of Juilliard, he acknowledges that the school played a role in both increasing his facility on his instrument and in providing him the resources to become a more learned musician[1]. After trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie left the heavily-booked Parker quintet in 1945, Davis was picked up as a replacement, and joined the group on dates in New York and throughout the country. Despite a good deal of work from Parker, Davis was growing increasingly irritated by the bandleader's inconsistency; even after their return to New York, Davis and several other members of Parker's quintet remained unsatisfied with his choice of band members, and his worsening heroin abuse, and tensions between Parker and Davis in late 1948 finally forced Miles to leave the group[2]. At the same time as the tumult grew amongst Parker's quintet, Davis was becoming closer with pianist/composer Gil Evans, who would remain one of his closest friends, and whose approach to composing and arranging heavily influenced Miles in the creation of a new style of jazz. Davis, Evans, and several other New York musicians, including drummer Max Roach, pianist John Lewis, and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, discontent with the extreme virtuosity required of bebop, were meeting regularly at Evans's 55th street home to work on what would become the style known as "cool jazz."[3] Evans's earlier work with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, an 18-piece group, was a significant influence on the 1949 recording sessions that resulted in Birth of the Cool, which utilized a large group (nine pieces, what would become known as the Miles Davis Nonet), unconventional instrumentation[4], and a distinct compositional and technical style[5]. Davis and Evans were chasing an approach to arranging and composing similar to what had been used by Duke Ellington in his orchestra[6].  An analysis of the instrumentation, orchestration, and structure of the album's most famous track, "Boplicity,"[7] reveals a number of the hallmarks of the Davis/Evans collaborative writing style, and their roots as bebop musicians extending into previously unexplored territory[8][9]. As would become increasingly evident in Miles's later career, the decisions behind the choices he and Evans made in Birth of the Cool were not purely musical, as he explains that many other factors, including the biases of musicians on the scene[10] and the "white" conception of jazz[11], had an impact on how the artists of the time were structuring their music.

To clearly trace Davis's development as a composer and arranger, we must look at his beginnings as a musician in New York City, both musically and personally. Davis had initially moved to New York to attend the Juilliard School of Music, at the urging of his father, and the school did initially contribute to his musical development, in particular through the players he would meet, including pianist John Lewis, a founding member of the upcoming Miles Nonet. He admits, in his biography, that while it wasn't a place of great change for him as a musician, he was able to use the school's resources to further his own musical goals, being a regular visitor to the Juilliard music library, and studying scores from many different composers. His words on the matter, apart from making clear his interest in a wide variety of music, also hint at deeper racial issues that would rise to the surface of his compositions later in his career:

"...a lot of black musicians didn't know anything about music theory. Bud Powell was one of the few musicians I knew who could play, write, and read all kinds of music. A lot of the old guys thought that if you went to school it would make you play like you were white. Or, if you learned something from theory, then you would lose feeling in your playing. I couldn't believe that all them guys like Bird [Parker], Prez [Gillespie], Bean [Coleman Hawkins], all them cats wouldn't go to museums or libraries and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music. Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery, and I just couldn't believe someone could be that close to freedom and not take advantage of it."[12]

Similarly, though Davis was very active on the jazz circuit in the mid- and late-'40s, and therefore present for the bebop revolution personified by Parker, Gillespie, Hawkins, his good friend Freddie Webster, and many others, he always found himself working hard to match the technical firepower exhibited by players like Gillespie. More importantly, Davis and several other members of Parker's working group were finding it more and more difficult to put up with his decisions, on and off the stage. Miles wanted to oust pianist Duke Jordan, in favor of a Juilliard cohort, John Lewis. Jack Chambers points out the effect of Parker's well-known heroin addiction on the group:

"As the tensions within the quintet grew, they were exacerbated by Parker's erratic behavior, which caused all the members grief. Even when the quintet were booked for a long engagement, the sidemen had to worry about getting paid. ...[Guitarist Jimmy Raney, quoted by Chambers, said:] 'Parker's horns presented a problem--they were in hock so often. At the Three Deuces, the porter had a job assigned to him, to go to the pawnshop every day and get Bird's horn for the job, and then return it to the shop after the job.'"[13]

Davis quit the group in late 1948, and began attending "salons" hosted at Gil Evans's 55th street apartment, where he began to grow much closer to the Canadian arranger, and where several of the players in his soon-to-be-founded group could often be found[14]. It was in this context that Davis found his nine-piece group, thanks in large part to his collaboration with Evans, who was already well-known as an arranger for Claude Thornhill's orchestra, a group that utilized 18 pieces, and featured instruments that were somewhat unusual for a jazz band, including tuba and french horn. Davis and Evans were the principle architects behind the Miles Davis Nonet's characteristic sound, and Davis's selection of players for the recordings that resulted in the album Birth of the Cool was not arbitrary--resulting from his meetings at Evans's basement apartment, his professional encounters with other musicians during his tenure with Parker, and his brief time at Juilliard, the personnel on the April 22, 1949 recording session that produced "Venus de Milo," "Rouge," "Boplicity," and "Israel," was as follows:

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[15]

Davis's ability to assemble a cast of players so meticulously, at such an early stage in his career, would become a hallmark of his style throughout his life, with this group, and his first and second quintets, exhibiting the same decisively-chosen membership. Jim Merod states that "[a] good deal of Davis’s strength as a musician resides outside the immediate textures of his own playing. His legacy derives, in part, from his leadership ability, his knack of assembling gifted players and provoking their best results to augment his own."[16]

Davis himself implies that Ellington's well-known practice of writing specifically for the individuals in his groups played a part in the instrumentation, section writing, and orchestration of Birth of the Cool:

"...he would always get guys with a sound that you could recognize. If they played alone in Duke's band, you could always tell who they were by their sound. If they played in a section thing, then you could still tell who they were in the section by the voicing, They put their own personality on certain chords."[17]

Richard Cook points out the dramatic differences between this new style, recorded on the Capitol record label, and the New York phenomenon of bebop, as being "...a direct counter to the jaggedness of bop's momentum. Suffused with low brass, buoyed up on almost feathery rhythms, in might have sounded effete, if the playing hadn't projected a different sort of intensity."[18] Perhaps most idiomatic of the style, the tune "Boplicity" contains many of the hallmarks of this new compositional style.

There are a number of clues that bebop is a close progenitor of this style. Formal boundaries can be found distinctly every eight bars, and the full structure of the tune is a 32-bar AABA form, standard in jazz at the time (the majority of Parker's compositions were either 32-bar forms or 12-bar blues forms). The next close tie to bop lies in the changes to the tune, which are very tonally-based: the entire song stays close to its home key of F major, with the A section of the tune briefly tonicizing B♭ major. The bridge of the tune again tonicizes B♭ major in the first four bars, then A♭ major in the next three, before turning around once more to the final A section, again in F.

This is where the similarities to bebop end. The tune itself features no introduction, with the full ensemble in at the top of the piece, playing the lyrically-singable melody in gentle homophonic unison, with a subdued rhythm section (Kenny Clarke plays on brushes throughout the piece, and Nelson Boyd walks steady quarter notes) supporting the band, with the entire tune rolling along at about 136 beats per minute. Already, these are distinct contrasts to bebop, which is best known for its frenetic and angular melodies, and in particular for its tempos, which lay anywhere in the medium-up to tearing-fast range of 200 beats per minute and faster, up to as fast as 400 bpm. The unusual inclusion of french horn and tuba, and the lack of tenor saxophone, suggest that Davis and Evans were attempting to recreate the sound of Thornhill's much larger band, but with a group that could fit into a jazz club, and get paid by a club owner, something that would have been difficult for a group as large as Thornhill's given the deteriorating conditions of 52nd street clubs at the time. Cook calls the Birth of the Cool sound "akin to a reduction of Thornhill's idiom."[19]

"By having the size of what would have been Thornhill's instrumentation, and emphasizing brass over reeds--note that the tenor saxophone, one of the dominant sounds in jazz of the time, doesn't figure at all--Davis's group had secured a more limber and fluid music than anything Thornhill had created."[20]

Importantly to the cool jazz idiom, it's clear in the group's melodic conception that they were straying from the front-edgedness of bebop, with the entire band laying back significantly on the melody throughout the head, playing on the "back edge" of the time, and allowing a special kind of tension to be created between the horns and the rhythm section that could be traced to African American blues roots. Davis mentions the importance of that culture in these recordings, saying (without reserve) that "Birth of the Cool came from black musical roots. 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."[21]

In continuation of the laid-back approach to this tune, the first soloist is bari saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, entering into his solo as the melody fades at 0:58. Bebop often characteristically featured a specific soloist bursting forth from the melody line, in particular at faster tempos, and often featured one of the higher-voiced instruments first, such as alto or tenor sax or trumpet. Mulligan plays fluidly in his midrange here, with light comping from Lewis in the background. Mulligan only takes two A sections for his solo, before Evans and Davis introduce an unusual twist on the form of the tune as a low, brooding horn line enters at 1:25[22]:

The form is still intact in the beginning of the B section, but the arrangers add two bars to the form as Miles enters for a brief solo before an ensemble soli at 1:43.[23] The continuation of Davis's solo at 1:58, which includes horn backgrounds, is an obvious, if not intentional, homage to the heavy influence of Parker on Davis and of Thornhill on Evans[24]:

Analyzing Davis's trumpet solo line (beginning here at m. 20), we can see the precipitative effect of Parker on Miles. The lines are still heavily infused with chromatic approach notes and "bebop-isms," such as the ascending triplet figure in measure 22, and in the obvious 16th note run at measure 25, rife with surround tones and chromatic and double-chromatic approach notes. Nevertheless, leading into measure 27, we also see Miles's rebellion against bop, and the signature for which he would become so well known: the 16th note run stretches into an eighth note run, which stretches further still into a long-sounding dotted quarter, finally finding rest on the whole note at bar 28. His longer, often languid phrasing, mixed with chromatically-colored runs, would become a clear staple of his style.

Released on a two-sided 78 rpm record, the solos and the arrangements on Birth of the Cool are brief, concise, and quick to make their points, a far cry from the sometimes meandering, thought-insistent quality of bebop. The final solo before the head out of the tune is Lewis on piano, playing a simple, eight bar piano line, mostly in the right-hand. The tune closes with the horns in homophony once again, now playing the only final A section, before a short repetition of a two-note melodic figure, and with the tune ending on three decelerated chords, landing at last on an F7#9#11, with Miles floating above the band on a mellow D.

This music, borne from the chaos of bebop, must have seemed to Miles to be a natural extension of the frantic, bustling energy with which he had grown so accustomed in the 52nd street clubs where he played with Parker and Gillespie. Gillespie himself said the music lacked the "emotional heat" of jazz to that point[25]:

"It was a natural progression, because Miles had definitely come out of us, and he was the leader of this new movement. So it was the same music, only cooler. They expressed less fire than we did, played less notes, less quickly, and used more space, and they emphasized tonal quality. This music, jazz, is guts. You're supposed to sweat... in this music. They sorta softened it up a bit."[26]

Importantly, most of the progenitors of bebop were black, and Miles was often chastised by colleagues for his inclusion of white musicians on his albums and in his bands, criticisms that would recur throughout his career for the inclusion of musicians like Evans and Mulligan. Davis himself would later express some disdain at Mulligan for his massive success in the cool genre, insinuating that is was his race that aided his success. Nevertheless, Davis admitted to the importance of race for this new genre at the time of Birth of the Cool's release:

"White people back then liked music they could understand, that they could hear without straining. Bebop didn't come out of them and so it was hard for many of them to hear what was going on in the music. It was an all-black thing. But Birth was not only hummable but it had white people playing the music and serving in prominent roles. The white critics liked that. They liked the fact that they seemed to have something to do with what was going on. It was like somebody shaking your hand just a little extra. We shook people's ears a little softer than Bird or Diz did, took the music more mainstream. That's all it was."[27]

It's clear in analyzing Miles Davis's life and early career in New York that his interactions with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and all the other musicians behind the bebop movement contributed heavily to his foundational role in the development of the cool jazz style. His and Gil Evans's ideas for composing, arranging, and orchestrating were direct reactions to the bebop genre, and yet were still obviously tinged with the musical ideologies that were hallmarks of the bebop style. Standard forms and tonally-based chord changes dominated early experiments in cool jazz, but the creators of the style were able to distance themselves from the genre by choosing new instrumentations and orchestrations that achieved mellower sounds, by changing formal structures at will, and by conceptualizing the music from a melody-centric and listener-centric standpoint. Deeper exploration into this area of jazz will undoubtedly focus on the individual circumstances of the musicians that were formative members of the cool movement--Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, J.J. Johnson, John Lewis, etc.--and how their lives and musical careers impacted the way they approached improvising and composing.

Works Cited

  • Yudkin, Jeremy. Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.

  • Davis, Miles (author); Troupe, Quincy (collab.). Miles: The Autobiography. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

  • Chambers, Jack. Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis. Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1983.

  • Cook, Richard. It's About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off the Record. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.

  • Carner, Gary. The Miles Davis Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. New York, NY: Omnibus Press, 1996

  • Merod, Jim. 2001. "The Question of Miles Davis." Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature 28 (2): 57-103.

  • Henry, Cleo (attr.); Davis, Miles (composer); Evans, Gil (arranger). Boplicity. Miles Davis and his Orchestra. Capitol Records. 7243-5-30117-2-7. CD. 1957.

[1]   Davis, Miles (author); Troupe, Quincy (collab.), Miles: the Autobiography. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1989), 60.
[2]   Chambers, Jack. Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, Vol. 1. (Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1983), 83
[3]   Ibid., 92
[4]   Jim Merod, "The Question of Miles Davis." Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature 28, no. 2 (2001): 57-103.
[5]   Richard Cook, It's About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off the Record. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 16
[6]   Davis, Miles: The Autobiography, 119
[7]   Henry, Cleo (attr.); Davis, Miles (composer); Evans, Gil (arranger). Boplicity. Miles Davis and his Orchestra. Capitol Records. 7243 5 30117 2 7. CD. 1957.
[8]   Cook, It's About That Time, 14
[9]   Jeremy Yudkin, Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008), 15
[10]  Gary Carner, The Miles Davis Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. (New York, NY: Omnibus Press, 1996), 57
[11] Davis, Miles: The Autobiography, 119
[12] Davis, Miles: The Autobiography, 60
[13] Chambers, Milestones, 83
[14] Ibid., 92
[15] Cook, It's About That Time, 14
[16] Jim Merod, "The Question of Miles Davis." Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature 28, no. 2 (2001): 57-103.
[17] Davis, Miles: The Autobiography, 119
[18] Cook, It's About That Time, 14
[19] Ibid., 16
[20] Ibid., 16
[21] Davis, Miles: The Autobiography, 119
[22] Yudkin, Miles Smiles, 15
[23] Ibid., 15
[24] Ibid., 15
[25] Carner, The Miles Davis Companion, 57
[26] Carner, The Miles Davis Companion, 57
[27] Davis, Miles: The Autobiography, 119

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