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“All in all, the Davis [Birth of the Cool] Nonet was much like a band of apostles, gathered together for a brief time before scattering in their several separate directions, each inspired to proselytize others in turn ….
Although the [West Coast Jazz] movement was never as monolithic as the term suggested, a certain convergence of aesthetic values could be seen in many of the West Coast recordings. The music was often highly structured, rebelling against the simple head charts of East Coast modern jazz and reflecting a formalism that contrasted sharply with the spontaneity of bebop. Counterpoint and other devices of formal composition figured prominently in the music. Larger ensembles — octets, nonets, tentettes — continued to thrive in West Coast jazz circles, long after they had become an endangered species elsewhere. Unusual instruments were also embraced with enthusiasm, and many of them — such as flute and flugelhorn — eventually came to be widely used in the jazz world. Relaxed tempos and unhurried improvisations were frequently the norm, and the music often luxuriated in a warm romanticism and melodic sweetness that was far afield from the bop paradigm.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz
The subtitle of this piece in quotation marks is a paraphrasing of a number of remarks attributed to Louis Armstrong when he was asked about Jazz.
Along these lines, another famous remark attributable to Pops was his answer to the question of “What is Jazz” - his reply - “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”
Strongly opinionated and superbly literate, longtime Bay Area resident Grover Sales [1920-2004] was the kind of jazz critic who left no doubt about where he stood on issues ranging from the genius of Lenny Bruce to the paucity of gay jazz musicians.
During a career that spanned 50 years Sales wrote about jazz, film and cultural politics and published widely in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Tiburon Ark and Gene Lees' Jazzletter. He wrote three books: Jazz: America's Classical Music, a biography of John Maher and, with his wife Georgia, The Clay-Pot Cookbook, which sold more than 800,000 copies.
Sales was also publicist for the Monterey Jazz Festival from its birth in 1958 until 1965, and for the hungry i nightclub. He also did freelance publicity work for artists such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland and Dick Gregory, and wrote the liner notes for several Fantasy recordings.
Over the years, he taught jazz history courses at Stanford University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco State University and the JazzSchool.
Sales became a jazz fan at 16, after hearing a broadcast of Benny Goodman's band with drummer Gene Krupa, and later became what he called "an inveterate Ellington groupie" after hearing a recording of "Black And Tan Fantasy".
After serving in the Army Air Corps in Southeast Asia during World War II, Sales studied at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and then settled in the Bay Area, where he received a BA in history from the University of California at Berkeley.
If you were a Jazz fan living in the San Francisco Bay area, sooner or later, you met Grover Sales.
Columnist, author, instructor in Jazz Studies at Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto, CA and for many years, Publicity Director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, Grover seemed to be everywhere in the world of Bay Area Jazz.
I met him on several occasions and he was always welcoming, engaging and directly to the point and I am constantly referencing Jazz: America’s Classical Music [New York: Prentice Hall, 1984; New York: Da Capo Paperback Edition, 1992].
However, while I aligned with Grover on most subjects to do with Jazz, he and I agreed to disagree on the relative merits of West Coast Jazz, hence the subtitle of this piece.
Here’s Grover’s take on the subject.
“WEST COAST COOL
Miles Davis's "Birth of the Cool" records spawned a working alliance of Los Angeles based musicians — the West Coast school — that nearly cornered the jazz market in the early 1950s. Predominately white, their records sold well among a post-war college crowd that scarcely knew any other type of jazz existed. Their schooled technical precision, versatility, and arranging skills were much in demand in Hollywood studios and "name" recording sessions that provided a steady source of well-paid work. Adapting the easy facility and vibratoless timbres of "The Birth of the Cool," the West Coast group was given to exercises in counterpoint and arhythmical improvisations infused with a spirit of emotional restraint. With rare exceptions—Shelly Manne, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, Red Mitchell—few of these once-heralded poll winners emerged in the 1960s as figures of influence or major repute: Pete Rugulo, Shorty Rogers, Russ Freeman, Howard Rumsey, Stu and Claude Williamson, Lennie Niehaus, Marty Paich, Bob Cooper, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Bob Enevoldsen, and Andre Previn, whose trio topped jazz record sales and became a major concert attraction before he developed into a front-rank symphony conductor.
For all their technical expertise, most of the West Coast group recordings for Contemporary and Pacific Jazz today strike us as bloodless museum pieces, a neatly packaged soundtrack for the cold war. However this group was neither wholly white nor "cool:” their ranks included some like-minded blacks—drummer Chico Hamilton, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and reedman Buddy Collette, who so immersed himself in the movement that when Leonard Feather played his tenor solos for Miles Davis in a down beat "Blindfold Test," Miles snorted, "All those ofay (white) tenor players sound alike to me." Pianist Hampton Hawes and saxman Art Pepper, both fixtures in the West Coast scene, never succumbed to "cool" but forged ahead with a hard-driving blues format rooted in bebop. The Parker-inspired piano of Hawes seemed at variance with the laid-back approach of his western colleagues.
An eastern transplant, Gerry Mulligan formed an unusual pianoless quartet (Prestige 24016) whose records sold well and bear repeated hearings today. They still beguile us with his witty, inventive interplay with trumpeter Chet Baker, a Miles Davis spinoff with a ravishing tone and incisive attack reminiscent of Bix.”
By way of a rebuttal, I’ve turned to the following excerpts from Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz which is now available in a Second Edition through Oxford University Press via this link. [Some readers may also be familiar with Ted as the author of West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California from 1945-1960 which is also published by OUP and can be found in a paperback format from the University of California Press].
The "cool" movement, as it soon came to be known, presented an especially promising alternative to the bop paradigm. Spearheaded by the younger generation, most of them in their early twenties at the close of the 1940s, cool jazz was — like bop — an overtly modernist music with radical implications. Its exponents shared many of the aesthetic values of the boppers — an allegiance to contemporary trends in music, a predilection for experimentation, a distaste for conformity, and a view of jazz as an underground movement—and many had served as sidemen in prominent bop groups. Miles Davis, who would emerge as the leader of the new cool players, had worked with Parker even more, had looked up to the altoist as a guide and mentor. The Modern Jazz Quartet, which would become something of a definitive cool combo, got its start as the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie's big hand. But even those with weaker links to bop — Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Art Pepper — could not avoid its pervasive influence. They realized that bop was the defining style of the age, and that even an attempt to sidestep the idiom would invariably be interpreted as rebellion against it.
Davis had left Parker's band at the close of 1948, disturbed by Bird's increasingly erratic and self-destructive behavior. His new source of inspiration, arranger Gil Evans, was in many ways the antithesis of Parker. A dowdy, introspective country boy from Canada, Evans came to 52nd Street clubs wearing a cap and carrying a paper sack full of radishes, munching on them during the performance. "Man, he was something else," Davis would write in his autobiography. "I didn't know any white people like him." Evans was little known at the time, even in jazz circles. His biggest claim to fame, to the extent he enjoyed any, was due to his forward-looking arranging for the Claude Thornhill orchestra ….
Although Davis’ work the following year would be dubbed as the "Birth of the Cool" (an inspired and influential title selected by Pete Rugolo, then serving as Davis's producer at Capitol Records), the Thornhill band was its acknowledged model in many respects. By implication, the Thornhill 1946-47 band should be seen as the "incubation" of the cool. In Davis's words: "The Birth of the Cool album came from some of the sessions we did trying to sound like Claude Thornhill's band. We wanted that sound, but the difference was that we wanted it as small as possible. …”
Was this jazz? Winthrop Sargeant, classical music critic for The New Yorker, expressed his doubts. Instead, he staked a claim for the Davis Nonet as an outgrowth of the Western classical tradition. It sounded, to his ears, like the work of an
impressionist composer with a great sense of aural poetry and a very fastidious feeling for tone color. The compositions have beginnings, middles and endings. The music sounds more like that of a new Maurice Ravel than it does like jazz. I, who do not listen to jazz recordings day in and day out, find this music charming and exciting. ... It Miles Davis were an established "classical" composer, his work would rank high among that of his contemporary colleagues. But it is not really jazz.
Jazz fans apparently agreed with Sargeant's characterization — they virtually ignored the band. In time, the Davis Nonet would be lauded as one of the most innovative groups in the history of jazz, but during its brief tenure, the Nonet drew little attention or praise. Its employment was limited to a few performances at the Royal Roost, and even there the group was billed below the Count Basie band, with whom it shared the stage. After making a few recordings for Capitol Records, the Nonet disbanded.
The cool "school," as it came to be called, may well have benefited from this early failure. The members of the Nonet would have more success as individuals in promoting the cool sound than as part of a single unit. Davis would continue to refine his sound, in a variety of settings, and by the mid-1950s had developed a deeply personal conception of jazz, one that would exert enormous influence on later jazz musicians. Pianist John Lewis would build a major concert-hall career as musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a quintessential cool band remarkable for its longevity and popularity, as well as its consistently high musical standards. Lee Konitz's later work would secure his reputation as one of the most accomplished and creative altoists of his day, and a leading exponent of the cool. Gerry Mulligan would play an important role in developing cool jazz on the West Coast. Gunther Schuller, who had played French horn with the Nonet, would become a key figure in promoting the "Third Stream"—an ambitious and controversial offshoot of cool jazz that aimed to break down barriers between classical and jazz idioms. Even hardened bopper Max Roach, the drummer on the Davis sessions, would bring a measured dose of the cool aesthetic to his pathbreaking mid-1950s band with Clifford Brown. All in all, the Davis Nonet was much like a band of apostles, gathered together for a brief time before scattering in their several separate directions, each inspired to proselytize others in turn ….
A number of signal events marked the shift from hot to cool on the coast. Gerry Mulligan's relocation to California after the completion of the Davis Nonet sessions created a formal link to the nascent East Coast cool movement. In addition, a host of former Stan Kenton sidemen, now settled in southern California, fueled the progressive tendencies of this music, each with greater or lesser ties to the cool aesthetic. The Lighthouse, a jazz club in Hermosa Beach, which had formerly featured some of the more bop-oriented black players, became a regular performance venue for many of these ex-Kentonians. The Lighthouse came to serve as a public workshop for emerging jazz trends on the coast, with a panoply of players (Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Cooper, Bud Shank, Shelly Manne, and many others) pursuing an almost equal diversity of styles, from hot to cool, retrograde to avant-garde. The worst of this music settled for an easy banality, an aural dose of laudanum, but more often the Lighthouse crew tapped into the freewheeling creative currents of the time. Perhaps even more important than clubs like the Lighthouse were the independent record companies on the West Coast — notably Les Koenig's Contemporary label, Richard Bock's Pacific label, and the Weiss brothers' Fantasy label — which recorded and promoted the new music. In response to their efforts, "West Coast jazz" gained an international following and emerged as a viable alternative to the hegemony of East Coast models of improvisation and composition.
Although the movement was never as monolithic as the term suggested, a certain convergence of aesthetic values could be seen in many of the West Coast recordings. The music was often highly structured, rebelling against the simple head charts of East Coast modern jazz and reflecting a formalism that contrasted sharply with the spontaneity of bebop. Counterpoint and other devices of formal composition figured prominently in the music. Larger ensembles — octets, nonets, tentettes — continued to thrive in West Coast jazz circles, long after they had become an endangered species elsewhere. Unusual instruments were also embraced with enthusiasm, and many of them — such as flute and flugelhorn — eventually came to be widely used in the jazz world. Relaxed tempos and unhurried improvisations were frequently the norm, and the music often luxuriated in a warm romanticism and melodic sweetness that was far afield from the bop paradigm. Although the West Coast sound has often been criticized for being stylized and conventional, the work of many leaders of the movement — Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre, Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers, Dave Brubeck — reveals the exact opposite: a playful curiosity and a desire to experiment and broaden the scope of jazz music were trademarks of their efforts. It was perhaps this very openness to new sounds that allowed many later leaders of the jazz avant-garde — Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charles Mingus, Paul Bley — to hone their styles while resident on the Coast.”
So while Ted concurs with Grover’s “... bloodless museum pieces” assessment when he states: “[t]he worst of this music settled for an easy banality, an aural dose of laudanum, …” his broader evaluation of the elements associated with West Coast Jazz finds many creative and notable attributes in the style of Jazz on the West Coast, circa 1945-1965 for to reiterate his point in conclusion:
Although the West Coast sound has often been criticized for being stylized and conventional, the work of many leaders of the movement … reveals the exact opposite: a playful curiosity and a desire to experiment and broaden the scope of jazz music were trademarks of their efforts. It was perhaps this very openness to new sounds that allowed many later leaders of the jazz avant-garde — Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charles Mingus, Paul Bley — to hone their styles while resident on the Coast.”