Sunday, January 03, 2010

Modern Jazz 101: West Coast Cool

Even after the Bebop Revolution, jazz could still reach a popular audience. As in all endeavors, being attractive did not hurt. Indeed, two trumpeters known for their good looks and lyrical styles would play pivotal roles in the emergence of what came to be known as “Cool Jazz.”

If not yet a superstar, Miles Davis already had a definite following from his sideman work in Charlie Parker’s Quintet. In late 1949, Davis and his friend, arranger Gil Evans, had assembled an unusual sized rehearsal group that met in Evans’s famously cramped Midtown apartment. Originally conceived as a ten piece band, they settled on a nonet because there was only one clarinet player whom the two musicians considered compatible with their music and they did not want the group beholden to his schedule.

Growing organically out of Davis’s bop background and Evans’s experience with the Claude Thornhill big band, the nonet was an opportunity for Evans and other arrangers in their circle to write somewhat more ambitious charts than the typical jam session pattern of head-solo-solo-solo-head. Though what came to be known as the Birth of the Cool nonet recorded relatively little, it had a formative influence on a number of musicians, including its baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan.

Moving to California shortly after the nonet disbanded, Mulligan applied his esperience from the Birth of the Cool sessions to his new group, a quartet featuring another trumpeter who had played with Charlie Parker, albeit briefly, Chet Baker. Based in the tiny Haig club, Mulligan’s group was piano-less by necessity. However, that gave the Quartet an airier sound and allowed more space for arrangements and group interplay. They were a hit, but even though Mulligan was the leader, the trumpet player with the movie star looks was getting as much or more attention.

Both Mulligan and Baker recorded as leaders for Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label, which often used noted jazz photographer William Claxton for the album covers. Indeed, these dreamy photographs of Baker, particularly the famous picture of the shirtless trumpeter-vocalist with his second wife Helema, perfectly fit his early releases, largely shaping the musician’s enduringly romantic image. Unfortunately, reality was often radically different than popular perception.

A hopeless drug addict, Baker led a chaotic life that ravaged his body and led to several long absences from the music. As a result, his discography is particularly erratic, filled with many perfunctory sessions recorded late in his career simply for drug money. Still, there was an ugly beauty to the life-scarred Baker that some romanticized with equal fervor, including filmmaker Bruce Weber, whose Let’s Get Lost lovingly documents the withered face and wasted body of a once vital musician.

The West Coast scene of Baker, Mulligan, and their sidemen was considered softer, slower, and inescapably whiter than that of their East Coast contemporaries. Of course, there were African-American musicians playing in California at the time, including Chico Hamilton, the former drummer with the Mulligan Quartet, who is leading distinctive jazz groups to this day. Still, there was admittedly something of an old boys’ network in play, as many of the musicians on the scene had come through the ranks of the Stan Kenton big band.

There were however, some musicians associated with the West Coast who played with undeniable fire, like drummer Shelly Manne. While Manne was recognizable from his film and television appearances, including Man with the Golden Arm (for which he also instructed star Frank Sinatra on how to find his way around the drum kit), his biggest hit came via Broadway.

With classical-jazz double threat pianist André Previn, Manne recorded jazz renditions of the songs from Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Like the show’s cast album, it reached “hit” status, inspiring dozens of jazz versions of Broadway scores from other musicians, not necessarily associated with the West Coast scene. (One of the best examples might be the unlikely jazz version of Fiddler on the Roof, recorded by Cannonball Adderley, an alto saxophonist with a notably soulful bop-based style.) Manne himself cut several such Broadway sets, but he would later return to My Fair Lady, with an album subtitled The Un-Original Cast recorded with vocalists and big band charts. Reportedly, he preferred this more ambitious but lesser-known version to his famous hit recording.

Mulligan, Hamilton, and Manne all had (or are still having) long and fruitful careers, experimenting with diverse styles and musical forms. Baker’s overall body of work is less consistent in terms of quality and not nearly as adventurous, but when he was good, he was very good. Miles Davis might have launched the Cool School, but he never embraced it. Frankly, the restless musician had already moved on. Though the nonet was short lived, Davis and Evans still had many collaborations ahead of them that would yield some of the most beloved and influential recordings in jazz history.