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Birth of the Cool: Back Where It All Begins

Composer and arranger Ryan Truesdell re-examines the heady scene that gave birth to this undeniable classic from Miles Davis

Miles Davis with key Birth of the Cool collaborator Lee Konitz, 1951. (photo: William "Popsie" Randolph)
Miles Davis with key Birth of the Cool collaborator Lee Konitz, 1951 (photo: William “Popsie” Randolph)

When an artist embarks on the creation of a new work, few have the ability to predict the impact the final product will have on the public or its effect on the culture at large. My teacher, Bob Brookmeyer, would often say that if you sit down with the intention to write the next masterpiece, you will inevitably encounter failure. Does every artist hope for their work to be considered a “masterpiece”? Of course. But in order for the work to evolve truthfully and organically, one must approach it with humility and trust, allowing it to develop as an expression of emotion or an exploration of a hypothesis. The work’s societal impact and significance is out of the artist’s hands—and will only be determined over time.

Seventy years ago, the genesis of one such masterpiece began in a small New York basement apartment on West 55th Street, near Fifth Avenue, behind a Chinese laundry. The apartment (once owned by the pianist and band leader Claude Thornhill) was occupied by Gil Evans, the Canadian-born composer and arranger who had spent his formative compositional years writing lush, orchestral harmonies for Thornhill and his large jazz orchestra. But he was becoming more interested in condensing those large ensemble colors into a leaner, more economical configuration.

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