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.

Gil’s sparsely furnished studio had little more than a piano, bed, and record player—and yet it was the meeting place for dozens of artists who would become the most progressive and influential musical minds and voices in jazz history. George Russell, Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Carisi, Miles Davis, Johnny Mandel, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and John Lewis are just a few of the innovative musicians who found a creative haven in this humble basement dwelling. With a literal open-door policy (the door was never locked) and an ever-evolving rotation of musicians and composers, the room and its occupants created an intellectually charged atmosphere encouraging profound, inspired conversations that would revolutionize the sound and compositional approach of orchestral jazz from that point forward.

This informal collective of jazz titans was constantly engaged in discussions of orchestration, theory, philosophy, and composition. They were also greatly inspired and influenced by modern and impressionist classical composers including Prokofiev, Bartok, Ravel, Stravinsky, Ernest Bloch, and many others. As the only card-carrying member of the New York Public Library in the group, Gil borrowed countless classical scores and recordings, which the group analyzed and absorbed into their collective compositional consciousness. They also shared a unified desire to discover what they referred to as a “dream band” instrumentation that could retain the sound and feel of the Thornhill Orchestra with the fewest possible instruments. That pursuit, combined with their ongoing compositional dialogue, formed the nucleus of what we know today as Birth of the Cool.

That legendary album is rightly enjoyed for its sheer virtuosity—compositional and instrumental. But it also affords us the exceptionally rare gift of a clear window into this historical consortium’s creative process, and can serve as a road map of jazz’s evolution from dance-hall music to a more legitimate artform. Credit is due to Miles, whose desire to find his own voice as a leader and frontman was the organizing force behind the group’s unified purpose. Had he not seen the potential in his peers’ vision and their music, Birth of the Cool may never have become a reality, and those groundbreaking discussions may never have left that basement apartment. “Miles was really the practical one,” Mulligan said in an interview with Ken Poston in 1995. “He was the one who started making the phone calls, getting the guys together, picking out the players, reserving the rehearsal studios, and generally assuming the role of a leader. And that’s how we started actually playing together, because I think if it had been left to the rest of us we probably would have kept on theorizing and writing and never have gotten around to doing anything.”

These days, it’s easy to allow our musical pursuits to be condensed into the routine, practical, and transactional aspects of running a band or ensemble—booking gigs, hiring musicians, self-promotion, and so on. Given the cynicism of the music industry today, not to mention the current political climate, it’s worth remembering that this revolutionary and visionary masterpiece was born out of an assemblage of people who first came together to share their ideas, passions, and love of music. Their collective desire to experiment not just with new sounds, but with integrating philosophical and intellectual ideas, yielded a fertile ground for inspiration and exploration, and began the germinating process for a new era of musical innovation.

Collaboration and creativity takes time, and can be lacking in our contemporary social media- and results-driven musical culture. We can obviously still learn much by studying the scores and recordings, and glean insight from these illustrious writers’ compositional exploration, but we neglect an opportunity for radical innovation if we limit our collaborations to the interplay of ideas on stage or through discourse on social media. When we forge true musical partnerships with our colleagues, creating space for the exchange of ideas, the discovery of new sounds, the freedom to experiment and even to fail, we increase exponentially our potential to learn, grow, and be inspired by each other’s strengths.

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So, in this anniversary year, I invite you to revisit Birth of the Cool—to listen with fresh ears and approach it through the mindset of the musicians who congregated in Gil’s basement apartment on West 55th Street. Avoid fixating on the performance and direct your focus to the bigger picture by appreciating the innovation contained within the writing: melody, form, development, orchestration, collective sound, and the passion this group of musicians had for the creation of this music. Then call up a friend, or better yet, a few of them—colleagues and peers that you respect and enjoy making music with—and invite them over to listen to a new genre of music or a new composer and engage in a healthy dialogue. Try to discern whether it informs a new perspective on your own—or your friend’s—music by asking questions and finding enjoyment in the process of discovering the answers. Don’t make your goal to create a masterpiece or to seek the instant gratification of social media “likes,” but instead draw inspiration from the people and music around you, and strive to rediscover the art and community inherent in the creation of music.

It worked out pretty well for a group of young musicians 70 years ago, and I have faith that it will work out well for you too.