We recently took a look at some out-front jazz from 1927 when Bix Beiderbecke changed the way jazz was played. Today let’s go to the opposite end of the time spectrum of the 78 rpm jazz record – 1949 and the Miles Davis Nonet.
There are more similarities between these records than you first might think. Both were groundbreaking and predictive of the future in their sounds, both were made up of medium-sized groups that were neither the standard big band or the small trio/quartet/quintet. And both influenced later players in many ways.
We have probably hit 1949-50 more than any other time period. This is because by 1949 jazz seemed to be going a hundred different directions at once – sort of a Big Bang, but one that sounded better. We had jazz morphing into popular song (Sarah Vaughan’s Black Coffee), jazz morphing into rock and roll (Louis Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry), jazz getting all loud and dissonant (Stan Kenton’s half of Orange Colored Sky) and even jazz as a whistling novelty (Brother Bones’ Sweet Georgia Brown). A decade earlier the various threads had been more subtle. Now a gathering of jazz fans was starting to have all of the unity of the United Nations.
Miles Davis was another musician on the ground floor of bebop right after the war, playing trumpet in a group with Charlie Parker. Unlike Dizzy Gillespie, who reached dazzling high notes and played notes at a pace that a machine gun couldn’t keep up with, Davis was a more thoughtful, introspective player who kept to the middle range of his horn. (Yes, another Bix Beiderbecke parallel).
Around the time Davis started looking for something fresh (as he continued to do throughout his life) he started hanging around with Gil Evans. Evans had played piano and arranged pieces for bandleader Claude Thornhill, a group that was very modern and quite unique before it disbanded for the same economic reasons that most other big bands did after the war.
Gerry Mulligan had played baritone sax for Thornhill, and an idea began gelling among Evans, Mulligan and Davis for a group that would go farther in the impressionistic and harmonic directions to which Thornhill had pointed. While the others dreamed up ideas it was Davis who took the concrete steps to book gigs and studio time. They began to perform in 1948 and made a handful of records in 1949-50.
The Nonet (named for its nine-piece structure) was a real oddity in 1949. It would not be like a big band (which used “sections” of similar instruments to create contrasts) or like a small group (which usually featured a series of solos).
The choices of instruments was unusual too. The group had pairings of “highs” (trumpet, alto sax) “middles (french horn, trombone) and “lows” (baritone sax and tuba – yes, a tuba) in addition to piano, bass and drums. These “voicings” were more choral than traditional jazz and yielded colors and moods unlike anything else being done at the time.
The Nonet’s arrangements (many written by Mulligan or Evans) were tightly structured, with slots allowed for solo time here and there. There were some classical elements such as counterpoint that were woven in, something else unheard of in traditional jazz circles.
On January 21, 1949 the group assembled at Capitol Records’ New York studio and recorded four songs. I was going to say “cut four records” but by 1949 the bigger studios were replacing acetate discs with magnetic tape for use as “masters”, so no “cutting” was involved. Perhaps you will notice that stuff recorded on tape cleans up extremely well for music from the pre-stereo era.
Of the tracks the Nonet recorded, I spent days trying to choose one. Agonized may be a better word, because I would like to include them all. I finally settled on this, a Jerry Mulligan composition called Jeru from that first 1949 recording date.
Taken at a medium-fast tempo, notice how relaxed everything is. There is no introduction, they just jump into it. The initial theme is not really bebop, but is certainly not a recognizable standard either given the unusual chords which are explored. We get a tease of Mulligan’s baritone saxophone and then we get to hear Miles.
Miles Davis was a unique individual. This is true for each of us, of course, but Miles took unique and turned it up to eleven. He was deeply (and justifiably) angry about racial injustice but led and promoted this nearly all-white group of players – because he was exacting about what he wanted from individual instruments. Many players in their early twenties are all about flash and power. Not Miles. His trumpet was subdued yet bursting with a kind of power that is a little like a high performance car cruising at thirty-five miles per hour – you know what Miles could do if he wanted really open up, but he just didn’t want to. The plain, subdued tone in a restricted range was not often seen then, but that was what Miles wanted for blending with the other players.
A twenty-two year old Jerry Mulligan then gets a turn. The baritone sax is a big instrument normally used to anchor the low end of a sax section, not something used much for solos. Big instruments take a lot of air and are not always very musically maneuverable. Yet Mulligan managed to make it do just what he wanted. I could listen to Mulligan on that big bari sax for hours at a time (and have.) But we don’t have time for that now.
The last part of the record goes back to the disparate instruments weaving their way around each other in various combinations, seeming to never break a sweat.
There would be a pair of follow-up sessions (with multiple personnel turnover) over the next year or so that resulted in a sum-total of just twelve tracks. In fact, Davis, Mulligan, alto player Lee Konitz and tuba man Bill Barber were the only players there for all three dates.
The release history of these pieces tells us a little more about how haphazard this enterprise was at the start. Although all of these recordings were done after the advent of the long-play record, only six were released as singles, front and back on three 78 rpm discs. To yawn-inducing sales.
If ever there was a group of recordings that meshed so well they should have been released together on an album, these were they. But they were not. Eight tracks were finally released on a 10 inch LP in 1954 (Classics In Jazz – Miles Davis) and all but one made it onto a 1957 LP called Birth Of The Cool. There was one vocal (Darn That Dream – a song popularized by Billie Holiday years earlier) that did not see daylight until a 1971 Birth Of The Cool re-issue.
Most casual jazz listeners who are unfamiliar with these recordings would probably guess them to be a full decade younger than they actually are, and perhaps this is why sales did not finally start to take off until the 1957 album release. Only then did these aged and marinated tracks fit in the mainstream of jazz tastes.
And would you care to guess just how many years since 1957 Birth Of The Cool (in its various forms) has been absent from the current catalogs of Capitol and its successors? Not a single one. Which is funny because Capitol had been disappointed enough when these were fresh that they had no interest in signing Miles Davis for further projects.
Several of the players (Jerry Mulligan and alto sax player Lee Konitz, most notably) made their mark further developing this style that would come to be known as “cool jazz” or “west coast jazz”. Mulligan’s career would stretch into the 1990s, becoming one of few baritone sax players many jazz fans could name.
Miles Davis went in many other directions as decades passed, including “hard bop” and more experimental styles – when a new style in jazz came along Davis was there to meet it. He stopped long enough in 1959 to record Kind Of Blue (also in association with Gil Evans) which has become the top selling jazz album of all time. There were reports that very late in his career Davis had considered trying to reconstitute a Nonet with Gerry Mulligan, but nothing was accomplished before Davis’ death in 1991.
Sometimes trends take awhile to work up some momentum. And sometimes, as happened here, by the time the momentum finally arrives the group that made the music has vanished. And yet this group (unknowingly and eventually) created one of the most enduringly popular jazz albums of all time, one that continues to find new listeners and make new fans. Sixty-plus years of uninterrupted record sales out of twelve studio tracks* with nary a clinker in the bunch is a tough act to match.
*In addition to the twelve studio tracks, two live performances were recorded from broadcasts in September, 4 and 18 of 1948 and were included in The Complete Birth Of The Cool released by Capitol in 1998. Only two selections do not duplicate those recorded in the studio.
Record label – Discogs.com
Album covers: Classics In Jazz – Discogs.com; Birth Of The Cool (early version) – offered for sale on eBay
Miles Davis – Wiki Commons, Photographer Tom Palumbo, undated, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Gerry Mulligan – unidentified pinterest source
Recording Session photo from Yahoo News
1947 photo of Miles Davis & Howard McGhee at an unrelated session, In the public domain per donation by the photographer.
Music source: The YouTube channel of OverJazz Records
Jeru – The Miles Davis Nonet, recorded at the Capitol Records studio January 21, 1949.
Personnel: Miles Davis (trumpet). Kai Winding (trombone), Junior Collins (french horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Lee Konitz (alto sax), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Al Haig (piano), Joe Shulman (bass), Max Roach (drums).