"HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT". THE ROOTS OF COOL JAZZ IN THE BIG BAND OF CLAUDE THORNHILL
By TOM NOLAN
July 5, 2008
Sixty years ago, in the hot summer of 1948, a cadre of young arrangers and players worked in a basement apartment behind a Chinese laundry on West 55th Street in New York to craft music that would later be tagged "the birth of the cool" -- the first notable instance of a harmonically rich, emotionally subtle type of jazz that washed its gorgeous chords and subtle dynamics over a big chunk of the 1950s.
Trumpeter Miles Davis was the nominal leader of this ensemble, but it was the outfit's arrangers -- primarily Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan -- who were the real stars. The devices they drew on had been available for years, hidden in plain hearing within the big band of Claude Thornhill.
The shy, Indiana-born Thornhill had been on the swing and dance-band scene since the 1930s: a pianist, arranger and leader whose self-penned theme-song, "Snowfall," was an ethereal tone-poem in which time almost seemed to stop. Thornhill favored slow tempi and lingering phrases. His band's instrumentation included two French horns, a sonorous tuba, and enough reed players to allow for passages with six or seven clarinets at a time. With a theme like "Snowfall," the Thornhill band epitomized coolness from the moment it took the stage.
The Canadian-born Gil Evans, who joined that band in 1941, proved to be Thornhill's ideal arranger. When bebop emerged, Evans blended its busy lines and advanced progressions with Thornhill's meditative approach, writing engaging arrangements of bop standards such as altoist Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" and "Yardbird Suite."
Evans also arranged "Donna Lee," a tune by Parker's young sideman Miles Davis. Lee Konitz, then an equally young alto-sax player from Chicago whose dry-ice tone fit perfectly into Thornhill's low-vibrato outfit, remembers Davis coming to hear the band in 1947 at New York's Pennsylvania Hotel.
TUNE IN: STAGES OF COOL
Clips of some of the "coolest" jazz songs:
• Claude Thornhill's music vibed on a meditative approach that was a precursor to "Birth of the Cool." Listen to 'Snowfall'
• Miles Davis's "Birth of the Cool" has inspired scores of jazz musicians since the 1950s. Listen to 'Budo'
• The album "Out of the Cool" by Gil Evans was a nod toward his musical origins. Listen to 'Sister Sadie'
"It was basically a ballad band," Mr. Konitz (now 80 and still active as a player) said recently. "People loved dancing to it. Gil's beautiful writing was very danceable. . . . Miles liked the band." In 1950, Davis would describe Thornhill's orchestra to Down Beat magazine as "the greatest band of these modern times. . . . It was commercially good and musically good."
But Thornhill disbanded this orchestra in early 1948 for undisclosed reasons. "Thornhill was pretty removed from everything," says Mr. Konitz. "I don't think I ever said much more than 'hello' to him in 10 months."
Gil Evans's tiny apartment on West 55th -- a place Thornhill himself had lived in, back in 1940 -- then became a sort of workshop where Evans and Mulligan, encouraged by Davis and joined by John Lewis and John Carisi, attempted to re-create the Thornhill band's sound with as few instruments as possible. This proved to be nine: trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto sax, baritone sax; and a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums.
Players for this nonet were chosen (including several Thornhill veterans). Rehearsals were held. Davis became the nascent band's leader, but the ensemble was no showcase for individual players, says Mr. Konitz (who became its alto saxophonist): "This was a chamber group -- compositional. Solos were kind of incidental."
The nonet was booked for a few weeks' work at the Royal Roost, a jazz venue on Broadway. In September 1948, "'Impressions in Modern Music,' with the new Miles Davis organization" made its debut, and some of its sets were heard by insomniac New Yorkers via remote wee-hours radio broadcasts.
The nonet attracted the attention of a Capitol Records executive who made sure it recorded a total of 12 numbers in 1949 and 1950 -- tracks that came out first on 78-rpm singles, then on a 10-inch long-playing disc, and, in 1957, on a 12-inch album at last titled "Birth of the Cool." By then the Davis group had inspired or influenced a host of other cool-sounding nonets, octets, quartets and tentets -- the most successful of which was Gerry Mulligan's "piano-less" foursome with trumpeter Chet Baker, whose lyrical, minimal style was not unlike Miles Davis's.
"The Complete Birth of the Cool," a 1998 Capitol CD including broadcast transcriptions from the Royal Roost, continues to sell. And the "Birth of the Cool" mystique grows: This February, jazz-drummer and writer Bill Moody published "Shades of Blue" (Poisoned Pen Press), a contemporary mystery novel turning on events surrounding the Davis nonet.
Mike Zwerin, the young trombonist in that '48 live-performance unit (but not on the records), reversed the career arc of several nonet members: After first working in Davis's group, he later played with the Claude Thornhill band -- albeit a much-diminished 1958 touring outfit. "[Claude] kept his dignity as his audience dwindled," wrote Mr. Zwerin, now a well-regarded music journalist and author. " . . . I marvel at how much control that must have involved, considering the skid he was on. He knew he had been something special." Thornhill died in 1965, at the age of 55, on the eve of another comeback.
Davis followed "Birth of the Cool" with a long and noteworthy career that saw several more collaborations with Evans, including their epochal LPs "Sketches of Spain" and "Porgy and Bess."
And Evans made several albums of his own, including a 1961 platter titled (in acknowledgment of his musical genesis) "Out of the Cool." Perhaps the most ear-catching track on that disc was an Evans opus that became a sort of signature piece for the big band he'd lead in sporadic performance for 30 years; it was probably Evans's best-known composition.
Claude Thornhill's old protégé named this semi-theme song "La Nevada" -- Spanish for "Snowfall."