Birth of the Cool: 2009

To fully appreciate how seductive and spectacular Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool recordings were in 1949 and ’50, you actually have to see the music being played. Listening doesn’t quite provide all the thrills and chills. Today, you’re going to get a chance to do just that. Something happens when you see a skilled nonet play the material arranged by Gil Evans, Johnny Carisi and John Lewis. Your brain widens and you have a finer appreciation of how magnificent this music truly was.

First, a quick summary of the backstory. When the nine-member Miles Davis Orchestra gathered to record for Capitol in 1949 and ’50 at the urging of Pete Rugolo, the label’s head of jazz A&R, the results were meant as a series of bold, experimental singles. When released, they bombed. The unusual arrangements and polyphony were a little much for ears accustomed to bop and pop. In 1954, when eight Capitol 78-rpm sides were released on a 10-inch LP, the album with an illustration of Miles Davis on the cover was called Classics in Jazz: Miles Davis. This album, too, didn’t fare well.

Finally, in 1957, when all 12 tracks were released on a 12-inch LP at the start of Miles Davis’s orchestral reunion with Gil Evans (Miles Ahead), the album was named Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. As a footnote, after the original recordings were completed in 1950, Davis began a shift to hard bop and Lee Konitz continued to pioneer cool jazz. The Miles Davis Nonet also can be credited with influencing the airy West Coast Jazz sound.

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While there is no known footage of the original Miles Davis Nonet, a jazz ensemble at George Mason University performed five Birth of the Cool tracks on February 26, 2009. They retain much of the original sound and feel. Fortunately, the performance was videotaped and the results are remarkable. Dig how much more electrifying this music sounds when you can see musicians playing it well:

Here’s Boplicity

Here’s Jeru

Here’s Deception

Here’s Godchild

And here’s Venus de Milo