How Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan birthed what would become West Coast jazz

In late 1949 and 1950, the Miles Davis nonet recorded 12 songs in New York arranged by Gil Evans (two songs), John Carisi (one), John Lewis (two) and Gerry Mulligan (seven). The music was unusual in that it seemed to apply the relaxed feel of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra to bebop.

Of the dozen songs recorded in January and April of 1949 and March of 1950, only six were initially released by Capitol in the 78-rpm era. Jeru and Godchild were paired, along with Move and Budo from the January 1949 session and Israel and Boplicity from the April 1949 recording date. Sales of the 78s were lackluster, and club dates by the nonet received a yawn from critics.

Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis
Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis at the recording session for Miles Davis's nonet on Jan. 21, 1949.

By 1954, the 10-inch LP had emerged as the standard jazz album format. Ever the innovator, Pete Rugolo, the original Miles Davis nonet producer, pushed Capitol to release eight of the 12 tracks recorded on a 10-inch LP. Capitol agreed, and the label issued Classics in Jazz: Miles Davis. Three years later in 1957, much had changed again. Now, the 12-inch LP dominated, and Davis had signed with Columbia Records, becoming jazz’s first modernist superstar.

That year, Columbia released the Gil Evans-arranged Miles Ahead. Rugolo urged Capitol again to ride Columbia’s promotional push for Miles Davis by issuing 11 of the 12 nonet tracks on a 12-inch album. Rugolo christened the album Birth of the Cool. It was a brilliant move, since sales spiked along with Davis’s popularity. From that year forward, Miles Davis’s nonet recordings have been known as the “birth of the cool,” even though the name did not exist when the music was recorded.

Now, let’s rewind a little. In the early 1950s, after the nonet recordings, Rugolo left Capitol in New York and moved to Los Angeles to take a job as a staff composer and arranger for MGM. Mulligan also headed west, hitchhiking with his girlfriend to Los Angeles in early 1952. When Mulligan arrived in California, he formed his famed pianoless quartet with Chet Baker, Bob Whitlock and Chico Hamilton. In late 1952 in LA, radio DJ and record producer Gene Norman commissioned Mulligan to arrange and record a tentet album for Capitol. There would be no restrictions, Mulligan could arrange his own compositions as he pleased, and he would solo.

The result was Gerry Mulligan and His Ten-Tette. Recorded over two days in January 1953, the band included a range of top West Coast jazz talent. On Jan. 29, the band featured Chet Baker and Pete Candoli (trumpet), Bob Enevoldsen (valve trombone), John Graas (French horn), Ray Siegel (tuba), Bud Shank (alto saxophone), Don Davidson and Gerry Mulligan (baritone saxophone), Joe Mondragon (bass) and Chico Hamilton (drums). The songs recorded that day were A Ballad, Westwood Walk, Walkin’ Shoes and Rocker.

On Jan. 31, the band featured Chet Baker and Pete Candoli (trumpet); Bob Enevoldsen (valve trombone), John Graas (French horn), Ray Siegel (tuba), Bud Shank (alto saxophone), Don Davidson (baritone saxophone), Gerry Mulligan (baritone saxophone and piano), Joe Mondragon (bass) and Larry Bunker (drums). The songs were Taking a Chance on Love, Flash, Simbah and Ontet. Mulligan played piano on all of the them, and added baritone saxophone on Taking a Chance on Love and Simbah.

The deal was that Mulligan’s tentet material would be issued on a 10-inch Capitol LP, while a Gerry Mulligan session with a quartet recorded in May 1953 would be issued on Gene Norman’s GNP label. The eight Mulligan tentet tracks are fabulous. The concept clearly was pitched to Mulligan as an opportunity to widen what he had done with his arrangements on the Miles Davis nonet’s recordings. Among the highlights are Westwood Walk, A Ballad, Ontet, Rocker and FlashWestwood Walk may be one of the most remarkable tunes of the period. The same goes for Ontet. The sheer craft and addictive melodic lift of these songs is spectacular.

The difference between this tentet session and the nonet dates is the attack. While the earlier sessions had a sighing, Thornhillian feel, the Mulligan material has more bounce and swagger. Instead of letting the air out of bebop’s tires, Mulligan’s sessions are an early example of a newly emerging jazz style that would become known as West Coast jazz. As Bill Kirchner notes, Mulligan’s album would influence the Marty Paich Dek-Tette: a brass quintet plus three saxes, bass and drums.

JazzWax tracks

You’ll find the Gerry Mulligan tentet tracks and the GNP quartet session on Gerry Mulligan Tentet and Quartet (Featuring Chet Baker) here. For reference, the Complete Birth of the Cool is here and the Marty Paich Dek-Tette recordings are here.

The albums also are available on Spotify.

Jazzwax clips

Here’s Mulligan’s Westwood Walk…

Here’s Mulligan playing piano on his composition Ontet

Here’s Mulligan’s A Ballad

A special thanks to David Langner and Bill Kirchner.