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Jazz 101

Jazz 101: Shades of Cool

by Seth Colter Walls

Jazz 101: Shades of Cool


Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

Miles Davis always knew how to play to his strengths, even as a young man. In 1947, knowing he’d never beat Dizzy Gillespie at blazing-fast, high-wire trumpet, he made the first of his career’s many pivots, this time to a slowed-down, more mellow form of bop that prized a controlled, sophisticated sounding vibe over sharp, fleet attacks. Soon, with a nine-piece band (which helped solidify some chamber-music gravitas), 1949's The Birth of the Cool was, well, born.

Saxophonists like Gerry Mulligan and the still-with-us master Lee Konitz were already thinking along similar lines, the latter after working under the tutelage of pioneering cool/bop/free innovator Lennie Tristano, whose overdubbed early piano sides helped prove that the cool era would not be devoid of compositional advances. Just because the intonations are crisp and less heated than previous generations of jazz doesn’t mean the tunes can’t cook, though -- see in particular Tristano’s “Wow,” whose theme is played with the calmest intensity by Warne Marsh (a saxophonist Anthony Braxton admires). Check the appended playlist for tracks from all these proponents of cool -- from West Coast to East Coast.

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