Chill Out with Cool Jazz

Origins of Cool Jazz

As a genre, jazz originated in New Orleans as traditional jazz. New Orleans was a breeding ground for jazz because of its aquatic access, extensive cultural heritage, and celebratory freedoms. The marching band celebrations of Congo Square were transformed into traditional jazz through Charles Bolden’s artistic ingenuity. Throughout the 20th century, this traditional jazz proliferated into various subcategories of the polyphonic genre. A prominent sub-genre of jazz was cool jazz. Cool jazz originated after World War II and gained popularity in the 1950s due to the improvisational works of Miles Davis. The release of the Birth of the Cool recordings in 1949 and 1950 marked the commencement of cool jazz in the jazz community. Cool jazz’s origins can be found in New York while being largely popular later in Los Angeles and San Francisco.


Elements of the Cool Jazz Sub-Genre

Cool jazz artists used light tones and unorthodox instrumentation including vibraphones and xylophones. In addition, instruments included the saxophone, piano, and trumpet. Miles Davis described cool jazz as being very light and highly expressive. The elements comprising the cool jazz sub-genre highly contrasted the existing modern jazz genres of this time period. Bebop, another prominent sub-genre of jazz, was a staccato two-tone phrase jazz arrangement of fast tempos that led to the creation of hard bop. Hard bop directly contrasted with cool jazz based on their tonal codings, resembling black and white sounds respectively. For this reason, the lightly textured cool jazz was thoroughly dominated by white artists. These white artists often modeled their instrumentation and musical styles after Cool jazz included down tempo arrangements as opposed to the faster tempos of bebop and hard bop. Cool jazz resembles classical music with its incorporation of elements such as fugue. This similarity also stems from the fact that jazz is considered black classical music. Musicians had to be highly skilled to be able to do complex runs that are often seen in classical music. In addition, highly trained classical musicians mixed their background with jazz elements from the South. So, cool jazz emphasized these stark homages in its foundation. Polyphony was also a major characteristic of jazz, so it was prominent in cool jazz. Artists tended to weave independent lines into a single arrangement.


Social Implications and Commodification

After World War II, America was still largely segregated. Cool jazz emulated this system by displaying a stark racial division within the sub-genres of jazz. The relaxed tones of cool jazz were primarily performed by white artists from the West. Its counterpart, hard bop, was a sub-genre dominated by African American musicians. Once white artists took over the cool jazz sounds, Black artists were encouraged to pursue the hard bop sounds categorized by African American harmonies. For this reason, it was uncommon to see cool jazz played by African American artists. However, Birth of the Cool was a stark exception to the commonality. These recordings were largely interracial, showing the possibility for prominent success even with racial intermingling.

Because many cool jazz performers were white, the majority of syndication and credit in the genre was given to White performers. Cool jazz earnings were primarily disseminated to white artists. The exception lies in Miles Davis’ artistry as he was able to successfully record and publish songs of the sub-genre. Birth of the Cool was released in 1957 by Capitol Records, with subsequent releases proceeding. The recordings were sold as albums and individual records and were played through radio syndication.


Important Cool Jazz Artists

  • Miles Davis’ (1926-1991) release of Birth of the Cool sparked the invention of the cool jazz sub-genre.

  • Gil Evans (1912-1988) played an instrumental role in the development of cool jazz.


  • The Modern Jazz Quartet (1946-1974; 1981-1993) was one of the most popular jazz groups. They defied stereotypical cool sounds by being an African American group.


  • Stan Getz (1927-1991) was a West Coast saxophonist who modeled his playing after Lester Young.


  • Lee Konitz (1927-) was a prominent West Coast cool jazz saxophonist.


  • Paul Desmond (1924-1977) was one of the most popular cool jazz artists. He composed cool jazz songs for the Dave Brubeck Quartet.


Influence on Future Genres

The polyphony found in cool jazz also gave future genres such as soul, funk, R&B, and hip-hop a polyphonic sound. The workings of artists in cool jazz and other jazz sub-genres of this time also influenced later jazz artists beyond the 1980s. These artists vowed to distinguish themselves from fusion jazz by re-implementing crucial traditional elements found in cool jazz and similar sub-genres. Because of racial division at the time, it can be argued that cool jazz sparked the prominence of hard bop. That is, because cool jazz was dominated by white artists, hard bop was a haven for contrasting sounds played by Black artists.


Conclusory Opinions

Before learning about the sub-genres of jazz, I associated the sounds and tones of cool jazz as being the entire jazz genre. It was fascinating to learn that my perspective of jazz was largely minute. It was also interesting to see a genre encapsulated as an African American genre but be predominately white. This was the first genre that I saw this out of all of the Black music we have studied. Lastly, I think it is interesting that cool jazz was so racially divisive despite the words of Miles Davis: “Music has no color; It’s a raceless art.”

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