Miles Davis: Los Angeles and Birth of the Cool
The tender tone of Miles Davis’s trumpet coming from my car stereo displaces the buzz of the traffic. Cars switch lanes like small black note heads flowing through a musical staff in an avant garde interpretation of car horns and off tempo turning signals. Both sounds blend a composition behind his solo as my thoughts turn from my growing frustration due to traffic on the 405 to wonderment. How did an Illinois native and New York headhunter manage to interpret the chaos of city life while incorporating the relaxed demeanor of Los Angeles? Maybe as most things, it started with inspiration or rather revolution. A movement from fast tempo, arpeggiated flexing of dexterity and skill to something slower, cooler. Los Angeles, my city, your city became the canvas for one of the most prolific strokes of genius ever to be pressed in wax, Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool. A name and sound that gives poetic justice of life in this schizophrenic city,
Davis’s Birth of the Cool (1949) took the quick paced Bebop style of jazz dominate on the East Coast and added a down tempo “less is more” interpretation that resonated with the West Coast. The album was literally, the birth of the cool, as Miles Davis managed to create a new softer sound and style that lifted artists such as Stan Getz and Chet Baker to legendary status. More importantly what Miles Davis did on the album that revolutionized jazz commercially and culturally was the fact that he worked with not only African American musicians but white musicians as well. To Davis, music didn’t paint in black and white.
In retrospect Miles Davis was not the first jazz musician to work with white artists, nor record with them, but given his reputability in the jazz world it marks a step into racial equality in the music world. As a jazz musician myself and as many musicians would agree, one rule outweighs all, “If he can play, he can play”. Color and race weren’t an interpretation of music to Miles Davis. The best musician played, and that was it. Yet, when we think of leaders in racial equality and pioneers for the advancement of African Americans we tend to skip over this moment in history. The album Birth of the Cool was recorded in 1949 and released a few years later in the 1950’s, bringing an integrated sound to the ears of America. During this time period, there was a pasteurization of jazz by some white communities in Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans creating an interpretive divide between races. This segregation in jazz was not a problem for Miles Davis and if it was, as the truly cool would do, he didn’t care. On the album Davis went on to collaborate with a white jazz pianist from Canada named Gil Evans, who produced and co-wrote many of the songs that would be played on the iconic album. After the release of Birth of the Cool, Los Angeles became the epicenter of a new form of jazz -cool jazz.
“Cool jazz” as it has become known as was a staple time period in the history of jazz, and one that reflected the diversity in the jazz community. The Cool period of jazz wasn’t colorblind, and it never tried to be, since many white and black artists rose to fame under the new style. Whether Miles Davis worked with white musicians intentionally or not, he revolutionized the jazz music industry and helped redefine the color boundaries of artistry. Being black doesn’t make you an inherently great jazz musician, just as being German or Italian doesn’t make you inherently a great composer. Jazz is a form of self expression not binded by race. It is art that is created through hours of practice, self criticism, and moments of inspiration that culminate in our own individuality and as Davis once said “It takes a long time to play like yourself”.
As the song comes to an end, I turn down my car stereo and reflect on some advice I once got from Herbie Hancock my freshman year at UCLA.
Mr. Hancock told me that we can put headphones in and listen to legends as they compose the soundtrack to our lives, or we can unplug and listen for our own composition in the noise from the world around us.
So, I listen. I listen as the city composes the sound of syncopated sirens in the distance keeping the rhythm, old brakes squealing the high notes, and the soft bass of loud house music rattling the car next to me. Busy brush strokes of infinite notes paint the musical staff in my mind and I find it hard to distinguish the music from the chaos. It must have taken a true genius to hear the music, and find the sound that would define an era. It took a man like Miles Davis to hear the song between the silence and the next note where musicians find their identity and sketch the colors found beyond the black and white on the page.