Medium But Well Done, Part 2

The charms and opportunities in bands of six to eleven pieces attracted jazz composers and arrangers eight decades ago, as they do to this day. For an overview and links to recordings of early mid-sized groups, go to the first installment of Medium But Well Done.

Separated by the width of the United States, in the second half of the 1940s two medium-sized bands working with different inspirations and source materials arrived at strikingly similar results. In New York, Miles Davis became the leader of a nine-piece band with arrangements by Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis. In 1948, it wasn’t called anything. Now, it’s known as the Birth Of The Cool.

Miles.jpgDavis and his confreres were interested in encapsulating the harmonic palette of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra for which Evans had created memorable arrangements. They wanted the freshness and improvisatory feel of Evans masterpieces for Thornhill like “Anthropology” and “Donna Lee.” They were after more tonal subtlety and a less intense rhythmic approach than that of bebop, then in its heyday. In a typical bop performance, there was a group melodic statement, a succession of solos, and a repeat of the melody. In pieces by the Davis nonet, written and improvised sections of the music flowed together more or less seamlessly, without strain, in the vibratoless image of the Thornhill band. How well it succeeded in pieces like “Move,” “Moon Dreams” and “Budo” is reflected in the enormous influence of the Birth Of The Cool band in the ensuing six decades.

In northern California, Dave Brubeck and a few other chosen young men were studying at Mills College with the French modernist composer Darius Milhaud. As early as 1946, Brubeck, Dave Van Kriedt and Jack Weeks began working out solutions to problems raised in their studies in an ensemble they called, simply, The Eight. Later, it became the Dave Brubeck Octet.

Brubeck Octet.jpgMilhaud approved their efforts.

“He liked our music,” Brubeck told me. “He loved Kriedt’s “Fugue on Bop Themes. ” He said it was a wonderful example of a real fugue, written in a jazz style. He was as strict as could be about counterpoint. You had to follow his rules, which were Bach’s rules. Kriedt just had a natural gift for writing fugues. How else could this young jazz player absorb that so fast and translate it into the jazz idiom? It’s a classic piece.” Here is more from the essay I wrote in 1992 for the retrospective Brubeck CD box Time Signatures.

There are interesting parallels between the Brubeck and Davis bands. Both were experimental, although in pieces like “Schizophrenic Scherzo” and “Rondo” the Brubeck Octet demonstrated more audacity with its polytonality and polyrhythms. Both bands were ahead of their time. Both had three paying jobs. On records made in the same year, 1949, both sound fresh and undated more than forty years later, still models for inventive uses of textures, counterpoint, moving harmonies and time signatures. (This remains true fifty-nine years later.) “Curtain Music” is in 6. Schizophrenic Scherzo and the bridge of “What Is This Thing Called Love” were in 7. Brubeck’s adventures in time began long before “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Take Five.”

There are similarities in phrasings of melody lines and in voicings, right down to the ways in which the alto leads of Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz were employed in the two bands. Classical influences and currents of musical thought in post-war jazz were informing composers and arrangers working 3000 miles apart. Gerry Mulligan, with Evans and John Lewis a key arranger for the Davis band, went on to form his own quartet, which became, like Brubeck’s, one of the most successful of the 1950s.

In 1954, Mulligan formed a tentet modeled on the Birth Of The Cool Band and, later, put together his thirteen-piece Concert Jazz Band. The CJB, because of its size, was technically a big band, but in philosophy, spirit and execution it hewed to the principles he, Evans and Lewis developed with Davis in the late forties.

Ammons.jpgThe gloriously testicular Chicago tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons led a succession of sextets more concerned with the basic emotions than with the refinements that occupied Davis and Brubeck. The arrangements were designed not to explore the possibilities of harmony or texture but to set off Ammons’s heartfelt solos. They do that most effectively in “Pennies From Heaven,” a witty pastiche of Christmas songs, the chugging “Jug Head Ramble” and a reduction of Ammons’s “More Moon” feature from his days with Woody Herman. Those pieces and more from 1948 and ’49 are in the fine reissue CD called Young Jug.

One arranger and leader whose work shows profound effects of the Birth Of The Cool recordings was an Ammons colleague from the Herman band, Shorty Rogers. At twenty-six, the trumpeter and arranger was also a veteran of the Red Norvo, and Stan Kenton bands. He took a nine-piece group into Capitol’s Hollywood studio in 1951. The six pieces they recorded featured Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre, Shelly Manne, Milt Bernhart Hampton Hawes and

Shorty 2.jpgRogers’s writing full of zest and just enough complexity to be intriguing. “Popo,” “Didi,” “Four Mothers” and perhaps especially “Over The Rainbow” with its moving alto sax solo by Pepper get a large part of the credit–or blame–for establishing west coast jazz as a category, not just a geographic descriptor. It quickly became West Coast Jazz, typecasting that was good for commerce but stereotyped its musicians and has dogged them ever since.

This CD includes those initial Rogers nonet tracks, along with the Mulligan Tentette pieces. This one, with the same musicians, has eight tracks recorded by Rogers and his Giants for Victor in 1953. Among them are the remarkable intertwining lines and swooping backgrounds of “Indian Club,” “Diablo’s Dance” with its great piano work by Hawes, and the amusing “Mambo del Crow,” an early example of Rogers’s effective use of Latin elements.

We haven’t reached the mid-fifties, and there’s much more to report in this survey of medium-sized bands. Next time–maybe even tomorrow–more from California with Don Faguerquist, Lennie Niehaus, Clifford Brown and Chet Baker. In the offing: Tadd Dameron, Al Cohn, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Kirchner, Anthony Wilson, Bill Holman and Charles Mingus, among others.

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  1. John Birchard says

    Nice job of tying together the Davis and Brubeck bands. I hadn’t thought about the parallels before. And your mention of the Shorty Rogers recording w/ Hamp Hawes, et al reminded me of how good that was.
    Thanks for the “revisionist” education.