Birth of the Cool
Performed by The Don Wilson Trio
Lecture by Bob Perkins
October 25, 2009
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
This writer could think of no better way to spend an autumn Sunday afternoon than to stroll over to the fabled Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to hear the revered local disc jockey Bob Perkins reflect upon the groundbreaking Miles Davis album, Birth of the Cool, while tunes were performed by the Don Wilson Trio. Wilson himself is a masterful pianist and band leader who got his start in Philadelphia during those salad days when modern jazz was being birthed. With Lee Smith on bass and Craig McIver on drums, a more skilled, professional group would be hard to find to execute the daunting task of catching the vibes from a pioneering album that was voiced for nine instruments, a "nonet," by Davis' collaborator, the great Gil Evans. The occasion for the event was an art exhibit by the same name as the album, featuring the canvases of Barkley L. Hendricks, an African American painter who trained at the Academy and went on to an international career. The art work itself was well worth the visit, beautifully expressing in a painterly manner something of that "cool" attitude with a true artist's critical yet appreciative eye for portraiture a la the Dutch masters, but with a postmodern flair.
Ascending a grand flight of stairs of the Hamilton Building from the exhibit to an airy, sunlit lecture space and gallery lined with cases of modern sculpture, this writer found a gaggle of jazz fans seated in rows, including drummer and Dreambox Media CEO Jim Miller and his cohort, vocalist and head of the Jazz Bridge, Suzanne Cloud, while the musicians set up and Perkins made informal conversation with them. Then, after some introductions by representatives of the event's cosponsors, P.A.F.A. and the Philadelphia Clef Club, Perkins held forth at the podium, first giving a brief synopsis of jazz origins, including New Orleans march music, ragtime, blues, swing, and so on, with Wilson illustrating a Scott Joplin ragtime piece. Perkins went on to say how Miles Davis was one of the key players who brought on the new era of modern jazz while starting out in Billy Eckstein's big band (which included many of the soon to be jazz legends, such as Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon) and Parker's group, among others. The trio played a Davis tune, and Perkins proceeded to reminisce about the hot (and cool) jazz clubs in Philly at the time, recalling that the Downbeat Club at 11th and Ludlow was the first Philadelphia nightspot to host modern jazz. Indeed, Davis, J.J. Johnson, Clifford Brown, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Johnny Hartman, Kai Winding, and just about all the icons frequently came to Philly to play in these clubs during the 1950s, not to mention locals like John Coltrane, Benny Golson, the Heath Brothers, and McCoy Tyner. Later on, Perkins paid homage to some of the Philadelphia jazz disc jockeys of the time, including Sid Mark and Oscar Treadwell, both of whom had a substantial influence on Perkins himself.
Following that diversion about Philly jazz, Perkins pointed out that, as modern jazz emerged from its cocoon, primarily in the form of bebop, Davis' "Birth of the Cool" nontet (nine players) at the Royal Roost was a breakthrough group, heralding the transition from bebop to cool jazz and onwards. It was Davis' first collaboration with Evans, who had his roots with the Claude Thornhill band and then proceeded to hook up with Parker, Davis, Gunther Schuller, and others, to co-create the cool jazz idiom that would be exemplified by his subsequent arrangements for Davis, such as Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, and Porgy and Bess. The Birth of the Cool studio tracks were recorded at a studio in 1949 and 1950, following a two week 1948 stint at New York's Royal Roost that was also recorded. As Perkins noted, the recordings and their legendary musicians subsequently influenced West Coast jazz via the likes of Jerry Mulligan and John Lewis (who were in the group and played a major role in its inception), Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and Stan Kenton.
The trio then played a number of tracks from Birth of the Cool: "Move," "Jeru," "Venus de Milo," "Deception," "Godchild," "Rocker," "Boplicity," and "Rouge." These were not done as transcriptions, but as powerful improvisations by the group. However, Wilson did tell me afterwards that he tried to capture some of the voicings of the original nonet, which is very difficult to do with piano and rhythm alone, but the effect was beautiful and remarkably faithful to the original. What struck me about Wilson's playing, in addition to his clear, truthful voicings, was his absolutely fine sense of timing, such that he caught the rhythmic style and nuancing that constituted part of what made the "cool" approach so intriguing. Each jazz epoch has been characterized by a change in the syncopation, easily heard in the shift from ragtime to blues and swing, and perhaps not so obvious but equally important in bebop, cool jazz, and hard bop. Wilson held back the tempo ever so slightly and highlighted the special "something" that was a trademark of cool jazz and is rarely recapped as well as did Wilson. Equipment geeks will be interested to know that Wilson used a Weil PSPZX keyboard and a Roland loudspeaker system, the combination of which had a remarkable resemblance to an acoustic piano, overall a better system than others the writer has heard around.
Inevitably, Perkins elaborated on Davis' subsequent (and some would say alternately exceptional and checkered) career, especially the breakthrough all-time best selling jazz album Kind of Blue, from which the group played "So What." They then played a series of Miles Davis originals from that album and others. McIver's trading fours with Wilson and Smith's extended solos showed the extraordinary competence of these two musicians, and Smith, as usual, got in a couple of his astonishing double-time staccato arpeggiating riffs that always make this writer do a double take. Lee Smith, in case you didn't know, is Christian McBride's father.
Perkins capped his talk with interesting observations about the impact (positive and negative) of the 1960s British music explosion (the Beatles, etc.) on jazz and the music scene in general.
Kudos are due both Perkins and Wilson Trio for bringing to life the Birth of the Cool and the particular jazz era which served as its fecund womb and midwife. This was not the first example in this writer's experience of jazz in an "artsy" setting, but certainly one of the best. And as jazz seeks its next leap forward during difficult economic times, one hopes that such inspirational venues will play a significant role in keeping the music alive, well, and available in the live, intimate settings where jazz, whether cool or otherwise, tends to be creatively re-born.