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West Coast Jazz


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"West Coast Jazz"? is one of those musical terms that causes controversy. Largely dismissed at the time by critics in New York, the musicians, arrangers, composers, producers and labels associated with West Coast Jazz have profoundly influenced the music we listen to today.

Start with Miles Davis' The Birth of the Cool. Although released under Miles' name, one could argue this is the work of Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Gil Evans. Important because it shows the emphasis of writing and arranging in West Coast Jazz, it demonstrates another West Coast characteristic"—the use of non-standard jazz instruments such as French horn and tuba.

Gerry Mulligan, another West Coast Jazz founder, formed a quartet with Chet Baker but without piano, guitar, or any chord instrument, that caused an industry sensation. Gerry Mulligan: The Original Quartet With Chet Baker , shows off this group. Mulligan was an outstanding baritone saxophonist and a powerful writer and arranger.

Shorty Rogers left the Stan Kenton band in 1951 to live in the Los Angeles area. He joined Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars as both trumpet player and arranger. Shorty recorded many albums as a leader with a big band and with his small group, the Giants. Rumsey established a stay of almost a decade at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, which became sort of a ground zero for West Coast Jazz. Rumsey's sidemen over the years included Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Russ Freeman, Shelly Manne, and Milt Bernhart.

The television show Peter Gunn brought West Coast Jazz into the mainstream. Henry Mancini assembled some of the west coast's best musicians to create the backdrop for this very cool detective. Some of these recordings include the pianist who succeeded Mancini as the top movie music writer, John Williams. The music of Peter Gunn has been exhaustively covered by other musicians. To this day, "Dreamsville"? remains one of the sexiest tunes ever written. It should be very high on the hi-fi seduction list in any space-age bachelor pad.

These recordings are only a start. Since West Coast Jazz is not confined to a single person, look at the players on these releases, then find other recordings where they are leaders. It's a good way to get into the fun of West Coast Jazz, the original cool.

Miles Davis: The Complete Birth of the Cool (Blue Note, 1998)
This album is a classic. All the tracks were originally recorded in the late 1940's. Included in this recording are the studio recording as well as some live recordings made at the Royal Roost. The recording quality and performances on the live recordings are uneven. Even with that, this album should be in everyone's library.
Gerry Mulligan: The Original Quartet with Chet Baker (Blue Note, 1998)
"Bernie's Tune"? is practically the national anthem for West Coast Jazz. This two disc set is filled with classics such as "Walkin' Shoes."? Chet Baker's playing on "My Funny Valentine"? is timeless.

Shorty Rodgers: Cool and Crazy (RCA, 1953 & 1956)
Shorty Rodgers: Short Stops (RCA, 1952)
These two CDs duplicate eight tracks with Short Stops as the one to find. "Coop de Graas,"? "Infinity Promenade,"? and "Short Stop"? show off Shorty's writing and the playing of some of the best musicians of the 1950s. "Contours"? showcases the trombone of Milt Bernhart. Shorty's sense of humor comes through here as well with titles like "Sweetheart of Sigmund Freud."?
Howard Rumsey & The Lighthouse All-Stars: Sunday Jazz a la Lighthouse (Contemporary, 1953)
Howard Rumsey & The Lighthouse All-Stars: Volume 2 (Contemporary, 1953)
Howard Rumsey & The Lighthouse All-Stars: Volume 6 (Contemporary, 1954 & 1955)
Three albums with a combination of live and studio recordings. Listening to these recordings today causes one to imagine what those jam sessions must have been like.
Lennie Niehaus: Volume 1: The Quintets (Contemporary, 1956)
Lennie Niehaus: Volume 5: The Sextet (Contemporary, 1956)
Like Mulligan and Rogers, Niehaus is a double threat as a player and a writer. He also led small groups that varied in instrumentation, sometimes with and sometimes without a piano like Mulligan. His writing serves as a perfect platform for Bob Gordon, Stu Williamson, and Bill Perkins. He has been one of Clint Eastwood's favorites, having written for most of Eastwood's movies since Play Misty for Me.
Henry Mancini: The Music from Peter Gunn (Buddha, 1999)
Various Artists: The Jazz Sound from Peter Gunn (Fresh Sound, 1994)

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