Exclusive Interview - Ashley Kahn/The Complete Birth of the Cool Reissue

Thursday, June 6, 2019




In honor of the 70th anniversary of the first recording sessions in 1949, The Complete Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis is now available as a 2-LP set. The record features Miles Davis’ classic Birth of the Cool as well as a second LP of live material from 1948, previously unreleased on vinyl. The package also features a brand new retrospective essay by GRAMMY-winning music historian Ashley Kahn, the author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. Kahn spoke with ArkivJazz's Tom Evered about the new release and the impact of these historic recording sessions.



ArkivJazz: Thank you for getting me back into this record for the first time in a while.

Ashley Kahn: I should return the gratitude because what really got me into it was the Rudy Van Gelder remix from 1999 when you were at Blue Note, so thank you. Thanks to you and Bruce (Lundvall). 

AJ: It's amazing how this session keeps giving and giving. You know, everybody talks about Birth of the Cool and where it came from, but this was really something different for Miles.

AK: That's absolutely true.

AJ: If you look at the discography of Miles at the time, you can see how they might be looking for a different kind of setting, and a different kind of format to play in.

AK: Yeah, you know Miles would become known for being a restless wanderer and an intrepid explorer of music, and the music that becomes Birth of the Cool  really starts to gel around 1946 to 1947. He's only been in New York for two or three years at that point, because he arrived in 1944 just before World War II ended. He’s got a ‘ticket to ride’ so to speak because he’s convinced his parents that he's going to go to the illustrious Juilliard Academy. But, as you know...he wants to check out jazz. His thing is definitely bebop and all the music that's happening at 52nd Street and uptown in Harlem. That's the scene that he’s focused on when he arrives, but within two to three years shoulders are starting to rub up against the limitations of the ‘small group jazz’ of the day. There are only so many clubs that will book it and there are only so many bebop tunes…

AJ: Yeah, there are only so many chord positions that you can do that kind of dance with...

AK: Exactly, exactly…and meanwhile, he’s someone who comes out of a big band experience. That was what he started with in St. Louis, and that’s how he met Bird and Diz.

AJ: Yeah, that's how a lot of players back then started to get together in any big band. They would find simpatico players and do small ensemble work with them when the band wasn't touring.

AK: Right. That's where the term “chamber jazz” really came from. It was the idea of small groups breaking out of the big bands. Miles’s experience had been in sections, and his experience at Juilliard included playing more traditional classical kind of pieces where he’s waiting 32 or 64 bars for his first part on the piece. That’s something he was used to anyway, but it was that he needed something that was in between the two - the sophistication and the incredible deep harmonies of Duke Ellington with all the music that he was listening to. The ‘sweet’ kind of sound was actually a music category back then. It was either ‘swing’ or ‘sweet,’ either music to dance to or music to get close to. That music was how men and women were meeting, and it was the social glue of that era. It’s what brought people together and the soundtrack to all those intimate and sentimental moments was big band & jazz. The role of the arranger was a hell of a lot more important than it would become later when everybody was more focused on the small groups and the soloists' art. So, a lot of people think of Birth of the Cool  was a sort of a "pushing away" from bebop, and it actually is not. It’s finding a way of getting these two languages to meld together. It’s blending the harmonic freedoms and rhythmic excitement of bebop with some of the more sophisticated edge of the arranger’s art coming out of big band & swing. The person who was sitting on the borderline between those two kinds of directives and music was Gil Evans, and it was Evans who heard that in Miles's trumpet and in Miles’s compositions. They actually met because he wanted to get permission to use “Donna Lee” for the Claude Thornhill big band that he played with. Thornhill figures vary significantly into the Birth of the Cool story because of his ear for 20th century classical harmonies and arrangement ideas. He created arrangements that played what they called “across the orchestra,” meaning that you would hear parts that would match up a part of the brass section with part of the reed section, as opposed to the typical method where the saxophones throw in one line, and then the trombones come in and throw in another line. He was matching instruments from the high-end to low-end and thinking of this incredible complexity that was possible with a full big band. Birth of the Cool  is that same idea just reduced to a nonet.


 AJ: Yeah, it's a bigger band but it doesn't have the feel of what you would traditionally think of as a ‘big band.’ It was much more subtle with more sliding intonations and sliding harmonics within the piece. 

AK: Well, you have lines and counter lines, and point and counterpoint…all ideas have been around in music in western music for for eons by this point, but this was the idea of using it within jazz.  This was thought of as a creative artistic gesture and using that within jazz is something that people on the level of Duke Ellington had done. Ellington had done it, Don Redman had done it, and Stan Kenton, and then Claude Thornhill. Claude wasn't so much in the public eye as some of those other names, but to musicians that ‘Claude Thornhill sound’ was something that was very unusual, especially when he brought in sounds like the french horn and tuba and added those to the mix. A lot of people were very turned on to that, including a young Miles Davis.

AJ: He really softened the edges, in a way. You would get a rounder tone from those horns and they were much easier to blend. It was less of a concern about throwing themselves to the back of the audience and more about mixing colors, styles and movements without throwing it in your face. It was much more subtle. 

AK: …and still leaving space for the soloists, and that's what's really amazing. You hear Miles and he’s still developing his sound. His signature 1950s pinched vulnerability isn’t there yet, but there is this love of lyricism that you can tell is there. It's more together than it was when he was playing with Bird in 1944 and 1945, but it's not quite where he's going to get with that maturity in 1954 and 1955 when he gets his first quintet together with Coltrane. You do hear this kind of non-rushed feeling which is very different from the kind of hyperactive bebop of the day.

AJ: There are just so many more audio colors that come through in this release. I remember buying this record when I was in high school. I bought this and the Capitol reissue of the great Art Tatum sides on the same day. I went home, listened to it, and thought “this is really good, but it's really different.” It had such a distinctive sound to it. 

AK: Yeah. Well, I think a lot of people think of jazz and they think of bebop and they associate that kind of restless and hyperactive energy with it, and then you hear Birth of the Cool…and that album would not have any of its fire without Max Roach. His role is so incredibly essential. He’s popping, bouncing, and really mixing the stew, so to speak. Then you have Lee Konitz with this incredibly young supercharged alto that has a fluidity to it, and a smoothness that is an alternate kind of voice on alto sax to what everybody had associated with and bebop. Bird had a very kind of angular and very hard-edged kind of way of playing, and along comes this guy who was even younger than Miles. Lee Konitz is a year younger and is able to hold his own, and he becomes that that important second solo voice in the album’s picture. Lee Konitz and Miles become very close friends and they play on each other's recordings for the next five or six years.

AJ: Now it seems like different worlds, but back then they were all cats hanging in the same part of town.

AK: Yeah, and then there's Gil Evans who's kind of hosting this because he's ten years older than everyone else. He's like the general leader, so to speak, and it's his basement apartment on 55th Street that becomes the kind of hub of the meetings with arrangers, soloists, and musicians that will develop into Birth of the Cool  through 1946 and 1947. Gil has that role, then you have many people just were just hanging out there and many of them are the arrangers and composers of the music including Gerry Mulligan on baritone. I think the three most important voices instrumental voices that you hear on Birth of the Cool are Lee Konitz on alto, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, and of course Miles on trumpet. 

AJ: Those are the ones that stay with you…there are all the other harmonies that slide around behind them, and those voices stand out. 

AK: Yeah. There are other areas that really stand out like some great J.J. Johnson moments on trombone, and hearing tuba and french horn on the pieces. The majority of the tunes, by the way, are composed by Gerry Mulligan. I think that out of the 12 tunes, there's one ballad that features a vocalist…which turns out to be Kenny Hagood, the first husband of Alice Coltrane and father to Michelle Coltrane. They do “Darn That Dream,” which is the one and only vocal feature of the dozen tracks on Birth of the Cool…but the majority of originals are by Gerry Mulligan.

AJ: You’ve certainly mined a lot more out of this than I thought it could be possible having heard it for so many years, but the live sessions are fascinating because it doesn’t sound like a rehearsal, but like somebody's doing something with new music. 

AK: Yeah, if you read some of the interviews years later with various members of the group, the way that they talk about those live gigs is that they were endlessly frustrating. They were very unhappy with Miles because they were rehearsing and practicing and trying to get the music perfect, and then once they were on the bandstand things would change. Somebody who's supposed to take an 8-bar part or 16-bar part would decide that they were going to swing…or worse at the very last minute Miles would invite somebody to sit in.  Of course, that still happens all the time but this was Miles at 22 years old and most of the cats he was playing with, including Max Roach and Gil Evans, were older than him. He was already taking somewhat of a bandleader role there. He had arranged the gig at the Royal Roost, which was the first club in that general downtown area that was dedicated purely to bebop or modern jazz...so much, that they called it the “Metropolitan Bopera House.” The Royal Roost was around Broadway and 47th Street and had a nice run for about two or three years. Then, one of the partners took the idea of dedicating a club to modern jazz and also running a record label out of it and formed Birdland and that was Morris Levy. So, you know it the whole Birth of the Cool  thing really connects to a lot of origin stories. Another thing about the Royal Roost is that’s the place where Harry Belafonte’s very first gigs were in 1948…and he had Charlie Parker playing in the band behind him. So, you get a feeling for how there were a lot of different styles of music all being presented under this kind of modern jazz rubric.

AJ: Yeah, and you weren't far from the 52nd Street strip, and you weren't far from Times Square either...

AK: Oh yeah, and you weren't far from 55th Street where Gil Evans’s apartment was. It was all walking distance. There are interviews with Gerry Mulligan where he talks about being this lanky, gawky, white dude walking around with Miles who's dark and very short, and the two of them are having these intense music conversations about harmony and theory. They’re walking around, and the rest of the world's checking them out going, wow, what an odd couple.  So, you had a lot of crossing of racial and generational lines going on there because of the music.

AJ: You've also got people mentioning Morris Levy. If you remember Tommy James and the Shondells, Tommy wrote a great autobiography that mentions him.

AK: Oh, yeah.

AJ: There are fantastic stories about visiting Morris Levy’s office to see about getting paid, and all sorts of other stuff, but it's a great read. I really enjoyed it. 

AK: Oh man, I once wrote an article about Morris Levy and John Lennon for Mojo magazine about the famous album that later that was supposed to come out on Levy's label at the time. He jumped the gun and took an early demo cassette tape that John Lennon had given him and started selling it on his own on his own label on TV. Of course, Capitol Records came in and stopped it because they had the exclusive with John Lennon at the time. Then, Capitol came out with the fully produced album Rock & Roll. But, you know, there for a while there was market saturation for both releases and there was a lot of confusion and legalities involved. Actually, when Morris Levy got his start he was handling the coat check room at the Royal Roost. He had a hustle going on with the club to take photographs of people on their dates and they could get a photograph and a souvenir program.

AJ: Yes, that was your big night out on the town.

AK: Exactly. So, this is all contextual stuff. It's all in the background while this music for the ages is being presented onstage. But when you listen to the live Birth of the Cool  songs from the Royal Roost, one of the interesting things is to hear how its framed by the crowd reaction, and Symphony Sid (Sid Torin), who was the DJ at the time. There’s a lot of talking going on, and this is just background music while these people are socializing and having their Saturday night out. Of course, this music just happens to be from Miles Davis and a band that's going to grab the ears of whole generation of music makers and change the scene. [laughs] Everybody talks about the major shifts in Miles’s musical path. You know, he turned left, then he turned right, and he'd go from bebop to cool, but this was the first major shift for him where he moves away from the predominant flow of where bebop and post bop was going. He went more in a direction with this more subdued kind of feel that later people like Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and other primarily West Coast musicians would take to the bank with the cool wave of the early 50s. Hence, this was all called the "birth of the cool." It was kind of an ex post facto credit to Miles and this nonet that they were giving them credit for starting that wave.

AJ: Well Ashley, thanks for your time. We’re really looking forward to this release.

AK: Well, as you can tell I love this music. You know, with this album, Kind of Blue, and other albums of a similar classic feel, there's always something new that I discover. It could be a line that Lee Konitz is playing, or it could be the second melody that you're hearing on a tune, but there's always something new to discover. I think that really shows the depth of what's going on in these albums. I'm really happy that Universal is bringing out this box set and am excited that it’s coming out again.

AJ: Congratulations…this is one for the ages.


Birth of the Cool (vinyl) is available via Blue Note Records