Like, Cool!

July 26, 2011

To me the two most dissonant English language words, at least as they are spoken by many of my college students, are the ubiquitous ‘like’ and ‘cool’. My ears are constantly assailed by these utterances and they distract me to such an extent that I can barely concentrate on the sentences in which they appear with such regularity.

The word ‘like’ has come to be used by many of today’s youth either to fill a pause or serve as a meaningless interjection, as in “Like, why didn’t you call me?” and “The food was, like, awful!” These sentences wouldn’t experience any deficit of meaning if the word ‘like’ were completely excised from them. In fact, one’s speech would become considerably more elegant and uncluttered without it.

Further, the word ‘cool’ has become the standard positive response to anything said to someone that he or she may be delighted to hear; for example, following my saying something like “your assignment was played beautifully”, or “your written homework is flawless.”

If you know me at all, you know that my speech and writing are completely devoid of faddish vernacular expressions, reflecting my desire to avoid acting “with it” or “cool.” The truth is that the only thing I like about ‘cool’ is the music of the Cool Jazz Era. Let me tell you why.

Musical Traits of the Cool Jazz Era
Whenever I listen to recordings of such awesome non-Cool Jazz pianists as Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, or to Christian Jacob (his jazz trio’s recording, “Contradictions,” of the music of the late Michel Petrucciani – another incredible jazz pianist – is sublime), I silently think that these musicians are so inventive, can think so fast, are capable of playing with such enormous rhythmic diversity, are able to execute their musical thoughts so fluently and spontaneously, that I can never imagine myself being able to reach their exalted levels in my own jazz improvisational efforts.

But then when I hear a recording of Cool Jazz Era pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, or a CD of George Shearing, I sometimes think: “I believe I may be able to do that!” In fact, whenever I have played one of my many commercial dance band gigs as a pianist/bandleader, I have unconsciously emulated their light touch, their clarity of sound, their lucidity and fluidity of musical ideas, their occasional melodic references and lyricism and their judicious use of silences, among other musical traits. In other words, I have incorporated into my playing several of the important hallmarks of the music of the Cool Jazz Era.

The liner notes for the Lennie Tristano cut, “Crosscurrent,” on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, refer to the Cool Jazz Era’s “low temperature approach to jazz improvisation,” and go on to say that this music was characterized by “flowing melodic lines that swept across the normally accepted breaks in phrasing,” and that “in terms of the dynamic level nothing was allowed to happen, and the rhythm section was only to play a time-keeping role. The drummers had to play brushes on their snare drum with an even attack throughout…the bass player had to follow the same procedure…so listeners’ attention is focused on the melody.”

I find that the Cool Jazz Era’s laid-back and economical manner of playing is consistent with my own personality and with my having grown mellower as I have matured. I also actually enjoy editing myself as I perform, and I take increasing pleasure in being able to thus express myself more effectively musically. As Miles Davis played it and stated it: “I always listen for what I can leave out…letting space become part of the configuration.”

In a New York Times editorial on October 1, 1991, on the occasion of Davis’s passing, the following insightful and astute words were written: “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the revolutionary architect, preached that less was more. Miles Davis used the same prescription with similarly dramatic results. He created a thoughtful, understated jazz” with his “spare, lyrical sensibility”, both “laconic and sensual.”

Precursors of Cool Jazz could be heard during the Swing Era in the behind-the-beat tasteful tenor saxophone playing of Lester Young, and in Gil Evans’s subtle, inventive and distinctive arrangements for the Claude Thornhill band.

Besides those Cool Jazz individuals mentioned earlier in this article, other distinguished luminaries of that era, which began in the late 1950s, included Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Jim Hall, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre, Art Pepper and Chico Hamilton, to name a few.

End Note
I’m guessing that a return to the performance principles of Cool Jazz might again make jazz more popular with the general public. Doing so, I predict, will increase the size of audiences for that less abstract and calmer style than the more active type of jazz played during the 1940s bebop era, or the more frenetic hard bop and bop/rock fusion styles in which jazz is often played today.

Lee Evans, Ed.D., is professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. His most recent solo-piano publications for the FJH Music Company are the late-beginner level Color Me Jazz, Books 1 and 2, and the intermediate/upper intermediate level Ole! Original Latin American Dance Music.

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