Cool Jazz a Brief History Research Paper

Pages: 10 (3511 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Music  ·  Buy This Paper

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[. . .] Brubeck was furious. Brubeck recruited another sax player and his new group was soon playing to critical success. Desmond returned to San Francisco, seeking reconciliation with his former band mate and friend. Encouraged by his family, Brubeck eventually made peace with Desmond and the two went on to collaborate with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, an immensely popular jazz group that enjoyed international acclaim for the next sixteen years (NPR). In a 1952 article for Downbeat, jazz critic Nat Hentoff credited Desmond for much of the Quartet's success, calling Desmond's alto playing both rhythmic and lyrical.

Desmond was a difficult man to get to know. Friend and biographer Doug Ramsey wrote that even Desmond's ex-wife, Duane Desmond Kaye, was virtually unknown to all but his inner circle (Dryden 2005). He was a complex individual who had grown up with a musician father and a mentally disturbed mother. At a young age, he was sent across the country to live with relatives. He experimented with drugs and had many relationships with different women, though he apparently had a phobia of commitment. Speaking about the research he did for his book, Ramsey said, "In all of those interviews…I found only one person who had anything negative to say about Desmond, personally or musically. Paul had the remarkable ability to hold himself extremely close, guarding against true intimacy with all but a select few while gaining the respect and love of virtually everyone who came in contact with him (Parkside Publications 2005). Despite the fact that he and Dave Brubeck had once parted company, their friendship, when restored, remained solid. Desmond joined Brubeck for a final performance in 1977, even though he was dying of cancer.

Perhaps the piece that most defined the Quartet was "Take Five," which Desmond wrote around 1959. It was recorded for the Quartet's Time Out album, which they put together for Columbia Records during the summer months of 1959. "Take Five" quickly reached #25 on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 and #5 on the magazine's Easy Listening Survey. "Take Five" was re-recorded several times during the Quartet's days of live performances, and the tune has been recorded by many other artists in the years since, including a vocal version by Carmen McRae (Wikipedia 2011). Versions by the Brubeck Quartet, with Paul Desmond supplying the melody, remains the best-known and unarguably the best version.

The Time Out album was originally intended as an experiment with time signatures, hence its name. Brubeck's group was not the first to play jazz in odd signatures, but it was the first to do so with such commercial success (Schoenberg 229). The commercial success did not happen right away, however. It took the public ear some time to adjust to the new sound. The album blended cool jazz -- intricate arrangements and a "thoroughly composed sound" (Wikipedia 2011)-- and West Coast jazz, often considered a more laid-back style of cool jazz. Cool jazz developed when a number of jazz musicians, predominantly white, moved to New York and began mixing the more frenetic, driving bop with the smooth sounds of Lester "Prez" Young. Young brought his sophisticated harmonies and honeyed tone to prominence with Count Basie's orchestra, with s style and sound that was completely different from Charlie Parker's. Young became the saxophonist most players tried to emulate, and he was an influence for Desmond, though Prez was a tenor player and Desmond's instrument was an alto. Desmond was considered one of the pioneers of West Coast jazz, along with Brubeck, baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan, trumpeter Chet Baker, and others. It was a sound that Desmond and Brubeck sought to infuse in Time Out.

"Take Five" was an experiment with the 5/4 time signature, unheard of in popular jazz at the time. The album featured other time signatures that were considered quite unusual for jazz as well. Brubeck's quartet sought a modern sound, which it achieved by employing modernist elements borrowed from contemporary European music (Ward and Burns 379). The album did not receive critical praise upon its release. In the intervening years, however, the album became a million-seller and is today considered a jazz classic. In 2005, it was one of just fifty recordings selected that year for inclusion in the National Registry of Recordings. Time Out was one of the recordings selected by an international team of critics for Dimery and Lydon's 2005 tome 1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die.

What is it about Time Out, and especially "Take Five," that resonates so loudly with jazz aficionados? The tune exemplifies cool jazz. Written in the challenging key of E-flat minor, there are only two chords throughout the entire piece, E-flat minor and Bbm7. Brubeck establishes a rhythm with the two chords in the opening of the piece. It is instantly recognizable. As Desmond begins to play in the opening measures (after a smooth snare and cymbal intro), he plays in the minor key, which gives way to a lilting major-key melody, then back to minor. Throughout the piece, the music goes back and forth between minor and major, with a tune that is both complex and yet simple to remember.

Desmond's playing (YouTube 1961) is always controlled and seemingly effortless, even during his solo. Desmond once told an interviewer that he always looked for clarity in his playing and "emotional communication on a not-too-obvious level, form in a chorus that doesn't hit you over the head but is there if you look for it, humor, and construction that sounds logical in an unexpected way" (Ward and Burns 379). He stays mostly in the middle register of his horn, dipping occasionally into the lower register and soaring into the upper register near the end of his first solo. At times he speaks with just a single note. He does not employ the fast, frenetic fingering of Charlie Parker nor the showmanship of Lester Young. His performance is pure, sweet sound. Desmond reprises the melody after the other band members have taken their solos and even as he brings the tune to its conclusion, he refrains from drama, maintaining soft dynamics and fading out with vibrato on the tunes final note. His slow, ordered playing stands in marked contrast to the piano's chords.

Hentoff (1976) praised Desmond's work as "exceedingly fine" and wrote of "trance-like melodic variations in a tone of rather enticingly veiled purity" (p. 764). Desmond's work was indeed mesmerizing, controlled and minimal, even when playing a more up-tempo piece such as "Take Five." Although he did not use quotes in the 1961 "Take Five" recording, Desmond was well-known for quoting musicals, classical pieces and folk tunes in his solos. Jurek (2011) called Desmond a genius who took the alto "into melodic and harmonic worlds never before traveled by reedmen." Desmond fused together various genres of music but they were always unmistakenly cool jazz and never too far from their jazz roots.

The pairing of Brubeck and Desmond was magical. They would introduce hundreds of thousands of young people to jazz, and the appeal of their sound crossed color barriers (Ward and Burns 379). After the quartet broke up in 1967, Desmond launched a full-time solo career, which biographer Ramsey said Desmond did reluctantly. Desmond, although known for his intellectualism and dry wit, was a shy man who just loved making music and was not particularly interested in fame or record sales. He remained a mystery even to those who thought they knew him. Biographer and friend Doug Ramsey remarked that he learned much about Desmond in the interviews he conducted for the book.

In 1976, Brubeck reformed his Quartet for a twenty-fifth anniversary reunion tour, which met with critical and public success. Desmond had been playing with his friend Chet Baker and guitarist Jim Hall, but was happy to rejoin the band for the tour. A year later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, to which he succumbed. Childless, he left huge "Take Five" royalties to the American Red Cross (NPR, 2008). That legacy continues, as does his jazz legacy, which continues to influence not just modern alto players but anyone interested in playing -- and even listening to -- cool jazz.

Sonny Rollins continues to be a strong influence for jazz players. The tenor saxophonist is in his early eighties but still plays dates. Influenced as a youngster by his idol Coleman Hawkins, Rollins sought to integrate that classic sound with new expectations for the instrument that resulted from the popularity of Charlie Parker's alto. Rollins has always been considered a master improviser and is stilled called "one of the greatest Jazz players on the planet" (Schoenberg 145).

In the last decade, there has been a surge in the popularity of cool jazz and it has transcended into the mainstream. Interestingly, the most popular practitioners are not male instruments but female vocalists who were not even born when Paul Desmond blew the first cool notes of "Take Five."

Diana Krall is a Canadian-born pianist famous for her… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cool Jazz a Brief History.  (2012, December 10).  Retrieved February 16, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/cool-jazz-brief-history/6568274

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"Cool Jazz a Brief History."  Essaytown.com.  December 10, 2012.  Accessed February 16, 2019.
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