The Birth of Cool
By Autumn Hughes, Contributor
On Friday, September 22nd, the Faculty Jazz Band turned up the cool factor and performed their rendition of Miles Davis’ iconic album, “The Birth of the Cool”. The album is unique in instrumentation and in history, making it a very special experience for anyone who has the honor to see it performed live.
So what makes this specific album so influential? The album was originally written in 1949, with the first recording of the piece taking place in three separate recording sessions over a year and a half time span between 1949 and 1951. Because of how far apart each recording session was, each session had a unique set of musicians playing, with the commonalities being Miles Davis and a few other big names. Sadly though, the recording studio sat on this record for years, not releasing it until 1957, eight years after its conception. The eleven-track LP was not initially well received critically, but it began to grow, although not reaching peak popularity until after Davis had moved onto his next project.
The album introduced a new kind of jazz to the West Coast: cool jazz, or as OSOM faculty member Hans Spencer called it, “ the perfect music”. Cool jazz was a natural response to the Bebop era that preceded it, offering a new structure featuring more of the “head”, or the short thematic melody of the piece, and less of the extended solo sections found in bebop. This album was a pioneer in this change despite its almost chaotic history.
The album has had a more personal impact on certain members of the jazz band as well . About 20 years ago, Dr. Chris Oberholtzer, of the OSOM Jazz Department, “was part of a group that before all the music was published[,] recorded it and performed it at a big jazz festival”, which he later revealed to be the Brevard Festival in North Carolina; a true honor for him.
The instrumentation of the album is also a unique departure from jazz norms. The concert instrumentation and that of the album are a nonet, meaning a group of nine musicians. Dr.Oberholtzer describes it as being “between a big band and a combo” in terms of size. Typical big bands present about 12 to 25 musicians, whereas combos usually present anywhere from 3 to 7 musicians, making the nine-person group particularly unusual for jazz bands. The faculty jazz band tonight includes Hans Spencer (Alto Saxophone), Aaron Henry (Bari Saxophone), Chris Klaxton (Trumpet), John Boden (Horn), Chris Oberholtzer (Trombone), Scott Vaillancourt (Tuba), Clifford Cameron (Piano), Bronek Suchanek (Bass), and Les Harris Jr. (Drums).
Friday’s concert began with an introduction from Dr. Alan Kaschub, head of the music department. He explained his experience with songs from the album working at a record shop in a corporate bookstore. He recounted that as soon as people started listening to the music as it played in the record shop, it began to sell like crazy. He concluded with this statement: “It’s great music, all you have to do is hear it”.
And after going to the concert, I can conclude that Dr. Kaschub’s analysis is right.
The music itself was beautiful, with tight harmonies and impressive solos from everyone on the stage. All of the musicians seemed to be smiling their way through the concert and enjoying themselves as the concert went on, with drummer Les Harris Jr. rocking a pleasant expression on his face the whole time. Each song had explanations and a background given as a preface by Dr. Oberholtzer, and during these explanations, various members of the band would interject and add to the story, a blatant display of the camaraderie between the various members.
Overall, the concert was a great experience. During his opening remarks, Dr. Kaschub said that “in a typical year, here at USM, we might have over 120 performances”, and I’m so glad that this was one I didn’t miss.