Cool jazz is a genre of modern jazz that emerged in the late 1940s. It can be seen as a Californian adaptation of the frantic New York bebop. It has slower rhythms and less complex arrangements. It conveys a relaxed, sophisticated, or “cool” sound, hence the name “cool jazz.”
This post will cover:
The 10 Best Cool Jazz Records
Birth Of The Cool
Birth of the Cool helped define the genre and establish Davis as one of the most influential jazz musicians of his generation. His approach to this album was influenced by his experiences in nightclubs, where he found that audiences were more receptive to a laid-back style.
The album was released in 1957 and is a compilation of 11 recorded tracks of Davis’s nonet from sessions that took place in 1949 and 1950. It featured a lot of unique instrumentation, and its arrangements were influenced by classical techniques. As such, it was a ground-breaking development in post-bebop jazz.
Most of the songs were originally released in the 10” 78-RPM format. As the title suggests, these recordings are seminal in the history of cool jazz.
Miles Davis: trumpet; Lee Konitz: alto saxophone; Gerry Mulligan: baritone saxophone; Al McKibbon (A3, A6, B3), Joe Shulman (A1, A2, A5, B1), Nelson Boyd (A4, B2, B4, B5): bass; Kenny Clarke (A4, B2, B4, B5), Max Roach (A1 to A3, A5 to B1, B3): drums; Junior Collins (A1, A2, A5, B1), Gunther Schuller (A3, A6, B3), Sandy Siegelstein (A4, B2, B4, B5): French horn; Al Haig (A1, A2, A5, B1), John Lewis (A4, B2, B4, B5): piano; J. J. Johnson (A3, A4, A6, B2 to B5), Kai Winding (A1, A2, A5, B1): trombone; John Barber: tube
Release date 1957
Bill Evans, Jim Hall
(United Artists Records)
Undercurrent is the first of two duet albums that Bill Evans and Jim Hall will release. Undercurrent is a beautiful album that shows the amazing interplay between the pianist and acoustic guitarist. To picture the state this music will put you in, all you must do is look at the cover art: softly suspended in water, enjoying the stillness of life.
“Music should enrich the soul; it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise. It’s easy to rediscover part of yourself, but through art, you can be shown part of yourself you never knew existed. That’s the real mission of art. The artist has to find something within himself that’s universal and which he can put into terms that are communicable to other people. The magic of it is that art can communicate to a person without his realizing it… enrichment, that’s the function of music.”
Bill Evans: piano; Jim Hall: guitar
Release date August 18, 1962
Jazz På Svenska
Jazz På Svenska (“Jazz in Swedish”) is another duet with pianist Jan Johansson and bassist Georg Riedel comprised of jazz arrangements of Swedish folk songs. It has everything: nature, wilderness, and melancholy, all wrapped in jazz.
Jazz På Svenska is the best-selling Swedish jazz album of all time.
Jan Johansson: piano, arrangements; Georg Riedel: double bass
Release date 1964
The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Time Out is based on extraordinary jazz tempo, as the band experimented with unusual, untraditional time signatures, written compositions that went beyond 3/4 and 4/4, and experimentation with polyrhythms within each track. Six decades later, this record’s legacy continues to resonate as a testament to open-mindedness and the willingness to draw inspiration from all corners of the globe. In other words, it’s timeless.
Dave Brubeck: piano; Paul Desmond: alto saxophone; Eugene Wright: bass; Joe Morello: drums.
Release date December 14, 1959
The Modern Jazz Quartet
The Modern Jazz Quartet started playing together in 1951. They were all ex-members of the Dizzy Gillespie Band, and it really started to click between them – and with the public – when they began playing in New York City clubs in 1952. Their first album, The Modern Jazz Quartet, was a 10”, and it was released in 1953 via Prestige.
International success quickly came, thanks to albums like Concorde (1955) and Django (1956), and tours that led them to become the most popular small jazz ensemble at that time.
Pyramid is a compilation of songs recorded between 1959–1960, with Connie Kay on drums. It contains new versions of the gems “Django” and “Vendome.” It also includes the titular track “Pyramid,” for which John Lewis recalls in the liner notes, “the title came from an experimental arrangement of the piece, in which the idea was to make a kind of tempo pyramid: from slow to fast, back to slow. Changed from its original format somewhat; in this version, it still reflects the rising and falling feeling of the pyramid.”
Milt Jackson: vibraphone; John Lewis: piano; Percy Heath: bass; Connie Kay: drums
Release date 1960
John Coltrane Quartet
Ballads is a masterpiece. The album features some of Coltrane’s most beautiful and moving interpretations, played with great sensitivity by the quartet. The musicianship on the album is simply stunning, and the overall atmosphere is calm and serene. Each track is played with a lot of feeling and emotion. The result is an album that is warm, beautiful, and resolutely introspective.
John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner: piano; Jimmy Garrison (1-6, 8), Reggie Workman (7): bass; Elvin Jones: drums
Release date January 1963
A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Charlie Brown Christmas original soundtrack is one of the coolest and most well-known jazz albums of all time. The album was released in 1965, and it features cool, mellow jazz tunes that are perfect for relaxing during the holidays. It has become a holiday classic for many people.
Guaraldi’s piano-playing is lively and upbeat, making for a fun and festive listen, while the rest of the band provides a laid-back groove that keeps the album feeling light and breezy. Yet another reason to anticipate Christmas!
Vince Guaraldi: piano, Hammond organ; Fred Marshall: double bass; Jerry Granelli: drums
Release date December 1995
Chet Baker Sings
Baker’s singing was characterized by a smooth, relaxed delivery, but it was also haunting and melancholy, which was perfect to convey the atmosphere of cool jazz. His trumpet-playing was lyrical and beautiful. Yes, he could do it all – and he often improvised his lyrics, scatting along with his trumpet-playing.
The songs on Chet Baker Sings are mostly standards (e.g., “My Funny Valentine” and “That Old Feeling”), yet they sound new, thereby making this recording – just like all his other recordings – one of the most essential cool-jazz albums.
Chet Baker: vocals, trumpet; Russ Freeman: piano, celesta; Carson Smith, Jimmy Bond, Joe Mondragon: double bass; Larance Marable, Peter Littman, Bob Neel: drums
Release date April/May 1954
Paul Desmond was one of the most popular musicians of the cool-jazz scene. He always managed to have a perfect tone, sound, and swing.
The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings wrote: “Desmond’s warm, glowing tone and melodic ease are almost definitive of the cool saxophone.”
Easy Living–compiling performances recorded between 1963 and 1965–is sparkling and elegant but also subtle, and perfectly representative of the cool and West Coast sound.
Paul Desmond: alto saxophone; Jim Hall: guitar; Gene Cherico (3,8), Percy Heath (4,6,7), Eugene Wright (1,2,5,9-11): bass; Connie Kay: drums
Release date: 1966
Lee Konitz Plays With The Gerry Mulligan Quartet
Lee Konitz Plays With The Gerry Mulligan Quartet
(World Pacific Records)
The Gerry Quartet was one of the most popular cool-jazz groups of its time, and Lee Konitz’s contributions helped make it successful. Konitz – who, along with Gerry Mulligan, was part of Miles Davis’s nonet on Birth of the Cool – was known for his unique style of playing, as it was both lyrical and melodic.
With Chet Baker on the trumpet, both traded solos throughout the set, thereby showing off their expert improvisational skills.
Lee Konitz: alto saxophone; Gerry Mulligan: baritone saxophone; Chet Baker: trumpet; Carson Smith (1–9), Joe Mondragon (10–12): bass; Larry Bunker: drums
Release date 1957
- Miles Davis – Birth Of The Cool (Capitol Records)
- Bill Evans, Jim Hall – Undercurrent (United Artists Records)
- Jan Johansson – Jazz På Svenska (Megafon)
- The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out (Columbia)
- The Modern Jazz Quartet – Pyramid (Atlantic)
- John Coltrane Quartet – Ballads (Impulse!)
- Vince Guaraldi – A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy)
- Chet Baker – Chet Baker Sings (Pacific Jazz)
- Paul Desmond – Easy Living (RCA Victor)
- Lee Konitz Plays With The Gerry Mulligan Quartet – Lee Konitz Plays With The Gerry Mulligan Quartet (World Pacific Records)
Here is a list of the main cool-jazz artists. All were part of either its first steps out of bebop, its developments, or the West Coast jazz subgenre:
- Lennie Tristano (1919-1978) American pianist
- Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), American pianist
- Shelly Manne (1920-1984), American drummer
- Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008), American clarinetist and saxophonist
- Milt Jackson (1923-1999), American jazz vibraphonist
- Shorty Rogers (1924-1994), American trumpeter and flugelhornist
- Paul Desmond (1924-1977), American saxophonist
- Art Pepper (1925-1982), American alto saxophonist
- Miles Davis (1926-1991), American trumpeter
- John Coltrane (1926-1967), American saxophonist
- Bud Shank (1926-2009), American alto saxophonist and flautist
- Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996), American baritone saxophonist
- Lee Konitz (1927-2020), American saxophonist
- Stan Getz (1927-1991), American tenor saxophonist
- Chet Baker (1929-1988), American trumpeter, flugelhornist and vocalist
- André Previn (1929-2019), German-American pianist
- Bill Evans (1929-1980), American pianist
If you want to listen to the albums in their entirety, then just head to this Spotify playlist, which includes all of the above 10 best cool-jazz albums.