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Cool Jazz: History, Characteristics & Musicians

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

You may think that all jazz music is 'cool,' but did you know that there are many subgenres of jazz music? This lesson explores the characteristics of the cool jazz movement and introduces you to some of its most influential musicians.

What is Cool Jazz?

The term cool jazz refers to a particular style of jazz music that became popular in the late 1940s. This style grew out of the bebop movement, which was an exciting jazz genre featuring virtuosic playing techniques, fast tempos, and intense use of syncopation. In contrast, cool jazz is often seen as a reaction against bebop, featuring more relaxed melodies and softer sounds.

History and Development of Cool Jazz

Although there were a number of musicians who helped create the cool jazz sound, one of the most influential was Lester Young. Young was a saxophone player who had a more relaxed style than many of his contemporaries, with a focus on smooth playing and a tendency to lag just behind the beat instead of pushing it ahead. He was also more focused on exploring and developing melody, while bebop musicians were more interested in exploring unusual rhythms.

Lester Young, early founder of cool jazz.
Photograph of Lester Young

Probably one of the most famous figures in the early cool jazz movement was trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis helped solidify the cool jazz genre by searching for a lighter, expressive, and more relaxed sound. He did a series of recordings in 1949 and 1950 to experiment with this sound, and these recordings, later released in a compilation album titled Birth of the Cool (1957), became standards in the early cool jazz sound.

The man who helped give birth to the cool jazz movement, Miles Davis.
Photograph of Miles Davis

Cool jazz continued to be popular during throughout the 1950s. In 1959, The Dave Brubeck Quartet released their cool jazz album Time Out, which included the hit song 'Take Five'. This track reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop hits chart and has since become the best-selling jazz single of all time.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet, famous for their top hit single, Take Five.
Photograph of Dave Brubeck Quartet

Cool jazz influenced many later musicians and styles. People still play cool jazz today, and the laid-back sound is perfectly suited for upscale venues such as intimate jazz clubs and martini bars. The style directly impacted later jazz genres such as smooth jazz, bossa nova, and free jazz, but it also had an effect on new-age music and many popular music genres.

Characteristics and Musical Features

Cool jazz was created in contrast to the bebop movement. In comparison, cool jazz is laid-back, featuring slow or moderate tempos, meaning that the number of beats per minute is relatively low. The performers use soft dynamics, keeping the overall volume of the sound moderately low as well. To aid this, cool jazz drummers often use brushes instead of sticks.

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