Miles Davis in the '50s: Birth of the Cool
This is the first in a four-part series diving through the vast and innovative catalogue of trumpeter Miles Davis. To read about his other eras, or for the complete article, click the links below.
There is a case to be made that Miles Davis is the greatest artist in music. As well as gifting the music world with one of the most versatile and expansive catalogues in jazz, he reinvented the art of composition through his modal experimentation in the late ‘50s. Dipping his toes into bebop at the start of his career, Miles soon found his footing through his cool jazz era, and from there established himself not only as an icon in jazz, but a pillar of music history. Taking it back to the very beginning, in 1951, the greatest discography in music history began with The New Sounds.
The ‘50s: Birth of the Cool
The New Sounds (1951)
Nothing spectacular and nothing offensive, The New Sounds is a charming, albeit unremarkable start to Miles Davis’s studio album career. The record is comprised of four songs, only one of which being an original composition. This lack of original material makes The New Sounds even less noteworthy, with Davis and his bandmates doing little to rearrange the compositions in any engaging or meaningful way. Each musician plays their part effectively, but they feel creatively restrained, afraid to reinvent or experiment. The aforementioned original composition, “Dig”, is undoubtedly the best song on the entire album, with a lively trumpet solo from Davis, some spiralling sax work, and an energetic thunder of drums to keep the momentum going. It pales in comparison to Miles’s greatest works, but for The New Sounds, it stands out as a fantastic highlight.
Young Man with a Horn (1952)
Drug addiction, unfortunately, would plague Miles his whole career, and already he was suffering during the creation of Young Man with a Horn. For the most part, his daily struggles don’t affect the music: the album is full of energetic bebop cuts and relaxed transitional moments. Many tracks blend together, rarely unique in isolation but satisfying in the smooth experience of the complete LP. The only standout I found was “Donna”, where bombastic horns clash and the bassline meanders over a sizzle of hi-hats. Clocking in at just 21 minutes, Young Man with a Horn is a light and accessible taste of bebop Miles.
Miles Davis Plays the Compositions of Al Cohn (1953)
Just a year later, Miles returned with an album entirely written by composer Al Cohn. Three of its songs were made specially for Miles, while the fourth was rearranged to fit the record. Overall, Compositions is a great improvement upon its predecessor. The band feel so much more lively and in sync, complementing one another to help build the project’s warm, often moody atmosphere. Compositions opens up with “Tasty Pudding”, where a harmony of sinister horns ease the listener in. The glum opener is then followed up by “Floppy”, a triumphant exercise in bebop with lightning-fast bass and a powerful chorus of horns which erupt over the chattering drum-work.
Blue Period (1953)
Comprised of three songs, Blue Period is Davis’s strongest effort yet. The album starts with “Bluing”, a ten-minute extravaganza showcasing Miles at his most laidback and effortless. He performs an everchanging trumpet solo over a harmony of moody saxophones looping in the background, giving the whole song an ominous edge. Since Blue Period is a mere 19 minute project, “Bluing” hogs most of the runtime, but thankfully it justifies every second. “The Blue Room” is the only song Miles did not compose: a sombre duet of piano and trumpet that serves more as an interlude into the energetic “Out of the Blue”. From the hypnotic descending horns to the bombastic chorus to the frantic solos, “Out of the Blue” is the perfect bebop track, closing off Blue Period on an electric high.
Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins (1954)
Even better than Blue Period, this album is a four-track collaboration with saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Sonny and Miles both have such a distinct presence, with their theatrical solos glued together by a blend of groovy basslines and upbeat piano melodies. Each song transitions seamlessly into the next, making the LP feel like one larger song, constantly switching tempo as the pair of jazz legends go back and forth. All four tracks would later end up on Bags’ Groove, a brilliant compilation record from ’57.
Miles Davis All Star Sextet (1954)
A two-track LP, the All Star Sextet sees Miles teaming up with a host of talents, with Horace Silver on piano and J. J. Johnson on trombone, among others. Taking the bebop sound of his earliest work and injecting some funky rhythms and upbeat improvisation, the group’s talents combine into an energetic project full of fast-paced solos and unpredictable back and forth. The musicians trade the spotlight time and time again, each having their own chance to shine in the electric atmosphere. The horn-driven chorus of “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” is simply addictive, and the 13 minute mammoth of “Walkin’” is even more impressive. Both tracks would later be added to Walkin’ in ’57, an essential compilation for any Miles fan.
Blue Haze (1955)
Blue Haze is a compilation of all-stars, featuring a range of tracks recorded between ’53 and ’54. Bringing on jazz greats like drummer Art Blakey and pianist Charles Mingus, the compilation is brimming with talent, but the end-product is nothing spectacular. Many songs have summery, upbeat arrangements, but the players themselves sound sleepy and uninterested. A great example of this is “Four”, a brilliant song on paper whose chirpy melodies come off as underwhelming and unenergetic. The song would later be reworked and brought to life for Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. Overall, Blue Haze is a perfectly fine compilation, but a disappointment considering the talents involved.
Blue Moods (1955 / 1956)
A full-length crossover between jazz titans Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, Blue Moods is a magical, albeit brief, dive into cool jazz. With Mingus on bass, Britt Woodman on trombone, and Teddy Charles on the vibraphone, the entire album embodies a languid atmosphere, with ominous undertones whenever the droning trombone comes in for a blaring solo. Lasting just over 25 minutes, I wish the two legends had more time to bounce off each other, but the four tracks offered are fantastic.
Miles Davis All Stars Vol. 1 & 2 (1955)
Seeing as the All Stars LPs are both brief, two-track projects, I saw no reason to list them separately. The first volume contains an early recording of “Bags’ Groove”, a classic jazz composition from the legendary Milt Jackson. The song is a phenomenal adventure into cool jazz, with a slick vibraphone solo from Jackson, some solid trumpet work from Davis, and an unforgettable piano solo from Thelonious Monk. The same lineup tackles Volume 2, with the swirling piano of “Bemsha Swing” and the mellow trumpet-work of “The Man I Love” making for some incredible highlights. Stunning arrangements performed by supremely talented musicians, the All Stars LPs are well worth your time.
The Musings of Miles (1955)
The first 12” LP from Miles Davis, The Musings of Miles is another solid set of hard bop tracks, but nothing revolutionary for the musician. Going for a more laidback, patient sound than the fast-paced rhythms of his other ’55 releases, the album sounds distinct, but few of its compositions stand strong on their own. The only major highlight is “A Night In Tunisia”, an enchanting piece featuring some glittering percussion as bells were fastened to Jones’s drumsticks. With some smooth trumpet solos and a tight 35 minute runtime, The Musings of Miles is a sharp, consistent effort from Davis, but it doesn’t leave much of an impact.
Since 10” LPs had been discontinued, much of Miles’s earliest work was repackaged for Dig, a compilation of highlights from his early career. Taking content from The New Sounds and Blue Period, the LP takes the strongest aspects of those records and allows them to bloom, making for a timeless album of bop greatness. While Davis’s earliest albums were too brief to feel whole, Dig fixes that problem, combining his early work into a larger, cohesive package showcasing the upbeat brilliance of his oldest material.
Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet (1956)
Although the music itself is nothing extraordinary, this record marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Davis’s career. The LP was the first project by the Miles Davis Quintet (otherwise known as the First Great Quintet): a legendary jazz outfit consisting of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and a young John Coltrane on sax. The group would create better music together, but the chemistry between the quintet is obvious from their first outing. Trading triumphant solos in the bustling hard bop soundscape, The New Miles Davis Quintet is just scratching the surface of the group’s phenomenal material.
Quintet / Sextet (1956)
Another collaboration with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, on Quintet / Sextet, Miles and Milt brought together an all-star cast of bebop greats to deliver an upbeat selection of highlights. None of the Miles Davis Quintet appear, with names like pianist Ray Bryant and bassist Percy Heath taking their places. The LP starts strong with “Dr Jackle”, a chirpy back and forth between Miles and Milt, with Jackie McLean coming in for a timeless sax solo at the back end. With Milt’s vibraphone prominent throughout the whole album, the songs blend together with the same whimsical sound, making for a tight and cohesive listen. For those who aren’t fans of the vibraphone, this is one of the last Miles albums you should try.
Collector’s Items holds a strange place in Miles’s catalogue, having been recorded in two separate sessions three years apart. The first half of the LP comes from the sessions back in ’53, with “The Serpent’s Tooth” being the highlight of the album. It’s a triumphant exercise in bop with some flashy horn-work, colourful bass, punching percussion, and enough energy to make the seven-minute track fly by. After this, however, the album loses steam. The other compositions from ’53 are solid enough, but once the LP transitions into the tracks from ’56, it loses all colour and personality. Songs like “No Line” and “Vierd Blues” are inoffensive and plain, with passionless performances and lukewarm compositions without any standout moments. To call the tracks bad would be an exaggeration, but after the powerful opener, Collector’s Items falls flat.
Birth of the Cool (1957)
Rivalling some of his best albums, Birth of the Cool is a phenomenal compilation LP from Davis, boasting material from as far back as 1949. In stark contrast to the fast-paced, upbeat bebop of some of his earliest work, Birth of the Cool was when Miles found his footing in cool jazz, offering some of the most densely layered and precisely composed songs in the genre. Sometimes, the horns harmonise, and other times, they contrast, moving with the fluidity and prominence of singing voices. Adopting techniques from classical music such as polyphony, Birth of the Cool was as innovative as it is excellent, remaining one of Miles’s strongest releases of the ‘50s.
‘Round About Midnight (1957)
Kicking off his legendary album run for Columbia Records, on ‘Round About Midnight, Miles brought together his quintet to deliver an undeniable classic. Miles introduces the album with a stunning trumpet solo on “’Round Midnight”, but it’s Coltrane’s explosive sax on the back end that makes the song an all-time great. “All of You” is a more relaxed cut where the horn-players shine even more, thriving over the cool blend of soft bass and flickering piano notes. Bonus tracks like “Dear Old Stockholm” and “Budo” are just as brilliant, with each member of the quintet having their moment to shine. “Bye Bye Blackbird” is a gorgeous cut where Red Garland steals the show with a shimmering piano solo, outshining his bandmates with one of the finest performances on the whole LP. With explosive highlights and mellow interludes, ‘Round About Midnight is the Miles Davis Quintet at their most confident, complementary, and unforgettable. Few albums in Miles’s catalogue capture as vivid an atmosphere as this one, with the laidback horn-work and ever-changing percussion building a rich atmosphere for the musicians to thrive.
Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1957)
Cookin’ is the first of four records with the quintet recorded during a quick session in ’56, in an effort to fulfil Miles’s obligations to Prestige before he switched over to Columbia Records. In just a few hours, the quintet crafted four certified classics. As the first instalment, Cookin’ is a masterpiece. Each member of the quintet sounds confident and comfortable, passing the spotlight back and forth from musician to musician with an array of incredible solos. On “My Funny Valentine”, Red Garland provides a stunning performance on the piano, whose magical melodies bounce nicely off the deep throb of the bass. “Blues By Five” is up there with the best Miles songs of the ‘50s, with a showstopping sax solo from Coltrane, some thundering drum-work from Jones, and a mesmerising double bass solo from Paul Chambers. Track after track, every musician has their moment on Cookin’, making this one of the most dynamic and impressive albums in Davis’s catalogue. Front to back, it is simply impeccable.
Miles Ahead (1957)
The first of four legendary collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, Miles Ahead sees the musician try his hand at the third stream, a blaring style of jazz music laced with elements of European classical music. Despite being his first attempt at the genre, the results are unsurprisingly fantastic. As always, Miles kicks off the album on a high note, with the bombastic brass ensemble adding a cinematic flair to his ever-flowing solo on “Springsville”. Things take a mellow turn after that, with a series of laidback tracks where Miles’s soothing solos are given prominence by the wave of brass and woodwind supporting him. There are flashes of big band here and there – like the triumphant “New Rhumba” and the smooth closer “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone But You)” – but for the most part, Miles Ahead is a sombre record with an army of horn-players, all working together to create one of the most detailed and hard-hitting soundscapes Miles would ever tackle.
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958)
One of Miles’s most iconic soundtracks, the LP doesn’t have the same effect on me as his other work. Crafted as the score for a film, few songs are given much room to breathe, with many cutting off after just a few minutes. Miles offers a few moody solos, with the sinister tone strengthened by the backing band, but rarely does a track stick out to me as a highlight. As a soundtrack, this is the perfect accompaniment, but as a standalone piece, it feels incomplete in parts. The most impressive aspect of the album was the musician’s process: watching the film for the first time, he stood with his horn, improvising from scene to scene to match his tone to what he saw. For that talent alone, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud demands a listen.
Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1958)
If you enjoyed Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin’ is equally brilliant. From Coltrane’s saxophone to Chambers’s piano, every musician has their shining moment, bouncing off one another with infectious chemistry. Listening as the bandmates perform a chorus, exchange solos, then come back together again for the final chorus, each song is a masterclass in teamwork. Every musician provides a stunning performance, with many of the best tracks in Miles’s catalogue present on Relaxin’.
Milestones is as historically significant as it is brilliant. Though he didn’t pioneer the style, Miles popularised modal jazz with the titular composition, “Milestones”. The term ‘modal’ refers to playing music in modes – scale patterns which deviate from traditional major and minor chords, allowing for more flexible improvisation and seamless exploration of different tones. Besides the technical jargon surrounding the album, as a basic listening experience, Milestones is incredible. The quintet sound more alive than ever, joined by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley whose distinct style offers a nice contrast to the cinematic solos from Coltrane. “Sid’s Ahead” is a 13 minute behemoth full of exciting solos and sizzling percussion from Jones, justifying every minute as each bandmate gets their turn to thrive. The aforementioned “Milestones” is up there with the greatest jazz songs of the ‘50s, where Coltrane, Adderley, and Miles share some impeccable solos. “Billy Boy” is another phenomenal highlight where drummer Jones and pianist Garland take centre stage, going back and forth as they bask in the hyperactive energy of the composition.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
The second collaboration between Miles and Gil Evans is not as captivating as the first. There are brilliant moments where Miles’s solos are made twice as powerful by the backing band, but other parts drag, with long sections of sluggish instrumentation bringing the experience down. Ebbing and flowing from big band explosions to ambient interludes, Porgy and Bess either enthrals or bores me. On the album, Davis continues to experiment with modal jazz, blending his new methods in with the grand, third stream style of the orchestra. It’s an interesting listen, and at times a despairing one, but overall, it doesn’t reach the heights of Miles Ahead.
Kind of Blue (1959)
Kind of Blue is the quintessential Miles Davis album. Taking the ambitious sound of “Milestones” and combining it with the varied talents of his legendary quintet, the LP is a flawless run of modal jazz. While Milestones marked his first use of modes, on Kind of Blue, every track is built on them, revolutionising jazz forever and reinventing how music could be made. Besides its enormous impact, on a simple musical level, the record is phenomenal. It kicks off with “So What”, where a patter of piano notes introduce an iconic bassline, over which Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley present grand solos. “Freddie Freeloader” keeps up the momentum with some stunning piano-work by Bill Evans, along with some laidback horn-playing which adds to the peaceful atmosphere. The beautiful “Blue In Green” comes in the middle of the album, with a sombre performance from Davis made twice as evocative thanks to the stunning piano backing by Evans. Start to finish, Kind of Blue is simply perfect.
Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1959)
Workin’ has all the same magic as Cookin’ and Relaxin’, but neither of the previous records have a song as gorgeous as “It Never Entered My Mind”. The hypnotic piano melody from Garland acts as the backbone for the composition, creating a melancholic backdrop for Davis to deliver one of his most emotional solos ever. The rest of the album is equally brilliant, though Miles would never top the beauty of the opener. From the groovy back and forth of “Four” to the ever-evolving performance from Coltrane on “Trane’s Blues”, no track disappoints. The last Miles album in the 1950s, he ended the decade with yet another classic.
From as early as 1949 with the Birth of the Cool sessions, it was clear that Miles Davis would be the next force in jazz, and by 1959, he had conquered the genre. Forming one of the greatest bands in music history with the First Great Quintet, reinventing jazz with his modal approach to composition, and delivering a plethora of classics in the process, the ‘50s was his most prolific and iconic era.