Cool jazz, one of the most listenable styles of modern “post-bop” jazz, emerged after World War II and was popular from 1949-1955. In direct contrast to energetic bebop, cool jazz emphasized relaxed tempos and a lighter tone. The term itself may have come from a 1953 recording, Classics in Jazz: Cool and Quiet.
Tenor saxophonist Lester Young exerted perhaps the greatest influence on cool jazz. He played with a light sound slightly behind the beat – versus bebop’s driving force – and focused on melodic development rather than chord changes. Miles Davis also influenced cool jazz when he formed his nonet in 1948, which included musicians Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and Gil Evans. The combo wanted to play with a lighter, more expressive sound, which they did on Birth of the Cool, recorded in 1949-50.
Scholars have delineated four overlapping categories of cool jazz: softer variants of bebop, like Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool; musicians like Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, who favored complex swing-era developments; West Coast jazz, which included California-based musicians active in either of the first two categories; and expository jazz of the 1950s.
Cool jazz took a large step away from fiery bebop, often using formal arrangements and incorporating classical music elements, though it pushes these elements further with unusual harmonies and whole tone scales. Cool jazz is generally played with clear expression and focuses on emotions. Musicians of this school tend to experiment with harmony, rhythm, and improvisation.
Probably one of the most famous cool jazz pianists is Dave Brubeck. He formed The Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 along with saxophonist Paul Desmond. Their most iconic album remains 1959’s Time Out. In his compositions, Brubeck experimented with unusual time signatures – 5/4, 7/4, 9/8 – and played up contrasts in rhythm, meter, and tonality.
Other cool jazz pianists were Teddy Wilson, who played with a light touch, and John Lewis, whose piano solo on the recording of Dizzy Gillespie’s 1948 “Round Midnight” anticipated cool jazz. Leo Tristano interweaved rhythmic complexities with advanced harmonies and an intricate improvisation style; he pushed forward solo jazz piano with his 1962 recording The New Tristano.
Cool jazz influenced the development of other jazz styles such as bossa nova and modal jazz (especially Miles Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue). It also influenced such diverse genres as New Age, minimalism, pop, folk, and world music.