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Cool jazz was one of the most popular jazz styles of the 1950s. Not all of the cool jazz leaders were based in California, and not all of the jazz there during the era was cool jazz; but the music made its greatest impact and reached the height of its popularity in Los Angeles.

Throughout jazz history, an extroverted musician’s innovations have often been followed by those of a quieter, “cooler” stylist. Some examples are Louis Armstrong whose flamboyant personality and innovations were followed by the more subdued Bix Beiderbecke, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Cool jazz of the 1950s was in some ways a reaction to bebop, utilizing bop’s harmonic complexity, but bringing back a few as pects from swing. The tones of the horns became softer, the volume quieter, the tempos usually slower, and the rhythms lighter and less jarring. Arrangements became important again, even in small groups, and the music was more accessible in general than bop.

Cool jazz began with the music of the John Kirby Sextet during the swing era, the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, and Lester Young’s mellow-toned tenor, which became very influential by the late 1940s. As mentioned in chapter six, just three years after bebop made a big impact on jazz, Miles Davis formed his famous nonet, later billed “The Birth of the Cool.” Pianist Lennie Tristano and Page 150  his sidemen, including altoist Lee Konitz and tenor-saxophonist Warne Marsh, performed a variation on cool jazz, emphasizing melodic and harmonic sophistication while keeping the rhythm section in a quiet timekeeping role. It set the stage for what was to happen in Los Angeles.


Although the recordings of the Miles Davis Nonet and Lennie Tristano were made in New York, cool jazz really caught fire on the West Coast, particularly Los Angeles during 1952 and 1953, with the success of Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet with Chet Baker, Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, and the recording bands headed by Shorty Rogers. At this time jazz started appearing much more regularly in Hollywood motion picture soundtracks where the cool jazz style fit in quite well with its subtlety, tight arrangements, and dramatic solos. Such groups as Shorty Rogers’ Giants, the Jimmy Giuffre 3, Shelly Manne and His Men, and the Dave Pell Octet all worked regularly on the West Coast and contributed to the legacy of cool. In addition other cool jazz groups not based in Los Angeles, such as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Stan Getz’s combos, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet that started in northern California, helped make the idiom into a viable style. The rise of the LP, which became common in 1949 and completely took over from 78s by 1953, led to a booming record industry, and new labels such as Contemporary, Pacific Jazz, and Nocturne documented scores of significant West Coast jazz sessions.

Despite all of the fine music, cool jazz has been underrated and sometimes dismissed outright in jazz history books. There are three main reasons for its critical neglect. First, the music was not centered in New York, so critics and jazz journalists who feel that all significant post-1930 jazz has to be based there to be taken seriously either overly criticized the music or ignored it.

Second, many of the cool jazz leaders, unlike those in most other styles of jazz, were white. This was not due to segregation in the jazz world; in fact mixed groups became more common in the 1950s and predated the civil rights movement. It was due to the segregation in the movie and television studios. Many big band veterans, particularly former members of the Stan Kenton and Woody Page 151  Herman orchestras, settled in Los Angeles to work at lucrative day jobs in the studios, playing jazz at night. Because arrangers and expert sight-readers were in great demand, and the studios with a few exceptions were closed to black musicians, there was a concentration of white jazz musicians and writers in Los Angeles during the era, many involved in cool jazz.

The third reason for cool jazz being underrated is that some cool jazz performances were overarranged and as close to background music as to jazz, deserving to be criticized as bland and unadventurous. The best cool jazz, however, perfectly balanced concise solos with colorful arrangements and lively harmonies.


Stan Kenton had an unusual career. He had little interest in leading a swinging big band for dancers because his goal was to have a concert orchestra. Page 154  Despite his noncommercial goals and the complex music that he often performed, Kenton kept his big band together whenever he wanted throughout his career, when not on a voluntary sabbatical, becoming both a household name and a cult figure.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Kenton grew up in California and played piano; Earl Hines was his main influence. Never a virtuoso or a major soloist, Kenton nevertheless had little difficulty finding work in the Los Angeles area, and during the 1930s he also developed into a skilled arranger. In 1940 when he was twenty-eight, he organized his first rehearsal band. The next summer the Stan Kenton Orchestra made a strong impression playing regularly at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach near Los Angeles.

Even at that early stage, the Kenton band had its own sound with a screaming brass section, thick-toned tenors, and ambitious arrangements. The orchestra recorded nine selections during 1941 and 1942, but none sold that well. A gig as the house band on the Bob Hope radio show was unsatisfying. Kenton wanted his band to be featured much more rather than backing someone else, but Les Brown would eventually get the job.

Much more important was landing a contract with the Capitol label in late 1943. Kenton’s recording of “Eager Beaver” sold well, as did his waxing of his theme song “Artistry in Rhythm” and the vocals of Anita O’Day. By 1945 Kenton had a major band. Pete Rugolo was Kenton’s main arranger, extending the leader’s ideas and creating a series of ambitious works. Vido Musso and the softer-toned Bob Cooper gave Kenton two major tenor sax soloists, while June Christy’s popular vocals, including “Tampico” and “Across the Alley from the Alamo,” helped keep the band solvent. Kenton called this period of his band’s music “progressive jazz.”

In 1947 Kai Winding, who made the trombone a major instrument in Kenton’s ensembles, joined the band’s key players, including altoist Art Pepper, bassist Ed Safranski, drummer Shelly Manne, and high-note trumpeters Ray Wetzel and Al Porcino. Certainly the arrangements, which could be bombastic, of such tunes as “Southern Scandal,” “Opus in Pastels,” the catchy “Intermission Riff,” “Artistry in Percussion,” “Concerto to End All Concertos,” “Monotony,” “Elegy for Alto,” Page 155  “Thermopylae,” and the riotous “The Peanut Vendor” gave the versatile Kenton band its own unique sound and musical personality. Although influenced by bebop, it was not really bop or swing but a new kind of “progressive jazz,” one that did not mind sacrificing swinging for dense ensembles and unusual sounds.

By the end of 1948, Kenton was exhausted, so he broke up his big band and took a year off. In 1950 he came back with his most radical band, the thirty-nine-piece Innovations in Modern Music. The huge ensemble, which had sixteen strings, two French horns, and a woodwind section, performed modern classical charts leavened by an occasional swinger. Although it included the high-note trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, altoists Art Pepper and Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, Shelly Manne, and June Christy in its personnel, it did not survive. Two tours and some remarkable recordings resulted before Kenton cut back to back to a more conventional nineteen-piece big band.

Considering the extroverted, occasionally bombastic, and intense music that Stan Kenton’s orchestra created, it is ironic that many of its players, when they settled in Los Angeles after touring, became prime exponents of cool jazz.

For the remainder of the 1950s Kenton once again confounded expectations and led his most swinging bands. Although some of the arrangements were very complex as usual, others let the musicians stretch out. Many all-stars passed through the orchestra, including trumpeters Conte Candoli, Sam Noto, and Jack Sheldon; trombonists Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana; altoists Lee Konitz and Charlie Mariano; tenors Richie Kamuca, Zoot Sims, Bill Perkins, Arno Marsh, and Lucky Thompson; and baritonist Pepper Adams. Kenton always encouraged arrangers to contribute to his library, and among the better writers were Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Lennie Niehaus, Marty Paich, Johnny Richards, the radical Bob Graettinger, and especially Bill Holman and Bill Russo.

From 1960 to 1963 Kenton had his last major band, a unit that featured four mellophoniums, which sounded a bit like French horns. After 1963 Stan Kenton’s orchestra declined in originality, while he became quite significant as an educator. Because his big band worked closely with college and high school musicians in band camps and fought to get jazz taught in school, many of the resulting college bands sounded a lot like the Kenton Orchestra. At the same time, Kenton’s own orchestra became filled with recent college graduates who were eager to learn and were relatively inexpensive, so his outfit sounded like a professional stage band rather than an innovative orchestra. Instead of his sidemen considering their period with Kenton to be an early step in an important jazz career, many of them it was the highpoint of their playing days before they became college educators.

Stan Kenton continued touring with his big band until shortly before his death in 1979, having made a major contribution to jazz during the preceding forty years.


While Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker were the first cool jazz celebrities, West Coast jazz had been played in Los Angeles for a few years before they made it big in 1952. Howard Rumsey, the original bassist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, moved to Los Angeles after leaving Kenton in the mid-1940s. In 1949 he convinced the owner of the Lighthouse, an establishment in Hermosa Beach near Los Angeles, to feature jazz by his pickup group on Sundays. Within two years Rumsey’s band, renamed the Lighthouse All-Stars, was playing nightly at the club, with its marathon Sunday sessions from 2:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. becoming particularly legendary, or from the musicians’ standpoint, infamous.

The Lighthouse All-Stars first recorded in 1952 when it comprised trumpeter Shorty Rogers, trombonist Milt Bernhart, Bob Cooper and Jimmy Giuffre on tenors, pianist Frank Patchen, drummer Shelly Manne, and Rumsey. The band’s string of recordings for the new Contemporary label made it famous, and it worked steadily throughout the 1950s. Among its many key players at this time were trumpeters Rolf Ericson and Conte Candoli, Stu Williamson on trumpet and valve trombone, trombonist Frank Rosolino, Bob Enevoldsen on tenor and valve trombonist, Bud Shank on alto and flute, altoist Herb Geller, Bob Cooper on tenor, oboe, and English horn, pianists Marty Paich, Claude Williamson, and Dick Shreve, and drummers Max Roach and Stan Levey. The band, with its “coolest” music during the Rogers-Giuffre period and when Cooper and Shank played oboe and flute together, gradually became a hard bop band when the cool jazz era ended.

By the early 1960s, all of the group’s main sidemen had their own solo careers, and the Lighthouse All-Stars was no more. Rumsey retired from playing bass, booked other major groups at the Lighthouse, and switched to Page 159  managing a nearby club, Concerts by the Sea. The Lighthouse All-Stars was revived in the 1980s as an all-star band that included Rogers, Candoli, Cooper, Shank, pianist Pete Jolly, bassist Monty Budwig, and drummer Larance Marable, but that was only a short-term project that hinted at the band’s past glories.


Shorty Rogers was a major force in the West Coast jazz scene as a trumpeter, arranger, composer, bandleader, and as an organizer and catalyst of sessions and events. His middle-register trumpet solos were definitive of the idiom, and he led bands for his own records and in the studios. Born Milton Rajonsky, he gained some early recognition as a trumpeter and arranger with Woody Herman’s First Herd and Second Herd and with Stan Kenton’s Innovations Orchestra in 1950 and 1951. Rogers settled in Los Angeles in 1952 where he was a member of the Lighthouse All-Stars before leading his own band, Shorty Rogers and His Giants, starting in 1953. He was significant in getting jazz music onto soundtracks, starting with Marlon Brando’s The Wild One , and jazz musicians into the commercial studios.

Rogers’ first recording as a leader in 1951 is closely based on the style and instrumentation of the Miles Davis Nonet, but his later record dates range from big bands to a notable mid-1950s quintet, also featuring Pete Jolly, bassists Curtis Counce and Shelly Manne, and Jimmy Giuffre on tenor, clarinet, and baritone. Each of those performers in time became bandleaders. Most of the West Coast jazz all-stars of the 1950s worked for Rogers at one time or another, as he kept the local musicians very busy. After 1962 Rogers stopped playing for twenty years because he was in such demand as a writer in the studios, working on television and films. In 1982 he became active as a player again, reorganizing the Lighthouse All-Stars and mostly playing flugelhorn during his last decade before passing away in 1994.


Shelly Manne, a very versatile drummer, was underrated except by other musicians. Although he started as a saxophonist, Manne switched to drums when he was eighteen in 1938. He played with several swing groups and big bands before making his mark with two of Stan Kenton’s top orchestras from 1946 to 1948 and in 1950 and 1951.

Manne settled in Los Angeles in December 1951, worked with the Lighthouse All-Stars and played with Shorty Rogers’ Giants during 1953 to 1955. During this period he became one of the busiest of all studio drummers, participating in countless record dates. Two of the most interesting are from 1954 and hint at the avant-garde of the future. One session has Manne in a trio with Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre with no piano or bass, some of the six numbers Page 160  being freely improvised. The other is a set of duets with pianist Russ Freeman that is also quite advanced and unpredictable.

In 1955 he formed the quintet Shelly Manne and His Men to play in public, and in 1960 he opened up his own club in Hollywood, Shelly’s Manne-Hole. His bands through the years featured such top players as trumpeters Stu Williamson, Conte Candoli, and Joe Gordon, valve trombonist Bob Enevoldsen, altoists Joe Maini, Charlie Mariano, Herb Geller, and Frank Strozier, tenors Bill Holman and Richie Kamuca, pianists Russ Freeman and Mike Wofford, and bassists Ralph Pena, Leroy Vinnegar, Chuck Berghofer, and Monty Budwig. Manne also had the good fortune of being the leader of a trio with pianist Andre Previn and bassist Vinnegar that recorded songs from the play My Fair Lady . That album was such a big seller in the late 1950s that it launched a series of jazz albums of scores taken from various musicals, films, and television shows.

While Shelly Manne’s groups were associated with the West Coast jazz movement during the 1950s, by the end of the decade his bands had a harder sound that fit much more into hard bop than cool jazz. Manne remained a very popular and busy drummer until his death in 1984.


While many of the leaders of cool jazz, particularly those based on the West Coast, shifted to hard bop by the end of the 1950s, Jimmy Giuffre went in another direction altogether. Giuffre, who had soft, cool tones on clarinet, tenor, and baritone, played with the big bands of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, and Buddy Rich. His composition “Four Brothers” became a hit for Woody Herman, and two years later he spent a few months as a member of Herman’s Second Herd in 1949. After moving to Los Angeles, Giuffre worked with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars in 1951 and 1952 and Shorty Rogers’ Giants from 1952 to 1956, leading his own record dates starting in 1954.

Giuffre was a quiet improviser who made every note count and was not shy to take chances. He often stuck to the lower register of his clarinet, and on some of his early records as a leader, the music is atonal in spots. After leaving Rogers, he formed the Jimmy Giuffre 3, which originally included guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena. Giuffre had a minor hit with “The Train and the River,” a folk song that emphasized the picturesque melody and featured the leader switching between his three horns. In 1958 he led a particularly unusual trio with Hall and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, one that did not use piano, bass, or drums. The group sometimes played free improvisations in concert although its recordings stuck to tunes. Brookmeyer did not stay too long, and Giuffre went back to leading reeds-guitar-bass trios for a time, cool jazz that looked towards the future. From 1961 to 1963, the Jimmy Giuffre 3 included pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow. Their music was still quiet and mostly gentle with an emphasis on space, but the avant-garde Page 161  explorations mystified audiences who expected to hear Giuffre embracing melodies rather than playing free jazz.

After 1963 Jimmy Giuffre primarily worked as an educator, occasionally reappearing on the scene during the next thirty-five years, including reunion tours and further recordings with Bley and Swallow, always going his own way musically.


Drummer Chico Hamilton had extensive experience before the cool jazz era began. He recorded with Slim Gaillard, toured with Lionel Hampton, and worked with Lester Young and Lena Horne. Hamilton was an original member of the Gerry Mulligan quartet during 1952 and 1953 where his flawless time and subtlety were greatly appreciated.

In 1955 Hamilton formed a chamber jazz group with Buddy Collette on reeds—flute, alto, tenor, and clarinet—guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Carson Smith and, most importantly, cellist Fred Katz. The latter’s ability to improvise gave the group its own sound, as did Collette’s versatility. The band’s debut recording, which includes “A Nice Day,” “Blue Sands,” and “My Funny Valentine,” is considered a classic. Initially based in Los Angeles, the Chico Hamilton Quintet became very popular, and there was strong interest in the group traveling east. Because Collette was helping to integrate the studios in Los Angeles, he dropped out of the group, being succeeded by Paul Horn, with John Pisano soon taking Jim Hall’s place. There was no real change in the group’s sound until the spring of 1958 when Eric Dolphy on flute, alto, and bass clarinet took over Horn’s spot, and the new cellist was Nate Gershman, a classical player who did not improvise.

In late 1959 Dolphy departed, replaced by Charles Lloyd. By then the concept of the band was getting a bit old, and in the early 1960s Lloyd talked Hamilton into dropping the cello to add trombonist Garnett Brown. With Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo also in the band, the quintet was now radically different from the 1955 group, leaning more toward post-bop and being influenced by John Coltrane. The Chico Hamilton Quintet broke up in 1966. Hamilton, now in his early eighties, has stayed active, freelancing and leading adventurous combos.


Unlike the Jimmy Giuffre 3 and the Chico Hamilton Quintet, the Dave Pell Octet never attempted to move beyond West Coast jazz. In fact Pell’s group defined the style with its modern harmonies, restrained ensembles, soft tones, and swing repertoire. Pell played with several big bands before becoming the tenor soloist with the Les Brown Orchestra from 1947 to 1955. He formed his own octet in 1953 from Brown’s big band, and the combo was often featured during Les Brown concerts before it broke away in 1955. The octet in its prime Page 162  also included trumpeter Don Fagerquist, trombonist Ray Sims, guitarist Tony Rizzi, bassist Rolly Bundock, drummer Jack Sperling, singer Lucy Ann Polk, several pianists, and Ronny Lang on baritone, alto, and flute. With arrangements by Shorty Rogers, Wes Hensel, Bill Holman, Jack Montrose, and Med Flory among others, the Dave Pell Octet sounded beautiful on such numbers as “Mountain Greenery,” “Aren’t You Glad You’re You,” “Imagination,” and “The Blue Room.” After the era ended, Pell broke up the octet and primarily worked as a record producer, including pop and rock music. He never lost his love for jazz, however, had a group in the 1970s called Prez Conference that played Lester Young solos, and in the 1980s revived the Dave Pell Octet. Usually featuring trumpeter Carl Saunders, the octet still performs on a regular basis in the Los Angeles area, keeping the legacy of cool jazz alive.


Art Pepper had a turbulent career similar to that of Chet Baker, except that no matter how bad his personal life was, his recordings were consistently brilliant. Pepper, although white, gained important experience playing with black groups on Los Angeles’ Central Avenue in the 1940s and with Stan Kenton’s orchestra at times during 1943 and 1947 to 1952. A heroin addict from an early age, Pepper had an erratic lifestyle, and he was in jail during two periods during 1953 to 1956. He recorded a series of classic albums for the Contemporary label in the 1950s including Art Pepper + Eleven Plays Modern Jazz Classics , which featured Marty Paich arrangements, and an encounter with Miles Davis’ sidemen on Meets the Rhythm Section .

Pepper’s career was interrupted with several long prison sentences in the 1960s. He had opportunities to play music while in prison, and during some of his brief releases, he showed that he was influenced by John Coltrane, adopting a harder tone and a much freer style. Pepper worked with Buddy Rich’s big band in 1968 but then spent a few years trying to kick drugs and going through rehabilitation at Synanon. Due to the inspiration of his wife Laurie and very strong will power, Pepper had a major comeback starting in 1975. His solos during his final seven years were full of intensity and expression, ranking with some of the finest work, never coasting or sounding overly comfortable. Pepper played each solo as if it might be his last.

Another altoist, Herb Geller, combines Benny Carter and Charlie Parker in his solos. An important force in the Los Angeles area in the 1950s, he has lived in Europe, mostly Berlin, since 1962, growing as a boppish soloist and still playing at his prime today. Bud Shank was initially overshadowed by Pepper, working with Stan Kenton during 1950 and 1951 and with the Lighthouse All-Stars before heading his own groups. In the 1950s Shank had a very cool tone on alto and was skilled on flute too. He primarily played in the studios in the 1960s, then with guitarist Laurindo Almeida in the Los Angeles Four in the 1970s, Page 165  and since giving up the flute in the mid-1980s, Shank has continued evolving as a major altoist, developing a much harder tone than in his early days.

Lennie Niehaus, although more important as an arranger, is also a top-notch West Coast-based alto saxophonist. He worked with Stan Kenton’s band during two periods, led a series of excellent albums for the Contemporary label in the 1950s, then put his horn away for decades as he wrote for Hollywood movies, including quite a few Clint Eastwood films. In recent times he has resumed playing alto in his same timeless style of decades ago.


By the late 1950s cool jazz was rapidly running out of gas. Hard bop was taking over as the mainstream of jazz, avant-garde jazz was starting to make inroads, and the public’s interest in West Coast jazz had dropped, although Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker continued to be popular. Unlike most other jazz styles, West Coast jazz has largely ceased to exist as a separate style since 1960. It is occasionally revived at historic recreation concerts, often in the Los Angeles area, and its approach of tight arrangements, restrained sounds, and thoughtful solos have influenced later styles, including some avant-garde music, but the glory years of cool jazz, 1948 to 1960, are long gone.


While Los Angeles’ role in jazz history was most significant during the 1950s cool jazz movement, other styles were affected by events in this area of the country. Free jazz is generally thought of as originating in New York, yet bassist Charles Mingus, multi-reedist Eric Dolphy, and altoist Ornette Coleman spent part of their formative years in Los Angeles, with Coleman recording his first two records for Contemporary before moving to New York. Los Angeles has had an underpublicized, but important avant-garde movement ever since with clarinetist John Carter, cornetist Bobby Bradford, pianist Horace Tapscott, Page 167  bassist Roberto Miranda, and saxophonist Vinny Golia being among Los Angeles’ unsung giants.

In the early 1970s pop/jazz, which later became known as smooth jazz, had some of its genesis in Los Angeles, particularly with the formation of saxophonist Tom Scott’s L.A. Express. With the city’s many studio top arrangers leading big bands part-time, some of the major jazz orchestras are based there, including those led by Gerald Wilson, Bill Holman, Bob Florence, Jack Sheldon, Tom Kubis, and Tom Talbert, plus the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

Significant small group jazz also continues to invigorate the Los Angeles jazz scene, including interpretations of the great American songbook by the fine swing singer Judy Chamberlain, the inventive piano playing and arrangements of Bill Cunliffe, trios led by veteran pianists Page Cavanaugh and Pete Jolly, and such local heroes as trumpeter Carl Saunders, trombonist Andy Martin, tenor-saxophonist Pete Christlieb, and altoist Lanny Morgan.

Although New Yorkers often act as if the entire jazz world is confined to city limits, Los Angeles continues to have a viable and creative jazz scene in the twenty-first century, though it will probably always be best known for the cool jazz years.

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over 4 years ago

All of this material was taken, word for word, from my book Jazz: A Regional Exploration. The least you could do is give me (Scott Yanow) credit for this essay! This is plagiarism! It's amazing what anonymous web sites such as this one can get away with.

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over 5 years ago

What was the name of the club where all the greats played in Wilshire Blvd, right near the Ambassador Hotel but on the other side of Wilshire Blvd? I saw Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and others there in the 1950s. Does anyone remember its name?