The History and Structure of Cool Jazz as a Celebrated Jazz Genre

Jazz carries a distinctive legacy that’s second to none. Thanks to the talented pianists, composers, saxophonists, guitarists and drummers, jazz music today doesn’t refer to any unified form of music, but various families of music, all of whom are coexisting under the umbrella term – Jazz.

One such family is cool jazz. It’s a standalone genre that we are going to discuss in this article at length. Let’s begin with the two signature characteristics of cool jazz; they are gentle and composed tempos, unlike in bebop and lighter tone.

Like bebop music, cool jazz also originated after the second world war. But while bebop owes its genesis to the smaller ensembles, cool jazz owes it to classical music and formal arrangements. The era when cool jazz successfully rode up to growth and prominence lasted from late 1940s to late 1950s.

Some key features of cool jazz

Cool jazz stands in stark contrast to bebop. Ensembles that were playing bebop were mostly quartet or quintet. For fast tempo, they would use trumpet and bass drums. Saxophonists had full freedom to experiment with harmonic oddities and rhythmic complexities. Instruments were often played at the highest pitch.

Unlike bebop, cool jazz never had any fixed line to follow. Diversity was one of its observable characteristics. Cool jazz groups were of different sizes; some bands were trio, while many others had nine members. A great variety of instruments such as French horn, flute, tuba, etc was used by those bands. The classical elements were so widespread in cool jazz that it had often been labeled as a mix between jazz and classical music.

Melody and improvisations

Cool jazz had a unique approach to melody. It often relied on counterpoints. A counterpoint refers to simultaneous occurrence of more than one melodic line. This characteristic of cool jazz was corroborated by classical music. Other contemporary jazz genres such as bebop played up one melodic line at a time.

Cool jazz never undervalued arrangements. Bebop sacrificed arrangements for improvised solos. But in cool jazz, both were given their due importance.

Cool jazz and swing

This would be an interesting comparison because bebop originated downplaying swing, but cool jazz never went into any confrontation with swing music, yet always maintained a difference. The difference would be easily graspable if we bring a pinch of technicalities into the discussion.

The inward difference between cool jazz and swing are more important than outward differences such as swing bands being big in size while cool jazz groups being of all types of sizes. The eccentric differences had to do with duration and texture. Swing charts were much longer than cool jazz. Cool jazz always emphasized on complex chord progressions while swing always had simpler chord progressions.

The difference in texture between swing and cool jazz helps understand both genres with clarity. In swing textures, riffs were too common. Riffs are short passages, played over and over by different segments of the ensemble. Normally, a riff played by one segment was countered by another.

Cool jazz had a completely different structure. Riffs were replaced by melodies and pitches were light. The instruments used were trumpet, piano, tenor saxophone and drum. Since made of solos, cool jazz had thinner texture. Complex chord progressions were given priority and rhythmic intensities were dropped.

Cool jazz artists

Jazz musicians can’t be pigeonholed into any particular genre because that would mean locking them into it. Normally when a musician is associated with any jazz sub-genre, it’s because of his contribution to the development of that sub-genre.

In this light, the most celebrated cool jazz artists are;

Chet Baker – If you delve deeper into Baker’s works, then you’d sense the presence of intuition. In the early 1950s, when Baker performed alongside baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, the two developed an idiosyncratic style. They never played similar melody lines, but one always sufficed the melody line played by the other. The bond between them was almost telepathic and requires the measure of surreal to be explained.

Originally a trumpeter and a vocalist, Baker will always be remember by jazz aficionados. His drug addiction and gradual decline in later stages of life fail to dent his image as a musician and a contributor to cool jazz.

Click on the link below to listen to the bests of Chet Baker;

Miles Davis – Many regard his album “Birth of the Cool” as a milestone of cool jazz. The album featured unorthodox instruments and many techniques that are found in classical music. Here’s the link to the album;

In the late 1940s, Davis replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s quintet. For next three consecutive years, he would play bebop style jazz until he found it difficult to cope up with the fast tempo.

Davis then chose to play the instruments at moderate pitch. He met Gerry Mulligan later who brought lighter sound, something that Davis was desperately seeking for at that time. This is the background behind how Davis formed his nonet and how it laid the cornerstone for cool jazz.

To listen to other cool jazz artists like Lee Konitz and Dave Brubeck, click on the links below;


The history of cool jazz is interesting, but not as much as listening to famous cool jazz albums. We have provided links to some of them above. Listen to them and enjoy cool jazz to the fullest.