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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, the KNKX and Jazz24 music teams illustrate the different styles that make up jazz history through storytelling and music. From the early 1900’s to present, journey with us from Dixieland to modern jazz styles, big-band to hip-hop.

In the '50s, from LA and San Francisco came the mellow sounds of West Coast cool

Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, 1980s
William P. Gottlieb
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, 1980s

In the 1950s and early '60s, jazz lovers got a bit territorial. There were two main sounds of jazz—the East Coast hard bop sound and the mellower West Coast sound— called "West Coast cool" — or simply "cool jazz." 

Listen to the story above or read the script below:

Before we get into West Coast cool, I want to play you something else for comparisons sake.

What we’re hearing now is NOT West Coast cool jazz—but it’s a good example of what that music isn’t. This is Phil Woods’ version of Dizzy Gillespie be-bop rouser, ‘Shaw ‘Nuff.’ It comes in like a wired dervish and pretty much stays that way throughout. It’s great fun but it ain’t what we think of as West Coast jazz.

THIS is West Coast cool.

It’s a little laid-back, kinda bouncy, kinda…well….sunny. The song is called ‘Tricklydidler,’ and you’ll hear no more from me on that. And it’s done by a group of West Coast mainstays—trumpeter Shorty Rogers leading a group that includes reedman, Jimmy Giuffre, Pete Jolly on piano, bassist, Curtis Counce, and drummer, Shelly Manne—five guys are cool jazz in a nutshell. Nobody here seems to be in a hurry to show off their improvisational chops—they’re more into the song’s melody, its harmonies and its groove. But they get around to improvising after spending some quality time together. And if you’re thinking, “You know, if you sped this up a little, it’d kinda sound like a theme song for a 1950s sit-com or game show,” you’re be pretty much on the money.

A lot of these Los Angeles players paid their bills by working in recording studios and network TV bands, so some TV theme songs were much cooler than discerning viewers had any right to expect. For example, here are two more West Coast mainstays, Bud Shank and Bob Cooper with their 1958 version of the theme to the Steve Allen Show. And, yes, that’s the same Bud Shank who would later in life move from Los Angeles to Port Townsend, Washington and help create the annual world-class jazz festival now known as Centrum's Jazz Port Townsend.

I guess I haven’t said it outright, but Los Angeles is the town that folks think of when talking about West Coast jazz, and to a lesser degree, San Francisco. So let’s bop up to "Baghdad By the Bay" and listen to some cool jazz by two of the only West Coast jazz players who were actually from California: Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond.

This is the Brubeck Quartet’s stunning version of ‘Stardust,’ recorded live at Oberlin College in 1953. It’s certainly one of Paul Desmond’s loveliest excursions into improvisation, as he and Brubeck never actually play the melody of Stardust—though they keep hinting at it from time to time. If you haven’t heard it, spend six and a half minutes of your life with it. It’ll lighten your load.

I guess if I had to pick one recording to be the definitive West Coast cool song, it would be this one. It’s called ‘Bernie’s Tune,’ recorded in 1952 by the somewhat experimental piano-less quartet led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter, Chet Baker. It’s got the West Coast uplift, the harmonies and later in the song, some very tasteful counterpoint which was also a hallmark of the West Coast sound.

Detractors of that sound say it was more interested in composition than improvisation and that it didn’t swing.

To which I say, “Phooey.”

KNKX Celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month

Throughout the month of April, we will be illustrating different styles of jazz through time that make up jazz history through storytelling and music. From the early 1900’s to 2022, we will journey from Dixieland to Modern Jazz styles, Big Band to Hip Hop.

Listen to installments each weekday at 9am and 7pm on 88.5 FM and See all stories from the KNKX History of Jazz project.

Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.