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Essay on Cool Jazz and Its Famous Compositions

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With jazz as one of the most influential and powerful style, there lay various well-known jazz compositions whose composers used different styles to engage their audience. Given jazz’s evolution, many great compositions and edits exist but one in particular, ‘cool jazz’, can be described as one of the most influential and inspiring components in jazz history. Cool jazz is a kind of contemporary jazz that sought much attention after World War II, with much of its notable growth and development taking place between the 1940’s and 1950’s. This subgenre is considerably different from earlier bebop through its light tone and relaxed tempo, blending elements from eastern and classical rhythms into one. The composition that will be further explored is ‘Take Five’ by David Brubeck as it is considered the biggest selling jazz single. By exploring different compositions by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington, we will be able to understand the contrasting elements between their structures, rhythms, and improvisation techniques.

The 1st composition is from Dave Brubeck, one of the most influential figures in cool jazz. The composition is ‘Take Five’ and its origin of composition follows a fixed tempo of 170 bmp and is composed in the Eb minor key (Burns et al.). The song begins with light drum hits that are played in a moderate swing of a signature groove. Moreover, the song’s significance is its odd signature groove in 5/4. And this particular time signature would be an influence on future jazz grooves that were soon to follow. The composition is composed of repetitive twenty-four bar ABA, separated by solos supported by the drums and saxophone. Bar A is considered as the verse while B acts as the chorus. It is followed by prominent ride cymbals with frequent soft snare hits. The mellow piano enters after the four bars and plays detached and blocky chords that are to the right of the mix. It is in the last two bars of the introduction where the double bass enters and creates a smooth transition into the A section. The 12-bar introduction uses continuous layering of instruments as an effective guide to the hook (Burns et al.).

The staging is also worth examining as it plays an impactful role in its composition. The drum microphone is placed several feet in front of the kit approximately at chest height which also plays a role for the cymbals where it’s able to produce a spiky definition in the mix. The microphone of the grand piano is placed about three feet far from strings with one microphone, close to the open lid, and it captures a balance of both low and high strings and helping the mellow jazz piano tone (Dougherty, 56). The piano and drum microphones sound like they are panned hard having the recording technique of one room in mind. It is easy to suggest that the spill at the reverse channel is largely in control for blending the instrumentation stereo mix. In the A section, the double bass and the piano continue playing the underlying two chord vamp followed by a repetitive but simple Ebm7 – Bbm7 (I-V) progression (Dougherty, 57). This is followed by the alto saxophone that starts playing the head melody. With the straightforward and constant harmonic framework of the A section, the saxophone plays in Eb Dorian modally. The Dorian scale resembles the natural minor except for the raised 6th, and it is this raised 6th that creates the unusually lively and smooth ‘cool’ tonal color. The Dorian mode that is played on the alto saxophone is what gives off the cool jazz sound. The emphasis heard on the mechanical noise produced by both the bass and the saxophone suggests that the recording was done with close microphone positions. The listener can hear the saxophone’s ‘breathy’ detail and the double bass string’s ‘plucky’ transient’s character. The B section is where the tonal center of the song changes to a relative key signature of Gb major following a progression of an ‘IV-V IIIm-Vim IIm-V7 VII-I7” (Dougherty, 57). This relationship is commonly employed by jazz tunes by pairing the relative minor or relative major tonal centers within a single musical composition. The saxophone plays the melody that shifts to the higher tone in a relative major key, following a descending and repetitive riff back into two chord vamps in the A sections. The saxophone solo has some resonance and combines notes that are derived from the minor pentatonic, Eb Dorian, and blues scale. On the final note of the solo, a noticeable duck in instrumentation is present, and may suggest that the saxophone microphone was suddenly muted. In this composition, the drums solo is dynamically varied and slow building. In the A section, it can be heard that the piano is panned hard right while the drums are panned hard left. The song ends by tagging, a common method of ending songs in the jazz genre by repeating the 2-bar phrase of the composition at the end (Solis).

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The second jazz composition to consider is ‘So What” by Miles Davis’. It is among the best modal jazz music examples. Although improvisation is a majority of the piece, it employs engaging grooves that set its motion harmonically, welcoming any improvised solo. This groove is significant because of its use of call and response as well as its interaction between the complete band and the upright bass. The bass plays the antecedent phrase; an ascending line of notes that start with a fourth leap beginning from the root note. The rest of band or the piano follows the antecedent phrase in ‘response’. The response consists of two chords moving in a downwards parallel motion in answer to the bass. The chords played are a full step apart and are composed of a fourth, a root, minor third, fifth, and minor seventh. The harmonic center of the composition is established by the final statement of the phrase, which is the second chord, and a changed the minor chord. This piece of structure is relatively simple, and it is done in the Dorian mode. However, unlike ‘Take Five’, this is composed in the D Dorian mode, with no harmonic progressions apart from the modulation that takes place throughout the piece, from D Dorian to Eb Dorian (Dougherty, 60). According to Coker, the jazz song structure mainly consists of songs written in the traditional fashion and is composed of various segments (Coker, 22). The parts include the verse, the pre-chorus, chorus, the bridge, and the refrain. The composition of the song is very orderly, and the instrumentals are slow, allowing a soothing tone for the listener or the audience. The segment that follows the verse is the pre-chorus which paves way for the chorus which bears the theme, the main message behind the song. The bridge follows the chorus and it sounds different as compared to the other parts of the song. Afterwards, there is a session or a break for instrumentals followed by the chorus that is repeated several times over.

The third composition is ‘Round the Midnight’ composed by Thelonious Monk. It is arranged in the original key signature of Eb minor and follows the AABA form in 32 bars of 8 bits including the introduction. The tonality of the song is primarily minor, and has a parallel major tonic chord placed at the end of Bar B. The movement of the composition is a mixture of leaps, chromatic movement, and arpeggiation. The song is introduced by a descending progression in the Gm-Fm-Ebm. There is a part of the melody in the introduction that resembles a song known as ‘I Can’t Get Started’ by Dizzy Gillespie. There is a probability that the melody has been a standard groove of the period, or maybe it was borrowed from an older song (Solis, 5).

Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ is the final jazz composition to consider. It was recorded in the year 1941 and follows an A-A-B-A form which is repeated for three times as the solo piano is played by Duke Ellington for the four-bar introduction. The saxophones lead for the first time with support from trombones and trumpets as Ray Nance leads the second time on muted trumpet, and after the transition in the four bars and a corresponding change in the key signature (Gronow, 69). Nance (on open trumpet) and the saxophone players take turns to improvise the theme. They finally close with fading repetition of the final eight bars.

Given the many different compositions, it is interesting to hear the general similarities in the melodic pacing and contour in all of them as they all have roots in a cool jazz style. Evidently, jazz has evolved a lot in the previous years and has many different modes of structures considering the intricate experience it has been through. As such, many great compositions produced by these composers continue to influence musicians today while encouraging various sounds and styles due to jazz’s inspiring culture.

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Essay on Cool Jazz and Its Famous Compositions. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Essay on Cool Jazz and Its Famous Compositions.” Edubirdie, 31 Jan. 2023,
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