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West Coast Cool: The Jazz Sound Of '50s California

A classic West Coast jazz quartet: saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Dodge, pianist Dave Brubeck, bassist Bob Bates. (Getty Images)

When someone talks about "West Coast jazz" or "cool jazz," they're almost invariably referring to a style performed by jazz musicians in California (and primarily in Los Angeles) in the '50s and early '60s. As opposed to the hard-bop sound dominant on the East Coast during that time, the West Coast sound was a bit mellower and more lyrical, with blended harmonies and — broadly speaking — more interest in composition and arrangement than improvisation. West Coast players also tended to experiment more with jazz ensembles of different sizes (such as octets and nonets, as opposed to the more standard trios, quartets and quintets) and interesting combinations of instruments. In these five songs, you'll hear all the definitive aspects of the West Coast jazz sound.

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Gerry Mulligan Quartet

Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker were both pivotal players in the creation of the West Coast jazz sound. This 1952 recording of their groundbreaking piano-less quartet features blended harmonies and the wonderful contrapuntal improvisation for which the group was known. Also featured here are bassist Bobby Whitlock and the great drummer Chico Hamilton.

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Unlike most of the musicians associated with the West Coast jazz sound, Dave Brubeck is actually a native Californian, as was his most important collaborator, saxophonist Paul Desmond. Both were born in the San Francisco Bay area, and the music they made together remains some of the most lyrical and popular jazz ever recorded. Brubeck was one of the first musicians to bring jazz to college campuses; his Jazz At Oberlin, recorded in 1953, is one of the quartet's earliest and finest live recordings. In their version of "Stardust," no one in the group ever plays the melody: Desmond and Brubeck imply the melody and explore it beautifully in their improvisations without specifically stating it. This recording is thought by many to be one of the best examples of Desmond's exceptionally lyrical playing.

Shorty Rogers

Like a lot of other West Coast jazz musicians, Shorty Rogers (trumpet/flugelhorn) did a lot of composing and recording for the television industry. This led to some pretty swinging game-show, sitcom and cartoon theme songs, and allowed many jazz musicians to live well while pursuing their passion at night in Los Angeles clubs. Here's Shorty "off the leash," so to speak, performing in a quintet setting with other influential West Coast players, including Pete Jolly (piano), Jimmy Guiffre (sax), Curtis Counce (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums).

Jimmy Giuffre

One of the most interesting and experimental group configurations in West Coast jazz was The Jimmy Giuffre 3. The first incarnation of the trio consisted of Giuffre (reed instruments), Jim Hall (guitar) and Ralph Pena (bass). Later, Giuffre replaced the bass with Bob Brookmeyer's valve trombone, but here, we'll hear the original trio, featuring Guiffre on all three of his instruments: baritone sax, tenor sax and clarinet. Guiffre called his music "blues-based folk jazz," and was strongly influenced by composer Claude Debussy. If you were to try to paint this music, you'd want to use pastels. It's lovely.

Stan Getz/Cal Tjader

Detractors of West Coast jazz claimed that the music didn't swing. "Ginza Samba," recorded in 1958, debunks that notion. The track swings like crazy and features some of the greatest players on the West Coast. Along with Cal Tjader on vibes and Stan Getz on tenor, we have Eddie Duran (guitar), Vince Guaraldi (piano), Scott LaFaro (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). The song was written by Guaraldi and, among all the other delights in this performance, it's great fun to hear Guaraldi in his hard-swinging pre-Peanuts days. Another treat is the bass playing of Scott LaFaro, who, shortly after this recording, joined the groundbreaking Bill Evans trio and helped redefine the jazz bass before his untimely death in 1961.

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