Cool jazz is usually assumed to have been a reaction to bebop that first appeared in the late forties, with opponents popping up soon after. It’s no secret that Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer were experimenting with “cooler” sounds in the twenties. Yet the lineage of the cool, as well as its its haters, is just as strong in the music of Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols. Both Red’s jazz and cool jazz share a sense of exploration and reflection, along with critics who were unable to listen past their own fiery, immediate preconceptions.
For Nichols’ kindest adversaries, he was merely a Bix Beiderbecke imitator, while words like “cold” and “mechanical” have logged a lot of mileage courtesy of his other detractors. Such attacks may or may not have to do with the unromantic truth that Nichols was a disciplined, shrewd player and businessman who was able to pay his bills. Geographically, chronologically and musically, he was also his own musician, . During a period when “jazz” meant earthy and “hot,” Nichols had the imagination and gall to work with lighter textures, nuanced arrangements and subdued, cerebral energy. A lucrative studio career has resulted in a nearly insurmountable discography, but Nichols’ take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues” best illustrates his singular cornet and style:
Nichols’ way with a front line speaks volumes from the start. Instead of the three-way polyphony heard in hundreds of combos at the time, cornet and clarinet lay down a bone-dry lead (similar to the brass and reed front lines of most post-war groups). The attention to detail for just two horns is also revealing, first answering Eddie Lang‘s guitar in unison for the introduction, then switching to tight, coy harmony for the melody, with Vic Berton‘s timpani offering its own abstract commentary. When collective improvisation does materialize, it’s with the same balance and intimacy heard earlier. Even the timbres are telling: Nichols’ clean, lithe, slightly clipped cornet, Jimmy Dorsey whistling polished, cutting phrases on clarinet.
The false fingerings and ghosted notes of Nichols’ solo illustrate why “clever” doesn’t have to be an epithet. Dorsey’s arpeggios and phrase entrances come across as more acrobatic but equally measured. Pianist Arthur “The Baron” Schutt shows off his classical studies with busy, two-fisted rubato, while Lang’s strings resemble a steely, pensive harpsichord. The players cherry-pick their notes as though in the midst of some detailed internal calculus, insistently (and for that time, bravely) refusing to throw everything in until they know what’s possible. Many critics hear careful reserve. Other listeners just notice technique, curiosity and patience.