A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Composed by Miles Davis and Gil Evans for the first “Birth Of The Cool” recording session, in April, 1949, “Boplicity” is one of the all-time great recordings. This is due in large part to Gil Evan’s extraordinary orchestration and to the musical and personal camaraderie between the players.

At the time, the group was simply called The Miles Davis Nonet, and it was really formed as an arranger’s band. Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and pianist John Lewis wanted to get the fullest orchestral sound by using the fewest players. When I was Gerry Mulligan’s assistant in 1987-88, Gerry told me that they mainly used Miles’ name for the group because he was the best among them at speaking to club owners and getting work for the group. Even so, they only had a couple of club appearances before disbanding.

Gerry also told me that they also wanted the sound of a clarinet for the group, but only if they could get the clarinetist Danny Polo to join. But since this didn’t work out, they decided to go without a clarinet. Overall, the group was influenced by the sound of the Claude Thornhill band, for whom Gil Evans had previously served as arranger.

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Miles Davis Nonet: Birth Of The Cool

In my opinion, this arrangement by Gil Evans is one of the high points in all of jazz. It’s absolutely perfect!

From Gil Evans’ memorial service (video)

As Gerry Mulligan’s assistant at the time, I got to go to this (I’m standing in the shadows behind the musicians). It was thrilling to see and hear Gerry, Lee Konitz and pianist John Lewis reunite after so many years to pay tribute to their dear friend, Gil Evans.

Mark Murphy: Bop For Kerouac

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Boplicity” is a strange tune, for several reasons. First of all, despite the wonderful arrangement and performance of it from the Birth Of The Cool sessions linked to above, not many instrumentalists play it. Miles Davis actually said in an interview that no one played it anymore because it didn’t have a strong melody. (Vocalists, however, do occasionally perform it.)

Also, the chords in The Real Book aren’t the original chords. Evans and Davis composed it starting with a common I vi/ii V (F6 Dm7/Gm7 C7) progression in the first two measures. I suspect that these chords are what made the beginning of the tune lack energy. It didn’t matter much on the recording since Gil Evans’ arrangement was so special, but it does sound a little boring when played by, say, a jazz quartet. This may be why someone changed the opening chords at some point, beginning on the iim7 chord and then moving stepwise. It creates a little forward momentum which was needed at this spot.

That’s all just a little speculation, however, and I urge you to listen to Gil Evans’ Birth Of The Cool arrangement about a hundred times and enjoy his chord voicings and the inner melodic lines. Players from these sessions have said that even his harmony parts sounded like melodies!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Lee Konitz on “Birth of the Cool” and Miles Davis
A video interview with Konitz, who played alto sax on the “Birth of the Cool” sessions.

Boplicity playalong track

Boplicity: Journey Through The Real Book #44

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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