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West Coast Jazz Essay

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Updated: Apr 15th, 2019


In the 1950s and the 1960s a new form of jazz music was invented in Los Angeles. It was referred to as West Coast jazz and it primarily developed as a variation of cool jazz (a type of modern jazz that grew up during the Second World War period). The music was also seen as an evolution of bop jazz though it contained some aspects of swing that had overtime been discarded or summarily overlooked. Most of the recordings in the genre were characterized by a heavy arrangement of the music which usually came with a formal composition.

However, there were experimental tracks that had success with audiences and which ended up being classified under West Coast jazz. This essay seeks to analyze the development of West Coast jazz as well as to evaluate the appropriateness of the names allotted to this genre of music. To this end various forms of literature, both electronic and print, shall be consulted in order to provide a proper scholarly background to the discussion.

The evolution of jazz leading to the birth of West Coast jazz

In the period following the end of WWII, jazz as an independent genre of music went through intense transformations. This went in tandem with the other socio-cultural changes, including the birth of the civil rights movement, that were taking place in the post-war era. Around this time jazz broke down into the bop, Hard Bop and Cool sub-genres[1]. Of even more importance is that with this split, jazz also acquired classification into two camps-the West Coast and the East Coast.

Musicians from the two coastal camps also relied on two particular record labels-one from each camp-to do most of their tracks. The Los Angeles Pacific Jazz label handled the West Coast musicians while the Blue Note Records produced the East Coast jazz[2]. The West Coast jazz was mainly identified by a relaxing sound as compared to its Eastern counterpart which was faster and had more intensity.

It had some kind of laid back swing touch to it and most of the followers of the style commonly referred to it as cool jazz. This sound was easy to the ears and it had the effect of giving the listener a relaxed feeling. The West Coast Sound was easily accessible to the public and as it received immense airplay in Los Angeles radio stations and clubs. Aside from the differences in sound between the West coast and the East Coast jazz, there were basic racial elements of distinction between the two sub-genres[3].

West Coast jazz was mainly Caucasian-led while the East Coast had a distinct African-American composition and following. Music by West Coast musicians such as Curtis Amy and Teddy Edwards had some a characteristic gospel touch whose origin could be traced all the way to Africa[4].

The entry of West Coast jazz into the music scene was not sudden. This is because it mainly stemmed and evolved from styles that had already established a presence in the United States. Even with its uniqueness, keen followers could easily tell that West Coast jazz was an amalgamation of various musical genres and sounds. The classification of the West Coast sound placed all musicians from the genre into one group and this had the eventual effect of establishing and maintaining harmony to the sound.

The swing period

Before the advent of West Coast jazz the American musical scene was defined by two typical sounds; these were Big Band and Swing. A basic swing band was made up of a minimum of ten members, classified under the saxophone, the brass and the rhythm sections[5]. Proponents of the Swing sound from the West Coast included Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Herb Geller[6].

Their music helped give solace to most people during the war period. Stan Kenton was a renowned pianist and his influence had a global aura to it. He was among the first individuals to experiment with the Big Band format as well as flirting with the pre-existing boundaries of Swing.

His boldness was well received and he found admirers among many of the up-coming young talent. His involvement in modern music greatly influenced the changes happening to modern jazz, particularly in terms of performing with orchestra-type bands with some of them having more than forty members. The bands were well sectioned with a clear distinction between the wind and the string.

This innovation marked the beginning of free jazz. Over the years, a number of musicians went through Kenton’s band and later parted to establish independent bands. However, they all credited Kenton as their discernible role model and key influence. Much later these Kenton students alongside other swing greats such as Wardell Gray invented two new jazz sub-genres; Bop and Cool[7].

Players in the West Coast post swing era

Once the Second World War came to an end, most musicians found it necessary to embrace new styles of music. Many of them experimented with various combinations and son Bop and Cool were taking over the place of Swing. However, as other musicians were eager to embrace changes two artistes remained committed to Swing in its traditional form. These were Cy Touff and Bob Brookmeyer.

Touff’s compositions touched on various themes established by various bandleaders in New Orleans. His music gave Swing jazz a vastly unique identity since it brought in elements from the Chicago music scene where the musician originally came from.

Brookmeyer was born in Kansas City and was introduced to the music scene as a pianist in the army band. Later he picked up the trombone and found a place in various swing bands most notably playing alongside Woody Herman. In 1954 he linked up with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker to create a brand new sound. Even with his contribution to innovative sounds, Mulligan’s heart still remained with traditional Swing and this even led him to create the nostalgic album, Traditionalism Revisited.

The West Coast Bop

As most of the West Coast Jazz musicians were experimenting with different elements of Bop and Cool, the counterparts from the East Coast decided to follow new musical paths leading to the advent of Hard Bop (sometimes referred to as Soul-Jazz).

These musicians decided to break away from conventional music ties and played around with the space they were given. The Hard Bop movement was distinguishable by the input of guitarists Grant Green and George Benson, saxophonists Eddie Harris and Cannonball Aderly and Pianists Jimmy Smith and Horace silver[8].

Hard Bop found its primary following in the East Coast. However, there were a few musicians from the West Coast who embraced it fully. One of these artistes was Teddy Edwards who went against his region’s attachment to swing to work alongside Dexter Gordon to create the unique Los Angeles Bop. This was around the same time when the big bands that hitherto characterized the music scene were abandoned for solo performances.

The birth of Cool jazz

The entry of bop (also known as Bebop) heralded the decline of swing. This transformation mainly happened in the East Coast through the work of such musicians as Max Roach and Charlie Parker.

As the East Coast was getting excited about the fast paced sounds and the stretched solos, the West Coast musicians were exploring harmonic possibilities through the integration of bop elements in their compositions to come u with the unique Cool sound. Cool jazz was characterized by a combination of swing and various experiments with various chordal progressions.

One of the musicians from the West Coast who had a primary hand in the development of Cool jazz was Dave Brubeck. Alongside East Coast’s Miles Davis, Brubeck released landmark recordings to mark the maturation of a new genre of jazz. The “Cool” movement found grounding in the Los Angeles jazz scene with most of the greatest Cool jazz musicians coming from the West Coast[9]. Below are some of the musicians who contributed to the popularization of the Cool style.

Bill Perkins

Bill Perkins was born in San Fransico but later relocated to Los Angeles where he did a stint in Stan Kenton’s band. He teamed up with fellow musicians from the West Coast including Bob Cooper and Jack Montrose to act as a primary head in the growth of the Cool sound. However, most of the popular Bill Perkin’s tracks are the ones he did with Kenton, with some of them being as popular today as they were during the time that they were originally released.

Bud Shank

Bud Shank was raised in Ohio and then relocated to California after dropping out from college. He performed with several bands, most of which broke up in their early days. During this time he managed to learn how to play the flute. This, coupled with his skill in the Saxophone gave him an edge against fellow instrument players.

In between the period 1950 and 1951 he joined Stan Kenton’s band where he managed to make a name in the Cool genre of jazz music. Alongside Bob Cooper, Shank managed to give the oboe and the flute a place in jazz music.

Jack Montrose

Jack Montrose was born in Detroit Michigan but he moved to California during his teens[10]. Having graduated with a degree in music from the Los Angeles State College in the 1953, Montrose channeled his focus to music and his experimentation with different genres of music helped him make a name for himself as one of the most influential artistes in West Coast jazz[11].

Unfortunately for Jack, he became addicted to heroine and most of the bands he played with found him a liability and cut him loose. He later underwent rehabilitation but by the time he was back in control, changes had taken place in the music scene and his style was no longer being appreciated. This is the reason why he is among the influential but forgotten heroes of West Coast jazz.

West Coast Jazz

Key musicians-Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker

The West Coast sound had very many followers. Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker, being the first musicians to work under the Pacific Jazz production level, turned out to be some of the most influential individuals in the development of the sound[12]. The entry of Mulligan into the music scene was some kind of defining moment as far as the West Coast movement was concerned.

His contribution was greatly appreciated mainly because he was able to borrow from elements from East Coast owing to his constant contact with Miles Davis as well as drawing from his background as he originally came from New York. Chet Baker who originally came from Oklahoma also played a clear role in the development of the Pacific Jazz sound.

The Mulligan-Baker influence on jazz scene was not initially anticipated primarily because the two were struggling artists when they first met. Mulligan had hitch hiked from New York while Baker had been a poor Dixieland trumpeter. However, it was instant chemistry when the duo created a clean swinging sound. Their immediate success was characterized by imitation by young musicians as well as by the migration in droves of musical talent into Los Angeles.

The appropriateness of the geographical title “West Coast jazz”

The tag West Coast jazz when identifying the particular type of jazz being performed in Los Angeles may not clearly present the intention of the branding. This is because the growth of jazz in the period after the Second World War depended on a fusion of styles from both the East and West Coasts.

The title “West Coast jazz” basically implies that the type of jazz being referred to originally sprang up in the regions around Los Angeles. However, as has been illustrated in this essay, the genre that is currently referred to as West Coast jazz was simply a combination of various jazz elements-some of which were primarily invented and popularized in the East Coast.

Aside from this, most of the notable artists in the West Coast had roots from the East Coast and therefore brought in elements from their home regions into the Los Angeles Music Scene. As a matter of fact, it is definitely clear that West Coast jazz borrowed more from the East Coast as compared to what jazz in New York borrowed from the West Coast. However, it is without a doubt that both Coasts had their role to play in the music industry and most of them left their mark with their releases.


West Coast jazz was a fundamentally vibrant element of the United States music scene. However, because its advent happened around the time when more popular genres were developing in New York, this item of jazz development often tends to be overlooked. With the artists in New York following new directions when it came to jazz, those in Los Angeles chose to stick with the Swing from which they drew a number of closely related variations.

However, it is definitely clear that both the New York and Los Angeles aspects of jazz growth had a significant effect in the general development of the genre. Both the East and West coasts produced exceptional performers whose impact continues to be felt in modern-day music.

Reference List

Gioia, T, West Coast jazz: Modern jazz in California, 1945-1960, University of California Press, California, 1998

Waters, K, & H, Martin, Essential jazz: the first 100 years, Cengage Learning, Connecticut, 2008


  1. T, Gioia, West Coast jazz: Modern jazz in California, 1945-1960, University of California Press, California, 1998, p.176
  2. Gioia, pp.56, 195-196
  3. Gioia, p.52
  4. K, Waters, & H, Martin, Essential jazz: the first 100 years, Cengage Learning, Connecticut, 2008, p.169
  5. Gioia, p.210
  6. Waters & Martin, p.87
  7. Gioia, p.51
  8. Waters & Martin, p.167
  9. Gioia, p.176
  10. Gioia, p.295
  11. ibid.
  12. Waters & Martin, pp.160-161
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