By Ken Raphael

In Ken’s previous articles in this series, he discussed the effect that WWII had on the swing era jazz bands, how the pre-war band leaders responded, and the emergence of smaller big bands, including the nonet. The nonet is so important in the history of jazz that it belongs in any study of (big) bands after Swing.

Jazz pianist, composer and bandleader, Gil Evans. He played an important role in the development of cool jazz, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion, and collaborated extensively with Miles Davis. / Alamy

One of the first arrangers of the nonet was Gil Evans, the Thornhill alumnus who took Miles Davis on a musical journey that has enriched us all. George Avakian of Columbia decided that Miles could work as a bridge between classical music and jazz with an expanded orchestra that featured him as the sole soloist. Miles was asked who he wanted as an arranger and he chose Evans, in a relationship that lasted from 1947 to Evan’s death in 1988. The first of their four LP orchestral collaborations was Miles Ahead, produced by Avakian and issued in October 1957.

Bill Kirchner has written: “Overall Miles Ahead met and perhaps surpassed its makers’ fondest hopes. It established Davis to a degree then unprecedented in his career, as a unique, intensely lyrical soloist. And in Evans case, it was in Max Harrison’s words, ‘the most remarkable comeback in jazz history’. Evans had presented a new way of looking at the jazz orchestra, one of the few since Ellington; only the best works of Ellington/Strayhorn, Eddie Sauter, George Handy, Bob Graettinger, Gerry Mulligan and Bill Holman were comparable achievements during the 1940-1960 period.”

Miles Ahead was followed by Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights although this last was not a success. Gil Evans said, “They should never have released Quiet Nights, it was just half an album”, a sentiment with which Miles Davis agreed.

Davis’s career saw him dominate the quintet form, experiment with jazz fusion, modal jazz, post-bop and jazz funk. He returned time and again to jazz orchestral work, defined here as working with a nonet or more musicians. Examples include Miles Davis in Concert – Live at the Philharmonic Hall 1973, up to his final concert with Quincy Jones and Gil Evans Orchestra shortly before his death in 1991.

Stan Kenton was another orchestra leader like Ellington and Basie who survived the Swing era and pivoted into the more experimental jazz themes that were the signature of the mid-century. This began during World War II when Kenton employed as soloists Stan Getz, Art Pepper, and Boots Musssuli, but it was in 1945 when Pete Rugolo joined the orchestra as arranger that adopting his love of classical influences led to the incipient ‘cool’ movement and the band moved forward artistically.

Rugolo wrote three original pieces that featured on Kenton’s first album in 1946, Artistry in Rhythm. They were Artistry in Percussion, Safranski and Artistry in Bolero. The Artistry in Rhythm ensemble gave Kenton both financial and popular success. The music included Afro-Cuban themes like Rugolo’s Machito and the band developed a brass dominant early ‘wall of sound’. However, its success was also its undoing. Too many long dance hall dates, pre- and inter-movie mini concerts, and relentless travel exhausted the players and drained the finances, so that Kenton disbanded the ensemble in early 1947.

But Kenton was undaunted, and after five months he formed a new and larger band to present Concerts in Progressive Jazz. Most of the new music was composed and arranged by Rugolo, but some of Kenton’s work such as Concerto to End All Concertos, Eager Beaver and Artistry in Rhythm was performed in concerts. The orchestra cut an album called A Presentation of Progressive Jazz which had mixed reviews. They were prevented from further recording by another ban by the AFM that lasted all through 1948.

It was a band of ‘all-stars’. The lengthy list included bassist Eddie Safranski, bongo drummer Jack Costanzo and drummer Shelly Manne. Artistry in Rhythm members such as Buddy Childers, Ray Wetzel and Chico Alvarez on trumpets returned but not Kai Winding who was replaced by Milt Bernhardt. The band criss-crossed the country to perform, including the first presentation at the Hollywood Bowl which drew a crowd of 15000. But it was also essentially an all-white band whose financial success contrasted with that of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. It was disbanded in December 1948.