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David and Art - “West Coast Jazz”

Influences on jazz didn’t come just from New York and New Orleans.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve come to know an innovative gallery owner from the 1950s named Walter Hopps. Paintings and sculpture weren’t his only interests, however. Initially, he was interested in jazz which was itself a very cutting-edge art form in the early ’50s. In 1952 in LA, Hopps, a friend from Stanford named Jim Newman, and a painter named Craig Kaufmann created something called the Concert Hall Workshop, primarily to present jazz performances by new players.

All the younger painters liked jazz, said Kauffman. We would make tons of trips to San Francisco and look at art and listen to music. There was a relationship between art and music that doesn’t exist anymore said Jim Newman with whom Hopps would also found Syndell Studio.

To understand what’s called “West Coast” jazz you first need to know that from decade to decade, there was a succession of movements within jazz itself, each distinctive and each reacting largely against movements that were regnant before. This is one element that fixes jazz squarely in the tradition of artistic modernism. “West Coast” jazz (which is also sometimes called “cool jazz”) emerged as a reaction against a style called be-bop, which was marked by speedy playing, improvisation, intricate solos, and virtuosity. West Coast jazz was smoother, cooler, calmer, more melodic, less based on huge heroic solos. It also wasn’t based on blues chord progressions. “Largely dismissed at the time by critics in New York, the musicians, arrangers, composers, producers and labels associated with West Coast Jazz have profoundly influenced the music we listen to today,” critic Geoff Roach wrote in 2005.

Two record labels founded in Los Angeles in 1951 and 1952 called Pacific Jazz and Contemporary were the leaders in recording west coast jazz players. Some of those players included a sax player named Stan Getz and a trumpet player named Chet Baker. Most famous perhaps was an alto player named Paul Desmond and pianist Dave Brubeck who in 1951 formed a quartet that played what may have been the pinnacle of West Coast jazz.

One of the outlets that helped popularize West Coast jazz was a television show called Peter Gunn, that followed the adventures of a smooth detective and ran from 1958-1961. Peter Gunn, the detective at the center of the show, “likes Ivy League clothes, sophisticated women and cool modern jazz,” a write-up in Life Magazine in May 1959 explained to readers. “The jazz music played as background on the Gunn show has become famous in its own right. Put on an RCA-Victor record, it is now the top selling LP in the country. And sometimes some of the show’s fans ignore the TV picture and just listen to the music."

Indeed, this kind of Cool jazz was purposefully the center of the show. And in 1959, the soundtrack album from the show won a Grammy for Album of the Year. It’s composer, who came to sort of embody West Coast jazz, was someone you may in fact know quite well—a musician named Henry Mancini.