It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what Kind of Blue did.
There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
—-Pianist Bill Evans, from Kind of Blue’s original liner notes
There was arguably no more fervent time in jazz than the 1950’s. Big bands had been popular in the ’40’s and had evolved into a form that was intended less to be danced to, more to be listened to and savored. Musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk regularly played New York clubs such as Birdland and the Five Spot Cafe.
Music lovers bought jazz records and bands would routinely perform on TV shows. (In fact, click here if you want to see most of the Kind of Blue band in action. From a special called The Sound of Miles Davis.) In this cauldron of creativity, it was fairly easy for bandleaders such as Miles to pull together great musicians at his whim. Which, in 1959, led to the creation of Kind of Blue.
In my earlier series on Miles Davis, I briefly discussed modality in jazz music. Of that approach, Miles said, “No chords … gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line.
It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be,” he continued. “When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done—with variations.”
Kind of Blue was recorded in two sessions, a couple months apart at Columbia records vaunted 30th street studios in Manhattan, a former church with great acoustics. (Now, sadly, a high-rise.)
It was released in 1959 with a band consisting of Davis, pianist Bill Evans, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. (As of this writing, Cobb, at 87, is the only remaining member and is still quite active. “Private lessons available upon request,” his site advertises.)
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a one-take album. What you hear are the songs played with no splices but usually requiring two or three takes to get there. Pianist Wynton Kelly played on one tune – “Freddie Freeloader,” (a real guy they all knew) – but Miles said that he based a lot of the album around Evans’ playing which he loved.
Of one night at the Village Vanguard, Evans later said, “I looked up, opened my eyes while I was playing and Miles was at the end of the piano, listening.” Or Miles would call Evans on the phone and ask him to play the piano to him. I find that amazing, personally.
The album consisted of five tracks, together totaling approximately 45 minutes of music, or standard running time for a vinyl record. It is, I believe, accurate to say that this 3/4 hour comprises some of the most important minutes of music ever recorded, at least in the modern era.
Kind of Blue is outstanding in every way and bears up under repeated listening. Even if you’re not familiar with the disc as a whole, you’ve likely heard some of the tunes as background music in film, TV or lazily in the background at a coffee shop. The great thing about it is that it is one of those relatively rare jazz albums that both satisfies the ardent jazz fan as well as the casual listener.
Here’s the opening track, “So What,” which has become a standard. If Miles wasn’t “in love” with you on a given day, he’d say “Get out of my face. I don’t want to hear it.” Then he’d say, ‘Soooo what.” So that’s what the horns are saying in this number. The sequence of the horn solos is Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball, each one rich and taking off from the others.
“So What” puts me in a whole different mellow mood and reaches places that even the best rock ballad cannot touch:
Kind of Blue was not one of those albums that had a slow growth to recognition. From everything I’ve read about it, it was fairly quickly hailed as a great work of art and the epitome of a certain “cool” jazz sound. (To this generation of jazzers, being cool was second only to being a great player.)
But while to this day the album sounds incredibly accessible and easy to listen to, many jazz musicians had a hard time with it initially. Their ears were used to the complexity of bebop and they could not figure out what Miles and Evans were up to.
Allmusic: “Kind of Blue isn’t merely an artistic highlight for Miles Davis, it’s an album that towers above its peers, a record generally considered as the definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence. Why does Kind of Blue possess such a mystique?
Perhaps because this music never flaunts its genius…. It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz — tonality and solos build from the overall key, not chord changes, giving the music a subtly shifting quality…. It may be a stretch to say that if you don’t like Kind of Blue, you don’t like jazz — but it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a cornerstone of any jazz collection.”
I’ll pick one more song, “Blue in Green,” a song that Bill Evans was responsible for and for which he never really got full credit. What I love about Miles’ playing is the plaintiveness in his sound. Listen to how the horn comes in at :19 with an aching sound and feel. If this isn’t “sitting-at-the-bar-having-a-last-round” music, then I don’t know what is:
In addition to the general rapture over this album from the jazz-buying public, perhaps its best, most fervent adherents are musicians. The jazzers are names you’d expect: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, etc.
But rock musicians have been greatly affected by it too. Keyboardist Richard Wright of Pink Floyd acknowledge its influence on him on the opening of “Breathe” from Dark Side of the Moon. Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (no surprise) is an adherent.
And on one of the re-releases, the liner notes acknowledge Duane Allman’s near-obsession with the album. “I’ve listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven’t hardly listened to anything else.” Lars Ulrich, Metallica (!) drummer name checks it in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.
It even impacted funk. James Brown’s saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis said, “I was very much influenced by Miles, had been listening to “So What,” and based the horn line of “Cold Sweat” on that song.
A brief summary of the accolades for this groundbreaking album include: best-selling jazz album of all time; addition to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry; Number 12 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. One reviewer called it “a “defining moment of twentieth century music.”
On December 16, 2009, the United States House of Representatives – not exactly known for their artistic leanings – passed a resolution “reaffirming jazz as a national treasure” and honoring the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue. It is included in the 2005 book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
To this day, Kind of Blue sells 5 – 7000 copies a week. Not bad for an almost 60-year-old jazz album.
Sources: Wikipedia; Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. Ashley Kahn. Da Capo Press.