From out of the ‘Blue’
It was both a radical stylistic experiment and an album parents could put on after dinner without waking the kids. It’s a manifesto, a meeting of musical minds, and it’s moved millions of copies to remain the bestselling jazz record of all time. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” released in August 1959, featured what might be the finest group in jazz history; it virtually founded a new musical style -- called modalism -- but it also marked the beginning of the end of the genre’s mass popularity.
“It’s one of the most inviting portals into the world of jazz,” said Ashley Kahn, author of “Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.” “People think of jazz the way they think of French wine, like you need a degree to approach it. But you can play this as social wallpaper in Middle America during a cocktail party. If you turn the volume up, it’s high art.”
The original “Kind of Blue” consists of only five tunes, but they’re filled with solos and details memorized by musicians and fans. The songs don’t look like much on paper; they aren’t thick with notation like much midcentury jazz. “So What” opens the album with a tolling piano and throbbing bass line; “Freddie Freeloader,” a blues, follows, and is the closest thing to an up-tempo number the album offers. “Blue in Green” is almost achingly slow and delicate, with some of Davis’ best muted trumpet. The hypnotic “All Blues,” in 6/8 time and with brushed drums, sounds like it could last forever, and the melancholy closer, “Flamenco Sketches,” seems like a song played for a setting sun.
The music is somehow, at once, romantic, austere, meditative, introverted and soulful. It’s like an essay on the virtue of simplicity.
In anticipation of the album reaching the half-century mark, Sony/Legacy last fall released a 50th-anniversary collector’s edition of “Kind of Blue,” which includes photographs, a book of essays and a DVD documentary. In that doc, musicians from pianist Herbie Hancock and vocalist Shirley Horn to neo-soul singer Meshell Ndegeocello and hip-hop star Q-Tip discuss the enduring power of Davis’ creative landmark, which was recorded with virtually no rehearsal and almost entirely from first takes.
Davis, who died at age 65 in 1991 and would have celebrated his birthday May 25, made other important albums, including “Sketches of Spain,” which gets a two-CD 50th-anniversary treatment this month, but none with the broad appeal of “Kind of Blue.”
The sound of Davis’ trumpet has been said to resemble a man walking on eggshells, and the year “Kind of Blue” was recorded was appropriately tentative and unsure. Just four years earlier, Charlie Parker, the great exemplar of bebop, had died, and there was a sense that the style had lost its ability to startle. Several schools and major figures -- hard-bopper Horace Silver, polymath bandleader Charles Mingus, free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman -- were surging. Davis already had proven himself an innovative figure, but others, such as tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who had been part of Davis’ band, were at a confused stage.
“There was a lot of movement toward something,” said critic Gary Giddins, “but nobody quite knew what it was. A lot of people thought that Coltrane’s career was going to self-immolate with drugs or something.”
American culture was in a similarly precarious state: Amid chilling turns of events like nuclear testing, the exciting work of the Beat Generation was emerging, as was Robert Lowell’s confessional poetry, Lenny Bruce’s comedy and coast-to-coast jet travel. The term “Space Age” was used to advertise stereo equipment, and the Soviets had just launched a new satellite.
“In 1959 there was a widespread consciousness that we were on the verge of something,” says Fred Kaplan, a Slate columnist whose book “1959: The Year Everything Changed” is due out in June. “All kinds of things were breaking free of their gravitational pull.”
“Kind of Blue” shows musicians escaping the pull of the past. Instead of improvising based on chords -- the combinations of notes that have shaped jazz since bebop -- Davis, Coltrane, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers and pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly -- were playing modes. Their improvisation was based on scales that simultaneously restricted and opened up their possibilities.
Some musicians had theorized in this direction, but few had caught fire the way Davis’ players did.
Davis and Evans, who was instrumental to the project, wanted to summon influences including Southern gospel, the African finger piano and the translucent harmonies of Ravel, but this new vision was made more complicated because Davis did not show the players the music until they began to play.
Evans wrote liner notes that described a method of Japanese painting “in such a way that any unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment.” Despite the fragility of the method, the result was somehow indelible, and sounded like guys who’d been playing songs like “So What” and “All Blues” for all their lives.
“Kind of Blue” was released Aug. 17, at first in a botched edition with names misspelled, song titles switched and a flawed recording speed. (The speed was not corrected until the 1990s.)
“Initially, it was just a great record, maybe the best record Miles Davis had ever made,” Giddins says. “But what made it a benchmark wasn’t the response of critics and musicians Miles’ age but younger musicians. The idea that it’s the bestselling record of all time, the record where if you don’t know much about jazz it’s the one to start with -- that all came much later.”
Hancock, a disciple of Evans’ who later joined Davis’ group, was struck right away, he said in the documentary: “The music from that record was on everybody’s lips, it was under everyone’s fingers,” he said. “Everybody was trying to play those tunes.”
Davis deals only briefly with the sessions in “Miles,” his 1989 autobiography; he was always moving ahead too relentlessly to look back. He claimed to be disappointed with some of the album but was proud of the forced spontaneity, insisting that his players could “deal with the situation and play above what is there and above where they think they can.”
Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out,” with its hit song “Take Five,” was the bestselling record of 1959, and other records from the period outsold Davis’. Coltrane recorded his volcanic “Giant Steps,” and Mingus put out four records that year, including the landmark “Mingus Ah Um.” But none had the staying power of “Blue.”
“The real question is not what it meant for 1959,” Giddins said, “but why these other records, while they’re still classics, nobody is writing books about them.”
The rise of rock
Things changed quite suddenly for almost all the musicians who’d recorded “Kind of Blue” -- and for jazz itself.
Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley left to form a popular bop quintet. Evans and Coltrane left to form successful groups that pursued the album’s horizons. Davis, by contrast, seemed to move sideways.
One evening while performing at New York’s Birdland club, after walking a friend to her cab, the trumpeter was clubbed by a policeman and taken to the hospital; the incident made international headlines and sparked a lawsuit. Davis went through several years when he couldn’t hold a band together and seemed to retreat from the innovations he’d unleashed.
Some argue that “Blue” was a Pandora’s box that released an aloofness that would eventually doom jazz to a niche audience. To Giddins, the Beatles and Bob Dylan were the culprits. Rock music grew in sophistication, record companies finally marketed it to adults, and it cut into the jazz audience: “College kids who 10 years earlier were buying ‘Brubeck at Oberlin’ were looking forward to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’ ” And the free-jazz avant-garde embodied by Coleman, whose “The Shape of Jazz to Come” was also released in 1959, scared away listeners.
Still, the modal harmonies of “Kind of Blue” would make their mark on the classical minimalism of Terry Riley and John Adams and the jazz-rock “fusion” of the ‘70s. The album also directly influenced jam bands, including the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. The “Blue” aesthetic could lead to endless and facile “personal expression.”
In the wrong hands, Kaplan suggests, modal improvisation can be dangerous. “You take ‘Kind of Blue’ another two steps,” he said, “and it becomes New Age. If you don’t have a lot to say you can get lost -- to the point where the mood overtakes the substance.”
Kahn, who has listened to the album hundreds of times, compares “Kind of Blue” to reading James Joyce.
“Every time you go to it,” he said, “you come back with something new -- a new favorite track, a new solo in that track. If that’s not a definition of a masterpiece, I don’t know what is.”