Shades of blue

Recorded in 1959, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue could very well be the most fascinating jazz album ever. Now, two new books attempt to explain its success

Reprinted from National Post
First published Wed Dec 13 2000
Page: B1 / FRONT
Section: Arts & Life
Byline: Paul Wells

It starts like a dream of autumn, bass and piano in brief and pensive duet. The bassist states a theme in medium tempo, answered by an insistent amen chorus, piano first, then piano and horns. After almost 90 seconds, Miles Davis begins his first solo on what would become his most fondly remembered album. But Kind of Blue’s unique spell is already woven before he even begins.

Everyone comes to Kind of Blue in his own time, for his own reasons. I was 15, the fourth- or fifth-best trumpeter of the four or five in my high school band. My twin motives were self-improvement and bargain hunting.

All the music books said students learning to improvise should check out Miles Davis on trumpet, Bill Evans on piano, John Coltrane on saxophone. A bit of searching turned up this one album with all three guys on it, plus some bonus extra guys. My allowance was $5 a week: Sheer economics made this the album to buy.

The first time I listened, I fell asleep. The second time, too. It was all medium tempos, low volume, sombre grown-up moods. But if you give it any chance at all it sticks to you, gets under your skin, haunts you in ways louder or more extravagant recordings never manage. Before I was 17, I had learned parts of Davis’s first two trumpet solos by ear. Like every musician, I struggled with the way Side 1 was recorded with the tapes running slow, so every note on that side of the LP was a quarter-tone sharp. (The only way to cope was to jam the tuning slide in all the way, then use a mute to sharpen the horn even more.) I learned to expect every scratch on my copy; when I heard tunes from Kind of Blue at someone else’s house or on TV, they seemed incomplete without the scratches.

I got carried away, in other words. I wasn’t alone. The album, recorded in two day-long sessions in 1959, has worked its quiet spell on millions of people since then. It has sold five million copies worldwide. It still sells 4,000 or 5,000 copies a year. It’s consistently the biggest-selling catalogue album at Tower Records’ Manhattan flagship store, routinely outselling the Beatles and Frank Sinatra.

Musicians worship it. It is hard to find a jazzman who doesn’t regularly perform at least one of Kind of Blue’s five tunes, whether it’s the smartass blues Freddie the Freeloader, the wistful ballad Blue in Green, or the hazy reverie All Blues. When Miles took his all-star collection of current and recent sidemen into a Manhattan recording studio, he had experimentation on his mind. New forms, odd structures. One tune was only 10 bars long, with the back end connecting to the front like a Mobius strip. Another piece had no set length at all. A third had only two chords.

Other albums have been as obsessed with formal experimentation — Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Max Roach’s Jazz in 3/4 Time, Davis’s own Miles Smiles — but none sold its innovations so convincingly, made them sound so right.

In short, Kind of Blue is a decent candidate for the most fascinating jazz album ever recorded. So it comes as only a small surprise that 41 years after its release, it is the subject of two new books, released almost simultaneously. Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn (Da Capo Press) and The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece by Eric Nisenson (St. Martin’s Press).

Clearly it will do no good to refer to these volumes by their near-identical titles. I’m tempted to refer to Kahn’s as “the pretty good book” and Nisenson’s as “the very bad book.” You might think nothing new or useful can be said about one recording after 41 years, and if you read Nisenson’s book, you’d be sure you were right. His title amounts nearly to consumer fraud: Only 25 of the book’s 221 pages describe the actual recording sessions that produced Kind of Blue, and Nisenson gets almost everything wrong, starting with the identity of the principal producer (Irving Townsend, not Teo Macero). Worse, he clearly hasn’t studied music theory. There is a kind of athleticism in the way he manages a whole book about the album’s innovations without being able to describe them.

We’re left with hyperventilating. Miles’s first solo is “a masterpiece,” the next is “at least as brilliantly constructed,” and on the fifth there is “not a single superfluous idea or note.” The empathy between two players “borders on the paranormal.” One tune offers “a glimpse of nirvana.” It is an exhausting slog through a fan-club newsletter. Its thesis is cartoonishly simple: that Kind of Blue represented a one-time break with the past, an innovator’s manifesto, a rebellion of freedom against structure, of Davis’s authentic African roots against “Western musical theory,” a term repeated that Nisenson never defines.

This is nuts. Two of the album’s tunes are 12-bar blues, little different from pieces Davis’s musicians had been playing all their lives. The innovations, especially “modal” structures whose harmonies changed more slowly than in conventional bebop, had already been essayed by dozens of other musicians. Jelly Roll Morton recorded Jungle Blues, a modal tune over a two-note bass vamp, when Miles was three years old. And Miles would hardly have brought the bespectacled, professorial pianist Bill Evans back into his band if he was preparing an assault on “Western values.” The band’s only white musician, its Debussy and Ravel specialist, Evans was as Western as they came. Kind of Blue’s victories are too subtle to caricature, which means they are too subtle for Nisenson.

In contrast, Kahn, a former music producer for the VH1 music channel, at least offers the virtues of solid reporting. He tracked down the original sessions’ only survivors, drummer Jimmy Cobb, a studio photographer, and the technician who ran the tape machines. He scoured studio logs and studio archives. He spoke to musicians and record-industry employees about the musical and sociological, major-label jazz in the late 1950s.

The result gets pretty geeky at times. A half-page photo proudly shows us “the tape box holding the master session reel.” It looks like a tape box. But Kahn provides a treasure trove of period detail, studio dialogue and modest appraisal.

Still, I think both books overstate both Kind of Blue’s novelty and its position either as a break from the past or a prelude. If you set out to prove that Kind of Blue changed jazz, you have to ignore a lot of contradictory evidence. Kahn and Nisenson both see Evans’s and Davis’s preference for simplicity and the lyrical line as great innovations, but that’s true only if you think nobody played jazz before the frenetic experiments of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the early 1940s. Simplicity had long been a virtue in jazz, from Lester Young to Ben Webster to just about every trumpeter before Gillespie, and by 1959 it was long past time to bring some back.

Similarly, it’s hard to see Kind of Blue as a modal breakthrough for two reasons. First, only two of its songs, So What and Flamenco Sketches, are modal jazz in the strict sense. Nor did it usher in a “modal era,” an abandonment of complex forms for incantatory simplicity, for anyone in the band except John Coltrane. Within a year, Miles’s new band was playing the same standards and show tunes he’d been playing in 1956.

I think it’s closer to the truth to say Kind of Blue’s musical success lay in the assortment of subtle ways it threw the musicians off balance. Structures were shorter or longer than usual, one piece was in waltz time, even the blues Freddie Freeloader ended on an odd chord. In this, Kind of Blue was less an innovation than a crystallization of the process Miles would follow for the rest of his life: get the best musicians, then surprise them out of their creative ruts.

His techniques would vary, but his goal, spontaneous expression free of cliche, never changed. In 1961, he stopped looking for a replacement for the volcanic Coltrane and hired tenor middleweight Hank Mobley, leaving the band without a wild, reckless voice until Davis himself filled that role by changing his own trumpet style. In 1970, he told poor, granola-natural Keith Jarrett he had to play electric piano if he wanted to stay in the band. He liked his players confused, their playing spiced with a hint of self-doubt. “Don’t play what you know,” he’d tell new recruits. “Play what you don’t know about what you know.”

That’s why he hated the anarchy of free jazz: If there are no rules, how can you ever get in trouble? And it’s why any attempt to discuss the statement he made was inherently pointless, because Davis preferred music that ended with a question mark, not a period.

That’s the sound of Kind of Blue, the sound of searching. It is not definitive, it’s interrogative. Hire the best musicians, then rattle them. Miles had tried that simple trick a hundred times before and he would do it a thousand times more. This time, he just got lucky. So did we.

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