Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece
These books on the making of Kind of Blue were published about a month apart, but they are similar in topic only: Compared to Ashley Kahn’s detailed, professional text, Eric Nisenson’s volume reads like a half-baked term paper.
Kahn is a working journalist and the primary contributor to the Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide and his book, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, brims with intelligent investigative reportage. Complete access to the Columbia vaults, which included master tapes with studio chatter and outtakes, rare documents and session photography, allowed Kahn to recreate the recording of and spirit behind Kind of Blue.
While those not familiar with the album—hard to image who—might find some of the unedited studio chatter to be even more terse and elliptical than a David Mamet play, those who know Kind of Blue like the alphabet will find these conversations compelling, like this one, after the second take of “Flamenco Sketches,” between co-producer Irving Townshend, Davis and bassist Paul Chambers, who apologizes for not paying attention to pianist Bill Evans:
MD: Start over again.
PC: I’m sorry.
PC: I forgot—I thought I could close my eyes.
MD: Here you go Paul…
Reproductions of the tape logs, Don Hunstein’s session photos and Bill Evans’ original handwritten draft of his famous liner notes illustrate the book, making it look like a long, well-crafted, liner-note booklet. Kahn also includes interviews with the two remaining people who were at the sessions, drummer Jimmy Cobb and photographer Hunstein, as well as with musicians and critics who testify to the album’s importance, like Herbie Hancock, Nat Hentoff and composer George Russell, whose Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization helped shape Davis’ ideas about modal jazz.
Kahn also traces the times in which Kind of Blue was made, both socially and musically, and comments on other important performers’ work from that era, including that of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. But where Kahn presents his sociological study with the honed skills of an experienced journalist, Nisenson delivers rehashed commentary under the guise of his own ideas.
The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece ranks with another book on Davis, Quincy Troupe’s meandering Miles and Me, as the most-in-need-of-an-editor jazz tome this year. Nisenson is a sloppy writer who repeats himself from chapter to chapter: How many times does he have to clarify who George Russell is and what his theory is about? How many times does he have to make clunky references to his other books?
He also contradicts himself—in the same section: Nisenson posits early in chapter one that “The world of jazz during its ‘golden age’—roughly from the early 1920s to the early 1970s—was somewhat isolated, alienated from American society at large;” a few pages later he writes that some thought bebop ruined swing, the “people’s music,” and lost the popular audience. So, it seems jazz was popular then in the ’20s and ’30s after all.
Nisenson also consistently litters and qualifies his sentences with “air quotes” and words and phrases like “obviously,” “undoubtedly,” “of course,” “as I have stated” and “in my opinion,” which makes his book read like one long manifest statement mixed with awkward moments of uncertainty.
Nisenson didn’t have the sort of vault access that Kahn had so he pads his book with regurgitated biographies of all the musicians involved with Kind of Blue in hopes of giving their album performances some context. But the book is one long, inflated, discursive section after another: Rather than focus mostly on pertinent facts about Kind of Blue, for example, Nisenson prints long interview passages with Russell, as well as questionable biographical minutia, that would be more appropriate in a book solely about the theorist.
While passionate about his subject, Nisenson lacks the journalistic skills to shine even more light on the already brilliant Kind of Blue; Kahn has both the enthusiasm and the expertise.