Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue: Blues Clues
Miles Davis had little use for jazz recordings, least of all his own. At home he might have a Rachmaninoff concerto on his stereo or a score of Tosca on his piano, as bandmates and intimates have reported. Davis’ dismissive take on Kind of Blue allowed him to concentrate fully on the next gig, the next studio session, and the next career turn. But like other works of art, Kind of Blue proved to have a destiny independent of its creator. In terms of its modal impact on the jazz world, of the popularity of its sound and compositions with other musicians, and of the apparently unstoppable trajectory of its success with music consumers, the album casts a long and wide shadow.
The ovation now so universally bestowed on Kind of Blue can give the impression that the album was the fuse to a stylistic tinderbox that exploded into the musical community, causing schisms of devotion and derision, creating diehard converts who carried the torch of modal expression bravely into the future. Yet the album arrived far more quietly than its reputation today would suggest—it worked its magic on the music through evolution, not revolution.
Apart from a few glowing reviews, the style and sound of Kind of Blue certainly did not generate much critical discussion immediately after its release. In the musical community, “as far as I’m concerned,” states Orrin Keepnews, “there was no Road to Damascus scene…. Nobody just woke up one day and said, ‘Wow, Miles and Bill have just revolutionized the world.’” Dick Katz recalls: “I remember musicians were talking about ‘they’re just playing on two chords,’ but it didn’t come across as some kind of sea change—that change in improvisation seeped in gradually.” An article on modal jazz in early 1960 in Jazz Review was one of the few that even tackled the subject, employing the term “tonal” to describe the new scalar focus in the jazz community: “Attention has settled around the tonal problem and those players who are working something out along this line (Coltrane, Bill Evans, [Art] Farmer, Miles and Cannonball [Adderley], to name a few) especially engage our interest at the moment.”
Why this was so is easier to understand when one considers the album’s historical context. The same year Kind of Blue was released, John Coltrane came into his own and, with one foot already out of Miles Davis’ group, developed the charged, unbridled sound that would define the rest of his career. And Ornette Coleman arrived in New York. These three artists—Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman—are generally viewed as having been the instigators of a decade of turbulent change in jazz. They were the Mount Rushmore of jazz’s new modern wave.
With music raw and stormy, Coltrane and Coleman drew—and still draw—most attention and credit for jolting the music forward. But Martin Williams, writing 10 years after the dust of 1959 had settled, held that it was Miles who sounded the first bell before the impending gale. “Kind of Blue was one of the most provocative events in jazz since the mid-’40s. I have spoken of the surface simplicity of the jazz of the late ’50s, of a cutting back, opening up and airing out of the density of modern jazz…when such retrenchments of style take place (an earlier example would be the Count Basie of the late ’30s), major changes are probably at hand.”
Quincy Jones speaks of how the Davis sextet was “pulling an incredible history with them.” Kind of Blue can be heard as a recapitulation of almost every step of the jazz tradition that preceded it. (Though never one to review his own timeline, Davis was acutely aware of the common history behind him: “I don’t like to hear someone put down Dixieland,” he told Down Beat in 1950. “Those people who say there’s no music but bop are just stupid.”) The album subtly references elements of modal jazz (especially in “Flamenco Sketches”); Third Stream (in the impressionistic opening to “So What”); cool (in Miles’ solos); bebop (particularly in Cannonball’s solos); swing (in the unison horn lines and gentle rhythmic drive of “All Blues,” a number that not surprisingly is often arranged for big bands); and the two springs at the fountainhead of jazz, blues (“Freddie Freeloader”) and ballads (“Blue in Green”).
It’s the perfect jazz hub. If one simply follows the career paths of Miles’ sidemen, as Ben Sidran suggests, an entire musical history opens. “If you like Kind of Blue, turn it over, look who plays on it. If you particularly like the piano, go buy a Bill Evans record [or] buy a Wynton Kelly record. If you like the alto playing, buy a Cannonball Adderley record. That one record—it’s not even six degrees of separation—is maybe two degrees of separation from every great jazz record.”
Gary Burton notes the integrity of the music throughout. “It wasn’t just one tune that was a breakthrough, it was the whole record. When new jazz styles come along, the first few attempts to do it are usually kind of shaky. Early Charlie Parker records were like this. But with Kind of Blue, [the sextet] all sound like they’re fully into it.”
The speed with which cover versions of the material on Kind of Blue spread attests to the album’s immediate influence on the music (if not the critical) scene. Within a year of its release, jazz bands began shuffling versions of “So What” and “All Blues” into their songbooks. Younger players, especially, began to favor the music, as Burton remembers: “By the time I came to Berklee [School of Music in 1960] the students were already playing the tunes off the record. And for local jazz players…these modal tunes were the latest hip thing to add to your repertoire. The older players were not so comfortable with them, because you didn’t have a big progression of chord changes to hang on to, to guide your solo, and it was up to you to work with that scale.
Herbie Hancock echoes Burton’s view, seeing Kind of Blue’s importance to his generation as a portal from one era to another. “It presented a doorway for the musicians of my generation, the first doorway that we were exposed to in our lifetimes. See, I was born in 1940, so I wasn’t old enough to be around for the transition between swing and what we call the beginnings of modern jazz. Bebop was already on the scene by the time I ever paid any attention to it. When Kind of Blue came out, I had never even conceived…another approach to playing jazz.”
The sound of Kind of Blue coming off jazz bandstands became commonplace soon after its release. “Once the record came out everybody wanted to imitate [“So What”], you know. They wanted to play D minor, D minor, D minor, then all of a sudden go up to E flat…. I’ve been bugged by it since,” laughs Teo Macero.
With club bands, jukeboxes, and FM radio disseminating Kind of Blue from coast to coast, it wasn’t long before the blues-based music broke out of jazz circles and was picked up by R&B and even rock and roll groups. Keyboardist Donald Fagen recalls: “I had mentioned a Coltrane album to another piano player at school, and he said, ‘Heard it? That’s the Bible, man.’ That’s the way people also felt about Kind of Blue. It essentially became the Bible about six months after it came out.” Fagen adds: “I was really an amateur player in high school [in 1963] and at the level I was starting at, I couldn’t play the repertoire of standards, they were too hard to play or improvise at fast tempos. I could play ‘So What,’ though, and ‘All Blues.’ It was a great learning thing for players that were not coming out of maybe from a formal point of view, from a formal background. If you met other musicians that’s what they’d play to see how good you were, because everyone knew the tunes.
Joe Zawinul, who founded Weather Report, perhaps the leading light in the parade of fusion bands descending directly from Miles’ tutelage, was one of many who carried a modal approach well into the ’70s. He recalls a lesson he imparted to Weather Report’s (then) new bassist. “Let me tell you something man—when Jaco [Pastorius] first came into the band, after about a week or so, he said, ‘You know, Joe, this one chord stuff is great, I love it, but I run out of licks.’ I told him, ‘Jaco, all you have to do is NOT play licks then you cannot run out of them.’ He became very good at playing on one chord, an excellent player on this kind of modal thing. It started opening things in his head and he had much more room to go.”
Four decades on, the sound of Kind of Blue is woven so tightly into musical tapestry of the culture that it is difficult to distinguish its traces. It has infiltrated the sound of so many different genres beyond jazz that Herbie Hancock sighs, “Name me some music where you don’t hear echoes of it. I hear it everywhere—it becomes hard to separate the modality that exists in rock ’n’ roll, some of it could be directly from Kind of Blue.” Critic Robert Palmer, who wrote the liner notes to the 1997 CD of Kind of Blue, discovered that very link backstage at the Fillmore East in 1969. “Duane Allman [was] the only ‘rock’ guitarist I had heard up to that point who could solo on a one-chord vamp for as long as half an hour or more, and not only avoid boring you but keep you absolutely riveted…. ‘You know,’ he told me, ‘that kind of playing comes from Miles and Coltrane, and particularly Kind of Blue. I’ve listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven’t hardly listened to anything else.’”
To Donald Fagen, whenever a cool, loping, Mancini-like theme plays in a movie theater or on TV, Kind of Blue is implied. “In the early ’60s, there was a certain kind of music you’d hear on television and in films, where guys would just play over the same chord for a long time, creating atmosphere. After Kind of Blue came out, I think that sort of legitimized that kind of writing even further so that you have to this day a lot of extremely static film music: repeated ostinatos and the spooky-sounding, ‘Pink Panther’ kind of stuff that evolved from the same group of arrangers and players who came up with that cool, modal sound.”
For some, like Ben Sidran, certain contemporary groove-and-texture music conjures the album. “One of the things that’s been so prevalent the last 10 or 15 years, is trance, the concept of trance, and this hypnotic thing. If you look at this movement in Britain, the drum ’n’ bass stuff, or the trance music [coming] out of Europe. I think that it’s not a stretch to say that a lot of that goes back to what Kind of Blue did: the enforced elan, hovering, staying on the vamp.”
Even in terms of direct covers, Kind of Blue continues to cast a long shadow. McCoy Tyner, of “So What,” says: “I’m trying to think of when I haven’t heard it being performed live!” and he laughs.
“So What” was the very specific inspiration for the anthem of yet another musical style: funk. The tale began in 1959 in Rochester, New York. A high school tenor saxophonist named Alfred Ellis “was hanging out with the local musicians and I heard that album [Kind of Blue] at a friend’s house—it made an impression on me…very moving, kind of haunting almost. Miles was so melodic. And his use of space—it had a gentle drive.”
Eight years to the month after the release of Kind of Blue, Pee Wee Ellis hooked up with the godfather of soul, James Brown, becoming his primary musical collaborator. Their first studio effort together yielded “Cold Sweat,” one of the seminal—and not coincidentally, minimal—themes of funk. As Ellis tells it, the subconscious inspiration for the song’s signature horn riff came from what he heard in ’59. “The night before this one session, James calls me into his dressing room after the show and hummed me this bass line. So overnight, [driving] down to Cincinnati, we put together this horn line on the bus…it was a one-chord thing and [that two-note riff] fit perfectly with the melody of ‘So What.’ In the back of my mind it made sense to fit it there…Dee-Dum…Dee-Dum. Later it occurred to me that’s what it was…”So What,” just kind of inverted.”
In 1989, speaking at the Studio Museum of Harlem, Miles himself publicly acknowledged the connection and—characteristically—either innocently or intentionally confused who influenced whom. “I love James Brown—you know that number I wrote called ‘So What’? I think I got it from him or he got it from me: DAH-Dunh-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-DAH-Dunh.” In any case, given Davis’ use of Brown’s distinctive funk rhythms in the late ’60s and ’70s, it’s clear that the inspiration flowed both ways. As trumpeter Wallace Roney recalls from a conversation with Davis in the year he passed away, there was one more chapter to the tale. Miles recycled a James Brown rhythmic figure that his drummer inverted: “[Miles] re-borrowed that ‘So What’ thing. He told me that on [his 1968 album] Filles De Kilimanjaro, he wanted [drummer] Tony [Williams] to play a ‘Cold Sweat’ beat on ‘Frelon Brun.’ Miles said [imitates Miles’ whisper]: ‘That motherfucker, he played ‘Cold Sweat’ upside down!’ Man, he was so proud. He thought that was the hippest thing in the world. I mean 1991, and he was still floored by that.”
For all the modally influenced music that jazz and popular musicians would ultimately produce, no player was more transformed by the modal experience of Kind of Blue, and none would prove more influential with what he did with that experience, than John Coltrane. As biographer Lewis Porter noted: “[Coltrane’s] ‘So What’ solo indicates the direction that Coltrane’s music was to take during the 1960s, more so than ‘Giant Steps.’ He became more and more concerned with structural aspects of improvisation; as he did so, he concentrated more exclusively on modal backgrounds, which gave him the time he needed to develop his ideas at length.”
By 1961, by reducing chord changes to a minimum on such recordings as “My Favorite Things,” the tenor man applied the idea of scalar improvisation to trance-like, hit-making effect. In 1962, Coltrane explained to the French magazine Jazz Hot how he adapted the waltz-like song from The Sound of Music to a more modal form: “This piece is built, during several measures, on two chords, but we have prolonged the two chords for the whole piece.” (“Only he could do that and make it work,” commented Miles in 1988, referring to the tune’s modal section.) By simplifying the chord pattern of songs into a set of modes, Coltrane was refashioning chordal songs for his own modal purposes.
The modal model of improvisation provided the launch pad for Coltrane’s ever-more experimental forays over the next few years. As Cannonball explained it, his former bandmate was now following a guideline of his own. “What John began to do really escaped from the modal thing. He got into other types of exploration, free sounds [that] were perfectly disciplined associations for him.” One open-ended structure led to another. With modality as his foundation, Coltrane pushed the boundaries of group jazz with increasingly experimental albums that flowed into the new musical area then known as “free”: Impressions (particularly on the modal title track), A Love Supreme (employing a scale of Coltrane’s own design), and Ascension (on which Coltrane directed a large ensemble through a four-scale form).
After the wild ride Bird and Diz had taken jazz on in the mid-’40s, pushing the envelope of harmonic and rhythmic invention as far as it would go at that point, Miles and other cohorts had pulled jazz back to a cooler, blues-spirited extreme with Kind of Blue. That pendulum swing, from the apogee of bebop to the high-water mark of modal jazz, constitutes a period of unparalleled creativity in jazz. From that perspective, many see Kind of Blue as more of a goodbye to an age that had passed than a vision of the future.
“That album was really the end of the bebop era, you know?” remarks Quincy Jones. “Kind of Blue was the voice of that era—from ’48 to ’59—it was the highest culmination of the standards of the time.” Amram adds: “I’ve always felt that Kind of Blue was Miles’ valentine to Charlie Parker …a farewell, a moving on from that whole experience.”
Of the original sextet, only Bill Evans and Miles ever continued performing or rerecorded any of the songs on Kind of Blue. Conceivably as a means of reinforcing his claim on the tune, Evans recorded a version of “Blue in Green”—slightly more strident than the original—with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian in December of 1959 for his album Portrait in Jazz. Orrin Keepnews, the session producer, recalls: “When Bill recorded it himself subsequent to the release of Kind Of Blue, it was his absolute and quite uncharacteristic insistence [that] I list him as co-composer on his initial recording of it. Bill said Miles took sole credit for the song: ‘Miles put it in his publishing company and there’s nothing I can do about that.’ Bill felt the only recourse he had was to insist, and Bill seldom insisted I do anything, but he said I had to list him [as composer].”
To this day, “Blue in Green” is credited intermittently to “Davis-Evans” on various albums by the pianist. The composition became part of Evans’s repertoire for the rest of his career. In 1974, he recorded it again along with “So What” (with an impressionistic prelude different from the original recording) live at an outdoor concert in Canada for the album that bears its name: Blue in Green.
Davis, for his part, revisited “So What” and “All Blues” on multiple live albums for Columbia as his sound and style evolved through the ’60s. A live 1969 bootleg recording of “So What,” taken from his last show with Tony Williams in the drum seat (Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Chick Corea on electric piano, and Dave Holland on bass), is rumored to be the final time the trumpeter ever approached any material from Kind of Blue. While Miles was contributing his trumpet playing to a Shirley Horn album in 1990, she asked him, “Why don’t you come on back and play some of that old stuff?” Horn still remembers the excuse Davis offered: “Nah, it hurts my lip.”
Originally published in September 2000