Kind of Blue at 50

After talking about Christian McBride’s Kind of Brown a little while ago (which, by the way, was just as good as I thought it would be), I came across this on You Tube recently.  The footage of So What on this film was recorded for TV (“The Sound of Miles Davis”) about 4 weeks after Kind of Blue itself was recorded.  Neither Bill Evans nor Cannonball Adderley was there, but it still sends the old goosebumps up the spine.  It’s difficult to write about Kind of Blue without avoiding the whiff of cliche, especially in this anniversary year, but I’m going to see if I can through this post without using the word “seminal”.  Here goes.

So, yeah, Miles, man.  I was half-tempted to splash out the cash for the 50th anniversary package, which looks great, but in the end I decided kind of blueI didn’t need a blue vinyl version, nor did I need to have all the studio chatter.  It’s the notes what count, innit, and they haven’t changed over the past 50 years – as gorgeous and mysterious and perfect as they were when they first emerged.  An awful lot of guff has been written about the record – vast sprays of purple prose wittering on about atmospherics, and the like.  But in the end, it’s about the unremitting excellence of the solos played by the musicians.  After the insanely technical, chord-heavy structure of Coltrane’s Giant Steps earlier in the year, Miles went the other way and gave his band all the space they needed by employing simple harmonic or modal structures.  This allowed the musicians to focus on melody, and as a result some of the most gorgeous improvisations in jazz history were created.  It’s ironic that the record’s huge and enduring popularity has condemned it largely to being background music for dinner parties.  It deserves better than that.

But a word of caution amidst all the traditional hyperbole, if I may.  Yes, of course Kind of Blue is a fabulous record.  But is it really that important?  Despite what people will tell you, it didn’t change the world.  It didn’t even change jazz that much.  There are many jazz records that were more influential.  Modal jazz, as New York Times critic Ben Ratcliff points out in his Essential Jazz Library, was “a flavor, not a whole cuisine”.  People dabbled for a little, and then other ideas took hold, and took jazz away in other directions.

Anyway, don’t mind me.  Go and find your copy and have a listen for yourself.  Check out the video, and all the smoking (literal and figurative) that goes on.  Damn, he was cool.

PS:  If you want another perspective on the album, I might suggest Kind of Blue – The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn, which was illuminating in providing back story, critical context and insight into what went on over those two days in 1959.  It’s an excellent read.

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One Response to Kind of Blue at 50

  1. August 17, 2009 marks exactly fifty years from the day Columbia Records released the Miles Davis album, “Kind of Blue”. “So What?” one might ask. Well, there are many great albums from the Age of Vinyl, but “All Blues” are not the same. Some music has the horsepower to affect and alter it’s listeners, to move them mentally and emotionally, and to transform them.
    One afternoon on the sidelines of the soccer pitch, at least fifteen years ago, I was talking to the son of a friend of mine. Though this young fellow was in college at the time, I had known him since he was in grade school. Beside refereeing youth soccer games, he had been in a garage rock band since high school. “My Dad told me you listened to jazz a lot,” he says, “but I don’t know much about it. People say it’s pretty deep. What should I listen to so I can get into it?” “Get a copy of the CD “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis,” I told him. “It’s easy to find. They probably have it at Wal-Mart. Drink two glasses of wine and sit in the dark with headphones on, at one o’clock in the morning. Listen to Miles talk on trumpet, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, John Coltrane on tenor sax, and Bill Evans on piano. Do this three times. You will be turned on to the music.”
    I knew this because that’s how I got hooked on jazz. (Well…I didn’t have the wine.) The Columbia Record Club sent me a copy of the “Kind of Blue” album when I was thirteen years old. As I lay in bed listening to it in 1960, the music transported my mind from suburban New Jersey to a smokey jazz club in Greenwich Village, where I could hang out with Maynard G. Krebs, and talk to girls with blonde ponytails, wearing black turtleneck sweaters. From that point on, I began to construct an aura, a shell, of iconoclastic coolness, or so I imagined.
    Anyway, about six months after my conversation with this young guy, I ran into his father, Claude, who tells me a tale of woe about how their oldest son is driving both his wife and him nuts. (I knew this to be a very short ride.) “That crazy kid,” he told me, “changed his major at the University, from Business Administration to Music. He says he wants to become a jazz musician!” Shaking his head and rolling his eyes, Claude went on to ask, “Do they still have those?? I thought they were all dead by now!! Where does he get these crazy ideas???
    What could I say? I didn’t tell him. Two years later I heard Claude Jr. was playing bass on weekends in a piano trio, in a bar just off the expressway. It wasn’t me, or what I had said to him. It was Miles. Like the Pied Piper in the fairy tale, his recorded sound (particularly in his golden period from 1955 to 1965) kidnaps the listener’s ear. Looking back from a fifty year view, the “Kind of Blue” album remains a masterpiece of the twentieth century.

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