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Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue' at 50

The album, recorded with virtually no rehearsal and consisting of primarily first takes, altered jazz forever.

May 10, 2009|Scott Timberg

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."


Music revolution

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.

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