Guest post by Caleb J. Murphy of Soundfly's Flypaper
Sometimes an album comes along that changes things — for the artist, for the artist’s peers, and for generations of musicians and songwriters to come after it.
And when Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue hit the shelves exactly 60 years ago, on August 17, 1959, the music world began to change for good. Because this album’s influence spread like a groovy contagion, it has infected you and I, even if we don’t realize it. Listen along as you read on.
The Story Behind the Album
The story of Kind Of Blue is kind of amazing. For starters, the band recorded the entire suite of songs in just two sessions, on March 2 and April 22, 1959. Okay, so Davis and the studio musicians, including Bill Evans and John Coltrane, must have practiced this new material a ton before going into the studio, right?
Nope. There was almost zero rehearsal time. The musicians had pretty much no idea what they were going into the studio to play when they showed up.
Pianist Bill Evans mentions in the liner notes of the release that Davis gave the band only sketches of scales and melodies. He said that “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates.” And Davis, making sure he gave proper credit, said in 1989:
“I planned that album around the piano playing of Bill Evans.”
Here’s how it went down: Davis gathered seven of the now most influential jazz musicians ever, whose careers were all already pretty well-cemented at the time. They included tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Davis said a few introductory words about each song, and then immediately started the first recording session.
And that was the beginning of what many people call the “Best Jazz Album of All Time.” This story is an example of truly great composers and musicians doing their thing.
What Miles Davis Thought of Kind Of Blue
The music on this album falls into the category of “modal composition,” which relies on scales and modes instead of chords and hard keys — almost as if thinking about harmony as horizontal as opposed to vertical. Davis explained what that means exactly during a 1958 interview for The Jazz Review:
“When you go this way, you can go on forever… You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be.”
It sounds like this wasn’t too complicated for Davis to pull off. When you listen to the album, he and the musicians make it sound easy. There’s certainly an air of “cool” to this record that captures that comfort, despite being so innovative and fresh at the time.
In the following years, Davis started to use amplified instruments in his songs and welcomed rock music in as an influence on his compositional thinking. Evans, on the other hand, wasn’t too keen on the shift. For Evans, big business had corrupted Davis. “I would like to hear more of the consummate melodic master,” Evans said in the 1970s:
“But I feel that big business and his record company have had a corrupting influence on his material. It’s tempting for the musician to prejudice his own views when recording opportunities are so infrequent…”
And although Davis agreed that “comparing electric bass to acoustic bass is sacrilege,” he said what was truly blasphemous was being stuck in the same musical box your whole career. He pointed out the bygone-ness of the modal music he had made.
“‘So What’ or Kind Of Blue, they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened,” Davis said in 1986:
“It’s over… What I used to play with Bill Evans, all those different modes, and substitute chords, we had the energy then and we liked it. But I have no feel for it anymore. It’s more like warmed-over turkey.”
Dang, Davis. Don’t be so hard on yourself! Did he at least continue to enjoy playing those beautiful modal songs from Kind Of Blue?
“Nah, it hurts my lip,” he said in 1990.
The Impacts Kind Of Blue Had on Music of All Kinds
Kind Of Blue was a rock dropped into a lake, the ripples affecting many artists across different genres. In Ashley Kahn’s book Kind Of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, legendary jazz multi-instrumentalist and producer Quincy Jones praised the record. He drinks the album every day.
“[Kind Of Blue] will always be my music, man… I play Kind Of Blue every day; it’s my orange juice. It still sounds like it was made yesterday.”
In that same book, jazz pianist Chick Corea showed his amazement at what Davis had done on the album.
“It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music… But it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what Kind Of Bluedid.”
Okay, it’s clear this album made a huge splash in the jazz world. But what about the effect it had on other forms of music, like rock?
Well first of all, in the 1970s, Davis’ groups played shows opening up for all kinds of rock artists like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Steve Miller Band, and The Grateful Dead, so his music would have been well-known by musicians outside of jazz already. Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band gives Davis and Coltrane credit for inspiring some of his own guitar solos. Allman said to writer Robert Palmer that his solo on “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” is mostly thanks to that record:
“I’ve listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven’t hardly listened to anything else.”
Richard Wright, keyboardist for Pink Floyd, also said that the chord progressions on Kind Of Blue inspired the intro chords to their song “Breathe” (on The Dark Side Of The Moon).
The album also affected generations of hip-hop pioneers, from Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest to Questlove of The Roots. Rapper Q-Tip said of Kind Of Blue, “It’s like the Bible — you just have one in your house.” Producer J Dilla even sampled “Blue in Green” on his track, “Life.”
The album only has five tracks, but almost every one is the length of two current-day songs: “So What” (9:04), “Freddie Freeloader” (9:34), “All Blues” (11:33), and “Flamenco Sketches” (9:26). And each and every one of them remains a staple in most jazz musicians’ repertoires even today.
The Musical Impact
Jeffrey Magee, in his paper “Kinds of Blue: Miles Davis, Afro‐Modernism, and the Blues,” discusses how Davis’ early musical explorations (including but not limited to Kind Of Blue) helped to define the genre-agnostic phenomenon of “Afro-Modernism.” Magee posits that Davis’ use of the blues as a foundational, simple element helped him elevate and incorporate other musical forms such as non-western modal harmonic organization into a new territory of compositional thinking altogether.
“Afro‐Modernism manifests itself in efforts to blend or juxtapose the earthy and the urbane, the down‐home and the cosmopolitan, the simple and the sophisticated. The chief musical conduit of Afro‐Modernism — and its richest and most flexible medium — is the blues.”
Kind Of Blue, and “All Blues” specifically, sought to deemphasize harmony as the hierarchical leader in jazz thinking, in favor of melody, once again shifting the focus from vertical to horizontal forward motion. Magee goes on to describe this shift:
“In composing ‘All Blues,’ Davis uses a single pitch alteration — from B‐natural to B♭ — both to effect a subtle modal change and to signal the harmonic move from tonic to subdominant. While suggesting a merely modal shift from G mixolydian to G‐natural minor, the B♭ simultaneously invokes the subdominant chord (C) by emphasizing its blue flat‐seventh degree. The bass vamp, founded on G, continues to support this subdominant passage because the C scale shares all of its pitches (G, D, E, F) with the G mixolydian scale.”
(*If none of this makes sense to you, head over to Soundfly’s free course series, Theory for Producers, to get a thorough introduction to scales and modes such as the ones listed above.)
Miles Davis didn’t invent modal jazz. Some stories attribute Davis’ interest in the subject to his close friendship with another jazz musician and composer named George Russell, who throughout the 1950s was experimenting with alternate forms of “tonal gravity.” Russell’s main thinking around 1958-59 was that improvisers could play any note they found or desired as long as they simply understood where their tonic home was at any given moment and how to meander back to it. And that was mightily freeing.
Davis and Russell sat down and talked through it a lot, and to prepare for the Kind Of Blue sessions, Davis searched for a pianist who, as Fred Kaplan describes it, “knew how to accompany without playing chords… a radical notion.” He found that in Bill Evans (a classically trained pianist with a penchant for impressionistic composers like Ravel and Debussy).
And in an impressionistic way, Evans and Davis asked the soloists to play the sound of each scale, without following any predetermined set of chord changes or even the scale exactly. The combination of bebop, classical, gospel and spiritual backgrounds that informed how each musician in that recording session decided what to play in any given moment, ultimately fuelled the birth of a new form of band interaction whereby rather than conforming to the artistic identity of the bandleader (i.e., Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, etc.), the musicians were allowed the freedom to pursue their own influences and sound. It was a collective exploration of the unknown.
The Racial Impact
There’s no doubt that Kind Of Blue had an immense impact on not only the jazz world, but a growing economy of black musicians quickly developing themselves as stars — not to mention entire generations of black musicians to come who would grow up on Kind Of Blue as if it were a sort of Bible (like Q-Tip eloquently described). The album surely made Davis a star too. Remember, this was 1959, and Miles Davis was Miles Davis (confident, unwilling to compromise on his art, and unafraid to voice his opinions on things).
As a result of the fame of this record, Davis was both lauded by the black community, proud to see a black musician rising to the top of the national charts, and criticized for hiring a white musician in his band rather than giving the coveted pianist position to someone like McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons, Kenny Drew, or Hank Jones (there was certainly no lack of available and capable hard bop pianists kicking around the scene in the late ’50s).
Malcolm Jones explains how awkward this was for listeners as the time:
“There is a picture of Davis draping his arms over pianist Bill Evans while demonstrating something on the keyboard. Today the picture seems innocuous, but in 1959 it could have caused a riot in certain parts of this country: A black man almost hugging a white man, a black man instructing a white man, a black man who was the white man’s boss.”
America may not have been ready for jazz to become a centerpiece of its identity, musically or racially. In 1965, Duke Ellington was voted to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, but the decision was vetoed and rescinded by the Pulitzer Board. But Kind Of Blue’s racial coming together did end up providing a positive message, and the way the album has remained a classic, in both popular consciousness and on radio rotation for decades, has proven all of its haters wrong.
Although it would still be decades before anyone started to call jazz the truest American musical form, things eventually did change and Kind Of Blue‘s lasting legacy, its continual contemporaneity, helped supplant that. Jones again sums this up:
“The battle is over now. Public schools teach jazz appreciation. Every major musical conservatory has a jazz department. Lincoln Center devotes two concert halls and a nightclub to jazz. Some of the excitement and sense of discovery that characterized the music at midcentury has leaked away in subsequent decades, but jazz still attracts new players, composers, and audiences, and its influence is everywhere.”
The Impact on… Film?
If you’ve made it this far and are still craving more, congratulations. Slate compiled the best and worst moments that the music of Kind Of Blue appears on screen. Check it out here. Leaving out moments where it’s used as meaningless background music, Slate found that when the music is used with intention, it tends to represent a sort of transformation in the characters.
So, how has Kind Of Blue transformed you?
Caleb J. Murphy is a songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX., and the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog that helps part-time musicians succeed. He's been self-releasing music since 2009 in various bedrooms, basements, garages, and closets.