Thursday, February 5, 2009

'Kind of Blue' at 50

It’s one of those records that’s been around for so long, been so thoroughly a part of the furniture of our culture and our lives, it seems like it’s always been there, like the air we breathe or the sunrise we take for granted, a sound that captures everything, the full range of our emotions, without a word being spoken.

‘Kind of Blue,’ Miles Davis’ lapidary classic of jazz, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as something kind of immortal, one of those records that's managed the rare and difficult dance of being a part of its time and our time — whenever “our time” might be.

In its five tracks, some of the most accomplished talents of the jazz world set down music — spare but animated, lean but muscular — that’s a celebration of serendipity, of kismet, of the straight-up good luck that happens when everything just falls together.

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That seemed to happen a lot for music in 1959. Motown was launched early that year; less than six months later the year welcomed the Grammy Awards, the recording industry’s salute to the industry’s best (according to the industry). Charles Mingus’ signature record “Mingus Ah Um” was released, combining the mercurial bassist’s post-bop sensibilities, lush Ellingtonian band arrangements and a feel for the urban drive that animated the nation in another landmark recording.

But Miles was really feeling it that year. When Davis gathered with his sidemen at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio on March 2, 1959, he was riding high on the creative wave that had already led to “Miles Ahead,” its own classic, the year before; the same wave that would lead to “Sketches of Spain” at the end of a crowded ’59.

Miles could be irascible and confrontational, he did not suffer fools gladly, but he had long since developed a talent for detecting talent, for recognizing the best that was within the other musicians around him. That’s nowhere more evident than on “Kind of Blue.”

Miles was joined principally by bedrock bass player Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, the pianist Bill Evans, an old hand of sessions with Miles; and the battery of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax and the immortal John Coltrane on tenor sax. (Wynton Kelly, a former sideman with Dizzy Gillespie, performed on one track.)

He’d worked with most of these musicians before, but what resulted on “Kind of Blue” was an ironic combination of a freshness borne of familiarity, the happiest of accidents.

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Listen to the opening track, “So What,” the opening 10-note sequence as recognizable as anything in jazz. As the group coalesces around the melody, Davis pulls back on the throttle … and we’re cleared for takeoff, soaring on a beat and melody that thrives on economy rather than flash, an understated virtuosity.

It’s counter-intuitive to think of a full emotional palette being possible on as few as five songs, but “Kind of Blue” displays a range of emotions with a depth and richness of spirit that not many recordings have approached since. The humor of “Freddie Freeloader” (with Kelly on piano) gives way to the introspective “Blue in Green,” with Miles in fine form as a soloist, questioning and plaintive.

“All Blues,” an 11-minute classic within a classic, finds the group in a balanced, upbeat groove with Adderley and Coltrane playing some of their most inspired solos. And on “Flamenco Sketches,” the power, the majesty of this group becomes truly evident in a quietly confident sound whose components fit together like the parts of a fine Swiss watch.

Here the solo performances — those places in a song that can arouse the temptation for musicians to show off, with displays of dexterity as impenetrable as they are unnecessary — are moving in unanticipated ways. The solos follow logically, one following another; they’re marvels of economy, a musical tribute to the idea that “less is more.”

It all yields a musical document that — a rare thing — found favor with critics, other musicians and the public at large, a record that led Miles biographer Eric Nisenson to call “Kind of Blue” “one of the most important, as well as sublimely beautiful albums in the history of jazz.”

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All fine art outlives its creators. We hear this music from 50 winters ago; once the work of ordinary men, now it’s mostly the work of ghosts just above our heads. Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on every track of the album, is the leader of the So What Band, currently observing the record's golden anniversary. He’s the last surviving member of the sextet that changed jazz, and music, forever.

Coltrane left us in 1967. Chambers died in 1969; Kelly in 1971, Adderly passed in 1975, Evans exited in 1980, and Miles himself died in California in the fall of 1991.

In the intervening years we’ve been witness to rock music’s pre-eminence in the culture, the insurgency of rap and hip-hop, and any number of other musical styles that flash on the scene for a hot minute and then vanish.

But “Kind of Blue” endures, a modal, bluesy sequoia of jazz from a departed soul of music and his comrades in melody, an indelible gift to keep life thoughtful, rueful, soulful, joyful for those of us still on this side of the stars.
Image credit: Kind of Blue cover: © Columbia Records. So What notes: republished under GNU Free Documentation License v 1.2. 'Trane and Miles: Still image from taping on April 2, 1959, CBS Studios New York City, recorded by Robert Herridge.


  1. This is the album that taught me to love jazz.

  2. A historical juxtaposition that always floors me is to think that in "Kind of Blue", Miles created one of the masterpieces of mid-century modernism, and yet if he had walked into a Woolworth's, in Greensboro at any rate, he would not have been served a grilled cheese sandwich. Perhaps there are more meaningful ways to illustrate the the tensions of American apartheid, or earlier examples that stand out just as starkly. Certainly the Harlem Renaissance happening at the height of the lynching trend would be another example.

    But for some reason, the cool minimalism of Kind of Blue stands out so starkly in my mind against images of fire hoses and dogs turned upon civil rights protesters in the south. Miles' acoustic period at Columbia Records actually coincides pretty neatly with the King-era civil rights movement.

    I also think it's funny to contrast "Kind of Blue" or "Round Midnight" with, say, Elvis Presley. That's not really an apples-to-apples comparison, but it's still kind of humorous.

    America was a strange and beautiful place in the middle 20th century. The political and cultural repression were horrible, but the arts were so rich.


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