Jazz Corner: Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ Turns 60
You don’t have to go too far to find the ingredients that have led to the success for the American trumpeter’s magnum opus
The granddaddy of all jazz albums, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis has a birthday. It is 60 years old, having been released in 1959 by Columbia Records. With the exception of Dave Brubeck’s album Time Out, also from the late 1950s, no jazz recording has created more excitement at release than Kind of Blue. These have been instant successes and still create a buzz with new and old listeners alike.
You don’t have to go too far to find the ingredients that have led to this success for Davis’ magnum opus. One, it had not just fabulous individual performers in the lineup, it was also the way in which they combined in the five tunes recorded in this album.
Davis had this uncanny gift of picking the ideal musicians for his various bands in his long career as a bandleader. Just listing his pianists, horn players and rhythm sections that played under his leadership will represent a who’s who of jazz luminaries. His group in Kind of Blue was an inspired collection of unique soloists.
To start with, John Coltrane, who can now be regarded as one of the top two or three saxophone players in jazz. However, in 1959, Coltrane was still a work in progress. His entry into the Miles Davis band is quite interesting. For his earlier group, Davis was searching for a saxophonist to join his band. The names of Sonny Rollins and Gary Gilmore were suggested to him. Rollins was unavailable for some reason and Davis was still looking for some elusive trait from his horn player. It was the drummer Philly Joe Jones who said that a man called John Coltrane might work out. Fortunately for the jazz world, Coltrane did work out! They recorded four delightful albums together for Prestige Records, Workin’, Steamin’, Rexalin’ and Cookin’ and the sound of the two horns blended beautifully together. It went up another notch in Kind of Blue.
The induction of Julian ‘Cannonball‘ Adderley was truly inspired. Cannonball had never played in Davis’ band before or since but his alto saxophone sound was a perfect blend. He was a natural in this group.
Two pianists were used, Bill Evans for four of the five tracks and Wynton Kelly for “Freddy Freeloader.” I’m not sure why that was the case but Kelly sounds just right for “Freddy” and the genius of Evans shone right through the rest of the album. Evans needs a special mention here. On the back of the original release of this album cover – it was naturally vinyl, the liner notes are written by Evans, called “The art of improvisation.“ He writes about a Japanese art form of painting, done on delicate parchment where the artist can only paint a continuous line or ruin the parchment; the spontaneous, continuous strokes are meant to create a picture which makes sense and he compares jazz improvisation with this art form! Very interesting parallel – jazz improvisation is on the spot performance and based on the skills of the performer and the way he feels at that moment! It is like the Japanese art form, a make or break moment of creativity.
The second ingredient that went into making Kind of Blue an evergreen piece of jazz is in the approach of Davis himself. He had begun his journey playing modal jazz – where improvising is based on modes or musical scales as opposed to working on chord changes, which is the norm in jazz. Kind of Blue is played in this modal style.
The five pieces chosen by Davis for the album all give the individual soloists just this space and opportunity to show off their supreme skills. This is where the varying styles and musical approaches of Davis, Coltrane and Cannonball come together to create some magic, as indeed do the solos of the two pianists. Most solos in this album could be a standalone composition. Kind of Blue can’t help being a superstar!
Paul Chambers plays bass on this album and Jimmy Cobb is the drummer. Interestingly, Cobb, now in his nineties is in robust health and still playing drums at the top level. I heard him in 2017 at the San Jose Jazz Festival playing in a band called Jazz by Five. They played music from Kind of Blue!
As a footnote, let me add that the U.K. rock band, The Rolling Stones are still playing, live in concert at this time. Kind of Blue was released just four years before the Stones formed their band! And this band is still traveling and playing house full shows. Long live the Stones. Long live Kind of Blue!