Fifty years ago,Miles Davis recorded ‘Kind of Blue’. If you own one jazz album,this is probably the one

Published: February 8, 2009 10:49 am

Fifty years ago,Miles Davis recorded ‘Kind of Blue’. If you own one jazz album,this is probably the one
On March 2,1959,the 32-year-old trumpet player and bandleader Miles Davis took six sidemen into a New York City studio,where they recorded three songs. On April 22,the same cohort,minus one of the two piano players who worked on the first date,returned to the same studio and recorded two more songs. Four months later,the five selections were released on the album ‘Kind of Blue’. The record became an immediate success. Two songs on the album,So What and All Blues,quickly became staples in the jazz repertoire. So What even became a favourite of college and high-school marching bands. Today,50 years after it was released,‘Kind of Blue’ remains the bestselling jazz album of all time. More than 4 million copies have been sold,and the album still sells an average of 5,000 copies a week.

Out of the thousands of jazz albums ever recorded,why does this one maintain its hold on our imaginations more than any other? Partly because of the high-calibre solos and ensemble work of Davis,John Coltrane,Cannonball Adderley,Bill Evans,Wynton Kelly,Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. The music has no weak spots. Or perhaps it’s the unthreatening nature of the music: five medium-tempo selections,all played at the level of human conversation. On the other hand,there are none of the signposts or road maps that make jazz accessible to listeners—no standards that you can hum,no vocals. And yet,even when you hear this album for the first time,it’s like meeting an old friend. It sounds familiar somehow. Even today,at 50,‘Kind of Blue’ sounds,as Quincy Jones puts it,“like it was made yesterday”.

Old yet new,strange but familiar—how can music possess such contrary qualities and still sound coherent? Because it was designed that way. The men who performed knew almost nothing about the music they would play before they entered the studio. As Bill Evans,the principal piano player on both recording dates,wrote in his liner notes for the album,“Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore,you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances.”

Since the ’40s,jazz had been dominated by bebop and then hard bop,music characterised by frenetic tempos and chord changes stacked upon chord changes. It required deep musical sophistication to play that style,but while Davis had the chops for bop he had lost his enthusiasm. “I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords,” he told an interviewer six months before the recording of this album. “There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them. Classical composers have been writing this way for years,but jazz musicians seldom have.”

‘Kind of Blue’ draws on the two essential tributaries of jazz—improvisation and the blues—to create music full of space and possibility,certainly music that appealed to players and listeners alike. It makes a terrific cultural milestone against which we can measure a half century of change. In the materials accompanying the anniversary editions of the album,there is a picture of Davis draping his arms over 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.

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