Whether consciously or not, the way we appraise music, literature, or any kind of art is always contingent upon our ability to compare it to previous examples. To describe something as “novel, different” or “unique” entails that we have a reference point of previous instances upon which we can make a judgement. As Irvine notes, “‘newness’ is only possible with reference to earlier music production and collectively known prototype sounds” (p. 3). For a jazz album like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, widely regarded as one of the finest ever recorded, it would be almost impossible to appreciate its originality and innovation without having a sense of the historical nodes that make it so distinctive among other instances of the same genre.
The original 12 inch vinyl record for Kind of Blue was released in August of 1959 after being recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City several months prior. During two sessions, March 2 and April 22, six musicians met to record under the direction of Davis, already an increasingly prominent jazz figure by that time. During the 1950s, he had been playing with musicians like Charlie Parker in a style known as hard-bop, which used rhythmically complicated melodies, intricate chord changes, and rapid tempos. After years of playing in hard-bop groups Davis tired of the suffocatingly complicated style and sought to move in a different direction. Notably, hard-bop itself was a response to the audience-centered dance music of the 1940s big bands like those of Duke Ellington. Kind of Blue was Davis’ way of turning towards a more simple, melodic style of jazz (simple in its chord progressions and heads). This album acquired the reputation it has today not by matching the style(s) of the bebop era but by rejecting it. As Irvine notes, “meaning emerges not only in connections and associations in the cultural encyclopedia, but also in opposition to what the participants in a form know and assume is already there but are attempting to oppose, counter, cancel, subvert, redirect, redefine” (p. 5).
When we listen to any of Miles Davis’ recordings we realize that he is a highly skilled trumpet player but lacks the warm sound of Freddie Hubbard or the incredible range of Arturo Sandoval. In short, I would argue that Davis’s mark on jazz did not come from any inherent skill he had on the trumpet but from something else. That something was his ability to gather the perfect ensemble of jazz musicians whose styles were vastly different but strangely compatible. Kind of Blue is a prime example of his aptitude for combining such players. John Coltrane, the tenor sax player, could rain notes out of the horn at mach speeds, moving up and down modal scales. The alto saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley, had an almost squeaky-clean sound and rhythmic sensibility that was much more precise than Coltrane’s. Pianist Bill Evans inserts deep clusters of chords underneath the soloists throughout the album in ways that would almost go unnoticed if you weren’t listening for him. Miles Davis, having recently adopted his style of modal playing, spends most of the album playing well-constructed but somewhat lackluster solos compared to his other horn players.
The first song of the album consists of two chords and a simple head, leaving much room for creative improvisation. A straightforward blues progression serves as the basis for the second tune called “Freddie Freeloader.” Flamenco Sketches is a slow melancholic ballad with a section of exotic sounding minor chords, which Coltrane does not hesitate to fill with eastern harmonic scales. The fourth track on the album is composed in 3/4 time with a simple but slightly eerie melody. Interestingly, each of the songs on Davis’s Kind of Blue are stylistically different but maintain a common “cool” vibe. In the same way, each of the musicians in his band bring their own distinct sounds to produce a common album.
Kind of Blue opened up a new way of approaching both jazz composition and improvisation that was based on simple chord progressions and modal techniques. Davis’ album was in direct conversation with its predecessors and found itself in subsequent dialogues with many of the experimental jazz/rock albums that appeared after it. Writing about why this album received such widespread acclaim, Fred Kaplan asserts that one of its most attractive aspects is also its most saddening. After Kind of Blue the dream-team sextet went their separate ways, never to play as a group again. Fortunately, each of them continued to develop their individual styles in other collaborations. Whether or not they would have all become prominent musicians in their own right is difficult to say, but Davis’ scouting skills were certainly a large part of what earned Kind of Blue its prominent place in jazz history. The timing and ingredients seem to have been just right and, luckily, a record exists to document the mix. As Alex Ross affirms, “the paradox of recording is that it can preserve forever those disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them.”
Irvine, Martin. “Popular Music as a Meaning-System: The Combinatorial Structures in Music’s Meaning.”
Kaplan, Fred. “Why Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue Is so Great.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 17 Aug. 2009. Web. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2009/08/kind_of_blue.html>.
Ross, Alex. “The Record Effect.” The New Yorker. N.p., 6 June 2005. Web. <http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/06/06/050606crat_atlarge?currentPage=all>.